Kim Demarchi, President-Elect of the Arizona Women Lawyers Association, summed up a recent event well: “We focus on how the shape of our workplaces shapes our experiences within them.”

Demarchi was offering an introduction for a keynote speaker at the group’s annual convention on November 4. But the concern—creating successful workplaces or their opposite—is one that is shared by many in a difficult profession.

The special speaker was Jessica Natkin, a national expert on workplaces and retention efforts that improve them. She arrived from the Project for Attorney Retention for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

The Center is a national model and a leader in the topic. And Natkin’s pertinent remarks demonstrate why. (Full disclosure: I graduated from UC Hastings Law School in 1993, three years before the Center launched. And, while I’m at it, I am an AWLA member.)

Natkin’s lunchtime talk examined what it takes to have a successful law firm. But, going in, she acknowledged that the order was a tall one, given that our accepted model for success is based on “an ideal worker”—someone who lives and breathes for the workplace, one who “manifests a singular devotion” to work. In that rigid law office, according to one scholar, time becomes a proxy for dedication and excellence. In today’s society, Natkin said, a significant number of lawyers seek a work–life balance that is greater than that.

Kim Demarchi

She explained that “work-life” does not necessarily mean part-time, and it definitely does not mean reduced commitment to the job. In a world in which many firms are expecting 2,200 billable hours a year, “work-life” may often mean simply reclaiming a 40-hour workweek.

“Maternal wall bias” is one of the highest obstacles to women in the workforce, Natkin said. That is simply bias against women because they are or may become mothers. In that worldview, mothers are seen as less competent and committed than other lawyers.

Due that and other biases, women find themselves pushed out of the workplace. Women who are mothers are less likely to be hired, are offered a lower starting salary. And, researchers have found, mothers are held to higher standards of punctuality and performance.

In law firms, Natkin said, men are twice as likely as women to make partner. Women of color comprise only about three percent of the profession nationally. And less than one percent of equity partners in law firms are women of color.

Despite statistics like those, Natkin pointed out that work/life is not merely a woman’s problem: 70 percent of male attorneys and 71 percent of female attorneys report such conflict in their law firms, one in which the work to be accomplished never ends, and time outside work is seen as suspect by firm leaders. As one research respondent aptly put it, “It’s like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.”

One possible solution to the dilemma, Natkin said, may lie in something called “balanced hours.” Though it may be similar to what we formerly called “part-time,” balanced hours is an individually tailored approach that also fits the firm’s business needs. “Balanced hours programs involve active management of workloads in proportion to reduced hours, emphasize client service, and promote the values of the firm.”

Jessica Natkin

Natkin also urged lawyers who seek to negotiate a better workplace to be open to the fact that there are occasional job emergencies: “We cannot be rigid. We must be flexible in our flexibility.” When those sometimes occur, she said, be prepared to pitch in.

Perhaps the law profession is pretty far from adopting solutions and approaches like those touted by the Center for WorkLife Law. In fact, many lawyers may reside comfortably in the notion that things are pretty good and change is unlikely—or unnecessary. If so, then perhaps the words of another research respondent—a woman who decided to vacate the profession—may give them pause:

“So I decided to quit, and this was a really, really big deal … because I never envisioned myself not working. I just felt like I would be a nobody if I quit. Well, I was sort of a nobody working, too. So it was sort of, ‘Which nobody do I want to be?’

Congratulations to the Arizona Women Lawyers Association for putting on another great program. More information on WorkLife is available here.