Law Firm Work: Less Is More

When law firms institute family-friendly policies (flex hours, reasonable work loads), who benefits? That depends how you measure it. Mothers at these firms are neither more nor less productive than mothers at other firms, as measured by billable hours, according to a  new study  of 670 lawyers in Alberta, Canada, by sociologists Jean Wallace and Marisa Young. But fathers at family-friendly firms are less productive than fathers at old-style firms. At the same time, fathers with help at home, like stay-at-home wives and weekly cleaning services, increase their productivity at work, whereas women with stay-at-home husbands and cleaning aren’t more productive.

What’s going on here? Wallace and Young argue that fathers tend to consider breadwinning an all-important family contribution, so when they have more help at home, they respond by working harder. Also, men are far more likely to have a stay-at-home spouses than women are. Women, on the other hand, seem to sink more time into their kids, if they have it.

 The happy spin from the authors is that the family-friendly policies aren’t hurting the firms vis-à-vis their women employees, which makes the policies seem less costly. (Their original hypotheis was that the family-friendly firms would find that mothers were less productive, since these policies are often seen as the path to mommy tracking.) The finding about the men working less, though, throws a wrench into the discussion, doesn’t it? Mothers are soldiering on for the firm, in gratitude for the break from crazy expectations or for whatever reason. Men are not. The authors ask, “How are men using their free time as a result of working fewer hours?” and then cite other evidence that men may plow their time into more leisure activities. Is that perfectly understandable, or is it shirking? Who’s modeling the good behavior here?Given how hard law-firm lawyers often work, are fewer billable hours, whatever the equities, a reason to celebrate? It’s hard to tell, but the gender split is there to be mulled over.

Over at Legal Blog Watch,  Carolyn Elefant argues  that billable hours are a bad measure of productivity. That makes sense to me as a reason that this study may not translate to other professions in which parents can argue they work more efficiently, squeezing more work into less time. But it doesn’t seem like a salient criticism of these findings, since hours are firms’ explicit measure of productivity. 

I posted a version of this earlier over at XX factor , and now I’m curious about the reception to these findings in this neck of the woods. 

Read more about the billable hour and family-friendly practices on Convictions ,  and a discussion on the same topic at our women’s blog, XX Factor .