Seyfarth Shaw partner Justine Turnbull has proven that senior lawyers don’t have to work full time to run a successful practice.
Commercial law firms are often perceived as environments that are not conducive to part-time work, especially at the senior or partner level. The most common and consistent justification for these environments, despite massive technological change in the last 20 years, is the requirement to respond to client needs in a timely way. The need to be ‘on the ground’ to supervise a team is also thrown up against part-time partnership. These justifications no longer stack up, but in some firms a culture of ‘presenteeism’ (often built on a lack of trust) still dictates a firmly held view that part-time partnership doesn’t work.
My experience shows that partners can successfully work part time and still be responsive to clients, lead a team and, ultimately, work in a profitable business with strong team and client relationships. What is needed to make part-time partnership work is the trust of your partners, good communication and, as with any other partner, hard work, talent and tenacity.
I joined a top-tier commercial law firm as a graduate in 1995 (when solicitors didn’t have computers on their desks!) and settled in what was then the mergers & acquisitions practice area. After just over three years, marriage and the introduction of email I decided that life in a commercial law firm wasn’t going to work for me as a mother so I took an in-house role as a corporate generalist and had my first child.
I took almost three years off work to have two children. I loved life in a commercial law firm: working on newsworthy matters for clients from the big end of town in nice offices with really interesting and intelligent people, but I wanted to cook meals for my family and be around for my children other than on weekends. The partners I had worked for previously wanted me to come back to the firm so they created the role of part-time knowledge manager in the corporate practice area, which allowed me to return to the firm but not in a client-facing role so that I could work three days per week for certain hours (8am to 5pm). At this time a part-time client facing role wasn’t even vaguely contemplated (by me or the partners I worked for).
After two years as a knowledge manager I decided that I wanted to be an employment lawyer. I was permitted to join the employment law team because I agreed to increase my days from three to four days per week. I worked four days per week for almost five years before moving to a full-time role. I did this on the advice of some of the partners I worked for to support my partnership aspirations – I was advised that I would more likely be promoted if I was seen to be ‘fully committed’ to the firm.
After working for a few years full time (and becoming a partner) the cracks started to appear within my family (my husband also works full time) so I raised the prospect of working part-time again but was directly and indirectly discouraged. When I offered my resignation I was offered (almost) anything I wanted, so I took some time away from the office but continued to manage some files and client relationships. In this way I proved to myself and some of my partners that I could work part time and still manage clients and a team as well as contribute to the administration and management of the firm. I didn’t please everyone though; when I came back to work part time, one of my partners wanted me to advise him when exactly I would be in the office each day and for my phone to be diverted to others when I wasn’t in the office. I didn’t agree.
Last year I was approached by a search firm on behalf of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. Seyfarth Shaw is a US full-service firm that has a large US and international labour & employment law practice. When I interviewed with Seyfarth Shaw there was never any concern about the way I work – part time in hours and at locations of my choosing. I recall a conversation with my now managing partner, Steve Poor, when he said to me that he didn’t mind what hours I worked or where, he just wanted me in the team. I joined Seyfarth Shaw Australia as a partner in December last year.
From a client perspective, if legal advice or support is required the first issue will generally be to determine their relevant law firm partner relationship. The main concerns will then usually be to ensure the advice is technically the best, lawyers are available and responsive, sufficient understanding of their business and issues, commerciality of advice and cost effectiveness. Most (if not all) of these factors are not determined by whether someone works part time or full time.
If a part-time partner has a good team working with them (as any partner must to be successful in a large firm environment) and is flexible in terms of their availability to work then none of the factors is affected by the part-time status of the partner. I have never had a client complaint about my availability or responsiveness; on the contrary, I have frequently received feedback from clients that is complimentary of my responsiveness.
While I am not always in the office to speak directly with the people I work with, I am usually available by telephone and email. My team doesn’t hesitate to contact me just because they can’t see me and I have never received any negative feedback on this issue.
Like most things, there is no golden rule book that will enable part-time partnership. In law firms there appears to be a preference to establish the concept of part-time partnership by setting out lots of rules and regulations. I don’t think this works, one size doesn’t fit all. If partners trust each other (and have confidence in their firm’s remuneration system!) then they should permit anyone to work part time at the partner level.
Having said that, from my experience the following guidelines might be useful for anyone who would like to join a commercial law firm as a partner other than on a full-time basis:
- Perform at the highest level and build strong relationships with your colleagues and clients (you won’t get to partnership otherwise).
- Constantly anticipate and manage client expectations (someone else will take over your client relationships if you don’t anyway).
- Be transparent and open with your team about your expectations of them and when and how they can contact you. For example, if you are attending parent/teacher interviews and can’t be disturbed tell your team this.
- So long as clients know how to contact you and are confident that they will get you when they need to, you do not need to advise clients where you are at any given time, I have given plenty of telephone advice from my laundry and from children’s sporting facilities and schools, the advice is still sound!
- Maximise your understanding and use of technology.
- Be flexible and don’t think of your contribution in terms of days or hours in a week – you may have to work every day some weeks and only two days in others.
- Finally, don’t apologise for the fact that you do not work full time. If you are promoted to a senior legal role in a commercial law firm environment it will only be because you are making and will continue to make a valuable contribution, that is nothing to be sorry about.
This article was written by Justine Turnbull (pictured), a founding partner of Seyfarth Shaw Australia, a US firm specialising in labour & employment law. Before joining Seyfarth Shaw Australia in December 2013 Justine was a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills. Justine lives with her husband and two children now aged 15 and 13.