How to Practice Law Part-time (Or With Flexible Hours)

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Running a part-time law practice is becoming a more viable option for many lawyers, especially now.

In my conversations with lawyers from across North America one thing is clear—we are all dealing with uncertainty, and the stress that comes from that. Some lawyers have seen their work dry up as their clients put everything on hold. Others are incredibly busy and struggling to keep up. Some lawyers are sheltering in place alone. Others are trying to balance professional work with homeschooling. 

Everyone is anxious about what the future holds. Whether they’re practicing law part time or as a necessity, my hope is that lawyers feel empowered to do what’s needed to care for themselves and their clients.

Is it possible to be a part-time lawyer?

Today, fewer and fewer people are asking if it’s possible to practice law part-time. Even before the crisis hit, part-time and flexible work was emerging as an option for lawyers. And, if you don’t want to start your own legal practice, part-time lawyer jobs are available.

That said, remote and part-time legal practice as an emergency measure is not the same as carefully planned remote working as part of a larger professional plan.

First, the pandemic took all of us by surprise. Many lawyers were caught without the equipment and technical support needed to work remotely

Second, a lot of the support services that help make remote and part-time work a great option are not currently available. No hopping to the coffee shop for a change of scenery. The kids aren’t in daycare or at school. Your partner, if you have one, is at home too. And so much more.

I’ve been helping a number of coaching clients through these types of challenges, and a number of helpful themes have emerged. 

Below, I’ll cover some of the key things to consider if you need to quickly move to a part time law practice or flexible hours. We’ll talk about setting a schedule, keeping to your new hours, maintaining focus, and asking for a part time schedule in the first place if you need to.

Setting a schedule for part-time legal practice

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When it comes to your schedule, start by being honest with yourself about what you need.

Part-time or flexible hours could be essential to you right now.

If you have kids at home and a spouse who also works and the daycare is closed and schooling has gone online, part-time or flexible hours are going to be critical to keeping your professional and family lives afloat.

One lawyer I know works from six in the morning to noon and then takes over the childcare shift in the afternoon, for example. 

A good starting point is determining a work schedule that will set you up to meet your commitments—personally and professionally. Think about when you can concentrate best at work, when you’re needed for commitments in your personal life (related to childcare or otherwise), and what you’ll need to prioritize.

The trap some lawyers are falling into is one of being never fully “at work” or “off work” but perpetually in between. 

The solution to this is getting clear about your work hours and having time that you are fully unplugged from the office. This may be difficult, but if you can manage it, setting clear boundaries around work hours ensures you are fully present for your clients and for your family or personal commitments rather than only half present for both.

One lawyer I know is accomplishing more with less through her part-time law practice. She works two long days from the office and is on homeschooling duty for the remaining days. 

The revised schedule has given her the opportunity to set clear boundaries with colleagues and clients about when she is available. She maintains an up to date to do list and has a clear plan for each day she is in the office. 

The reduced work week has given her killer focus. She knows what needs to get done and takes action. Surprisingly she is billing more hours weekly now that she did before the pandemic.

Her plan is to make this her new normal even after the social distancing measures are lifted.

Staying focused while practicing part time

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Part-time legal work calls for being highly efficient with your time. It is easy to get distracted surfing the web and endlessly scrolling through email. To regain focus:

  1. Create short term action plans.
  2. Work in concentrated blocks. 

Ask yourself these questions, and write down the answers to create a to-do list and action plan for your part-time law practice:

  • What tasks do you want to get done this week? 
  • What opportunities do you have for connecting with important contacts? 
  • What other projects can be advanced? What steps can you take forward? Uncover the opportunities for getting started on tasks that are not yet urgent.
  • What blocks of time can you dedicate to these priorities? Create blocks of time for focused work in your calendar and assign tasks to them
  • When will you schedule breaks? Breaks are so important and will help you to get more done before and after.
  • How can you avoid distractions? Is it possible to work in a room with a door you can close or use noise cancelling headphones to cut down on auditory distractions? Notice what distracts you and take action to eliminate as much of this as possible.

Simple routines can also help you to maintain focus.

Try bookending your day with a mini planning session in the morning and an end-of-the-day review of what was accomplished and what you want to focus on tomorrow 

Tips for a successful part-time law practice

1. Automate parts of your practice to improve productivity

If you’re running a part time practice, your time is more valuable than ever. What can you streamline and automate? My clients have saved hours every week through automating many administrative tasks, including: 

  • Client intake
  • Online billing and payments
  • Document automation
  • Marketing

Setting up new processes and tools may be easier than you think. Take some time to learn about the technology available and processes you can automate.

2. Clearly communicate your new schedule

Let your colleagues and clients know about your situation. Be frank when sharing your schedule and the reasoning behind it. 

The important thing is to set expectations with everyone and stick to them. Shorter hours shouldn’t be an issue if everyone is able to reach you when needed.

3. Set clear boundaries

Your colleagues are likely to forget your schedule, so it is up to you to take steps to plan meetings and calls during your working hours. If you are fortunate to have an assistant, they can help maintain the integrity of your schedule.

When it comes to maintaining boundaries, the weakest link in your system might be you. For example, I have known many women lawyers and part-time lawyer moms make the shift to part-time when their children are young, and many of them fell into the trap of working full time hours in fewer days. They took a salary cut for going part-time and then billed as many hours as ever.

One antidote to this is to negotiate a revised compensation arrangement with your firm. Getting paid according to the number of hours billed will ensure you are paid more when you work more.

If you truly want to work part time you must keep a close eye on your capacity and file load. Learning to deliver a positive and effective “No” is going to be a very important skill to develop.

4. Set clear and reasonable financial expectations

How much do part-time lawyers make? The answer really depends on your practice area and the types of cases you take on. It’s entirely possible to make a good living as a part-time lawyer, but of course, working part-time hours can mean less cash flow. There are a number of strategies you can use to plan for this.

Also you might be able to get creative: Can you charge flat fees for some of your work? Are there files you can profitably take on contingency? 

Having a financial plan in place before making the switch to part-time can help reduce any financial stress you experience when monthly revenues drop, so don’t be afraid to review your law firm budget as well.

Asking for part time or flexible hours

If you are an associate or counsel at a firm without the freedom to make changes to your schedule, you might find it difficult to raise the subject of part-time hours. 

If you are hesitating to make the request for reduced hours remember this: If you don’t ask, the answer is already no.

If you can, get some help from a trusted advisor in crafting your plan and pitch to the firm. It is important to present your plan in a way that highlights the benefits to the firm. A lawyer coach can help you build your confidence, craft your plan, and develop a strong proposal.

When you are ready to present your proposal to your firm you can also seek out a friendly partner for support. Choose a partner who you have a close relationship with. Explain the challenges you are facing and share the part-time plan and reasoning behind it. Ask them to champion your plan and to mentor you as you adopt the plan and troubleshoot any challenges that arise.

Sticking to your boundaries: Be kind to yourself

One major pitfall to watch for as you make the shift to part-time law practice is what one writer, Michael Singer, has referred to as your “inner roommate,” the voice in your head that says things to you that no one else would dare. 

Also known as your “saboteur” or “inner critic” this is the voice that works hard to keep you in line, taking no risk, making no changes No Matter What. What’s important to recognize is that this is not the voice of wisdom. It is the voice connected with your fight and flight center in the amygdala otherwise known as your lizard brain.

Here are some of the negative thoughts that might bubble up as you consider part-time legal practice:

  • You are such a loser.
  • You couldn’t cut it so now you have to work part time.
  • They are going to fire me.
  • People are going to know I don’t have what it takes.

What is important to recognize is these are just thoughts—and they’re not from your “smart” brain but from your “fearful” brain. 

Use your “smart” brain to examine these thoughts.

Notice the pattern these negative thoughts might follow. Our inner critics tend to repeat the same fears over and over. Challenge these thoughts by asking these questions:

  • What else could be true?
  • What is important?
  • What goals am I serving by making the shift to part-time legal work?

Now, take a few deep breaths, and try a simple present moment practice

Understand that with change comes anxiety. This is our brain’s natural response. The inner critic is the voice given to this part of our mind.

Welcome these fearful thoughts as a natural part of the process of being human, reconnect with what you know to be true and important, and move on with your day.

There are as many different ways of practicing law as there are attorneys. With all the technologies giving us so many ways to connect remotely there is no reason to work from an office, or to work full time, if you don’t need to or want to. Also, as more lawyers are discovering, with two or three days of intense work as much or more can be accomplished than with five or more days of unfocused distracted work.

If part-time work is something you have wanted to try, this might just be the time to get started.

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