Less than Full Time Attorneys
Most part-time attorneys can be replaced by a full-time attorney, but at what cost? Attorneys who choose to go from full-time to part-time status have proven themselves already. They are a known commodity. They understand the firm and its culture and are connected to the firm's clients. They still have something to contribute, just not now on a full-time basis. Would having a new person available full time truly make up for the loss of these strengths?
If a firm wants to retain the "best and the brightest" it may, from time to time, and for various reasons, need to address how to accommodate an attorney who wants to work less than full-time.
The Part-Time Attorney
Attorneys who work less than full-time come in all shapes and sizes. Some may have other interests, such as the guy who works as a golf pro during the summer months and returns to work as a research-and-writing motion-support attorney when the weather turns bad. Others may have temporary, personal needs that require them to scale back, such as a new associate who needs to take a short time out for maternity leave or a partner who wants to limit her hours while her children are young but wants to keep a hand in so she can come back full-time once the children are in school. Still others may be partners nearing the end of their careers who can still provide valuable expertise but want to cut back on the number of hours they work each week.
One of the first issues a managing partner needs to address in considering a request for part-time status is the compensation system. Careful consideration needs to be given as to what will work best for both the individual and the firm.
Some possible solutions include a straight salary, an hourly rate per billable hour received, an hourly rate per billable hour, and an hourly rate per hour.
A straight salary is the easiest compensation system to administer. It works best with a proven producer and one who already is a partner or shareholder. Paying a straight salary also encourages the part-time attorney to work on "non-billable" matters.
An hourly rate per billable hour received may be appropriate for a younger attorney whose work habits and profitability have not yet been established. On the other hand, such an approach must be paired with timely billing and collection systems since few new attorneys are well-enough established to bear alone the burden of dealing with the "slow-pay" or "no-pay" client.
An hourly rate per billable hour may work best for the attorney whose expertise is only sought for client-related matters. This system is not appropriate for the attorney whose contribution to firm management or marketing efforts is required.
An hourly rate per hour works best for the senior attorney whose contribution to the firm's management and marketing efforts is still needed.
Strategies for Support
Technology. In order to retain and profitably employ a less than full-time attorney you must have a technology infrastructure that will support their part-time practice. This means a networked computer system at the office that can be remotely accessed from outside the office and which is integrated with scanning technology.
Although not essential, a digital dictation system -- dictation that can be attached to an email message and sent to another location -- can be an important upgrade to your technology package for support of the part-time attorney. The use of digital dictation will exponentially expand the part time attorney's ability to get out timely work product.
The attorney working less than full time also will need to have access to a reliable broad band connection to the internet from home to timely and efficiently respond to matters that arise when she's out of the office.
Support Staff. Not all staff have the skills or experience to be able to support a part-time attorney. The legal secretary and paralegal assigned to support part-time attorneys should be experienced, technologically savvy, and committed to working through the day-to-day challenges that can occur when working in such an environment.
The natural tendency to reserve the most experienced staff for the full- time attorneys should be resisted. The legal secretary and paralegal assigned to support part-time attorneys should fully understand the law firm and its processes. They will need to be able to draw upon other staff from time to time to help support attorneys who work at least part of the time outside the office.
Staff that is supporting attorneys who work at least part time outside of the office should be comfortable with the law firm's technology and able to work around problems with that technology to communicate and keep matters on a timely schedule.
Part-time attorneys require as much hand-holding as full-time attorneys, perhaps even more. Staff assigned to support part-time attorneys must be committed to the process and invested in making the concept work.
Systems. Part-time attorneys will need to have access to scanned-in documents and a case management system that gives them online access to each aspect of files they are working on, including phone and email addresses for all persons involved in the matter and the documents, messages, and file notes created during the engagement.
This will require that support staff scan in all incoming documents and save electronic copies of all firm-generated documents, messages, and file notes in systems that afford the part-time attorney access from both within and outside the office.
To accommodate the times when the attorney comes into the office, you may wish to "hotel" workspace for them rather than leaving an office or workstation vacant in their absence. The part time attorney or attorneys can be asked to schedule time in to an office or offices set aside for part time staff.
To successfully integrate part-time attorneys into the work of your firm, you first need to decide that you want a less than full-time attorney and be convinced that your firm can benefit from such an arrangement. You have to devise a fair compensation system for the part-time attorney, one that both recognizes the circumstances of the individual and provides appropriate incentives to serve the interests of the firm. And, finally, you need to integrate the less than full-time attorney with your technology, support staff, and systems to ensure that the arrangement is productive and efficient for all concerned. s
MICHAEL J. FORD is a member of the Board and an Officer of Quinlivan & Hughes in St. Cloud, Minnesota. In 2005-06 he has served as MSBA Secretary and effective July 1, he will become MSBA Treasurer.