Law firms focus on flexibility, happiness in race for talent

24 Jan 2019 11:29 PM | Kim Fantaci (Administrator)

By Laura Newpoff

Lisa Kathumbi’s career at Bricker & Eckler LLP has come full circle. The employment and labor attorney joined the Columbus firm straight out of law school in 2006, left three years later to work for the Ohio Department of Health and then a national law firm, then returned in 2016 as partner in the place her career began.

She and the firm couldn’t be happier she found her way back.

Kathumbi can see building her practice at Bricker for the next 20 years because of the firm’s values and culture, she said.

“It was an opportunity to be thinking not just about managing a big case load, but to be in an environment where there was an opportunity to be a partner with the clients we serve,” she said. “I’m not just here to handle a high volume of cases.”

She also was drawn because of the firm’s support for her community involvement and its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Times are changing

Those issues symbolize a heightened focus on job satisfaction at law firms across the country. The profession historically has been defined by long hours, heavy caseloads and a lack of autonomy. What many firms are finding is that stressed-out attorneys increasingly are seeking out employers helping them be happier at work.

Low job satisfaction among attorneys isn’t a new thing. For years, lawyers in associate positions were considered the unhappiest of the lot.

“Legal educators, attorneys and bar leaders have expressed a concern for emotional distress, dissatisfaction and unethical or unprofessional behavior among practicing lawyers,” a 2015 study by the Florida State University College of Law concluded. “There is ample literature to raise questions about the mental health of lawyers and law students; the legal profession, as compared to other occupations, may well harbor a disproportionate number of unhappy people.”

Turning that situation around is the mission of law firms that want to recruit and keep the best and the brightest.

Kathumbi, for example, has the firm’s backing to take all the time she needs to be involved in the community through work with the Ohio Women’s Bar Association, Ruling Our eXperiences, the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, City Year Columbus and the John Mercer Langston Bar Association.

“Community service is an important part of who we are as a firm,” Kathumbi said. “When I was named president-elect of the Ohio Women’s Bar Association, I had the backing of the firm to do that work.”

Hannah Botkin-Doty, an attorney with Artz Dewhirst & Wheeler LLP, also has the support of her firm to customize her work life in ways that make going to the office each day an enjoyable experience. The family law attorney has the freedom to accept clients of her choosing and decides the hours she keeps. She’s part of the millennial generation and appreciates a setting where she’s not micro-managed.

“I was making beaucoup bucks when I was out on my own, but I wasn’t happy, had burnout, was on anxiety medication and had a therapist,” Botkin-Doty said. “Family law is emotional day in and day out. Being here has given me a cushion. A personal day isn’t the end of the world. If there’s a complex case, somebody here has done the research. All those intangible things I value more than that big paycheck that was driving me into the ground.”

Jeff Barlow is co-founder of legal consulting firm Nimble Services LLC in Cleveland. His firm last year published a “Lawyer Happiness Survey” that found that 60 percent of lawyers in medium-sized firms said they weren’t happy with their job. He thinks improvement starts with changing the way lawyers get paid and that means addressing the billable hour.

“Attorneys, for the most part, are compensated by the hours that they bill,” he said. “That’s sort of at odds with time-off policies. Success is dictated by those hours that are billed.”

It’s an issue Greg Aler and Tim Stallings of AlerStallings in Dublin tackled head on when they started their firm in 2010. Based on their prior experience working for large firms, they chose flat-fee package pricing instead. Aler calls the billable hour a “poisonous dynamic.”

“It’s really an unfortunate product and the value proposition doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Aler said. “The more inefficient we are, the more we get paid. That offers no real accountability.”

He said the firm’s model appeals to attorneys because it’s results-driven and has resonated with millennials as a better value proposition.

A ‘need to adapt’

Barlow said another way law firms are making an impact on the happiness of their employees is by helping them – through extra paid time off – take care of children, spouses or aging parents. They’re also more inclined these days to allow remote work and flexible hours. 

Kit Murphy, Bricker’s chief operating officer, said the firm is always thinking about options for flexibility “to give people what they need to have a whole life.” A year ago, the firm rolled out a new 12-week leave policy for employees who need to tend to the birth of a child (men and women), adoption, or to care of a family member or spouse. It’s paid leave and beyond what the Family and Medical Leave Act covers.

“We know that we lose people over work-life balance,” Murphy said. “These are smart, professional people and we need them as a resource.”

Twenty-percent of non-partners – nine men and five women – have taken advantage of the new policy so far.

Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP is another firm that isn’t standing pat when it comes to finding new ways to improve working conditions for its attorneys. Partner Kevin Kinross in Columbus said last year the firm decided to do away with the non-equity piece of what was a two-tier partnership structure. It allows the younger attorneys to get more involved early on and have an ownership interest.

The firm also offers flexible work schedules, 16 weeks of parental leave and a diversity and inclusion program that offers minority law students six fellowships a year.

“We appreciate that times always change,” Kinross said. “Law firms need to adapt to business and the economy, but also the demands of the current and future work force. We’re always looking to make (the firm) more attractive and make our environment one that young, talented people want to join, grow with us and stick around and make the ranks of partner.”


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