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December 17, 2006
Life's Work

Flex Time for the Rest of Us

The New York Times

P. J. Himmelfarb has achieved a milestone at the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges: she was just promoted to partner in the Washington office. This is important to her for all the usual reasons — money, prestige, power, more job security. It is important to the rest of us because she is one of two lawyers at the firm to be given a brand new title: flex-time partner.

“I knew if I were ever going to make partner I would have to do it as sort of a trendsetter,” she said. “My life didn’t allow for me to do it the usual way.”

The future of the workplace will be determined by the feasibility of flexibility. Workers have been clear that they want it. A recent survey by the Association of Executive Search Consultants, a professional group based in New York, found that more than half of senior executives polled would go so far as to turn down a promotion if it meant losing more control over their schedule.

Employers, for their part, have talked the talk, but in spite of their promises, work-life balance has worsened for employees, according to the survey’s authors. Flexibility in more than name only is still a long way off. Each example of a flexible program that works, therefore, takes us one step farther on the path from a perk to a norm.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Himmelfarb has a story. Workers without stories — without extreme value to their employers, a compelling need to work from home, or a job at a company that is seeking to make its name as a life-work leader — are rarely offered creative and flexible arrangements. The average Joe (or, more accurately, the average Jane, since most of the workers asking for this are still women) cannot do what Ms. Himmelfarb has done. But the fact that she has done it begins to pave the way for others.

Her story begins when her twin daughters were born six years ago. She was working for the government then, as a lawyer with the Securities and Exchange Commission. When the girls were 2, their parents learned that one of them, Rhiannon, had autism. One of the first things Ms. Himmelfarb did was leave the public sector for a higher-paying law firm, allowing her husband, Adam, to leave his marketing job to care for both girls.

From the start, Ms. Himmelfarb says, Weil Gotshal understood that she would leave the office whenever necessary to be involved in Rhiannon’s care, and that she could not keep the typical lawyer’s hours. “If you do an autism therapy program eight hours a day but you don’t follow through in the evening, if you don’t follow through in the middle of the night, you won’t get anywhere,” she said.

That meant a different work pattern almost every day. Some days she worked from the office, some from home. For several months she moved with her family to California, and telecommuted to meetings, because she had found a promising therapy program on the West Coast. She also takes regular trips to visit experts in Kansas and Texas.

In return for the flexibility, Ms. Himmelfarb receives less money than others at her level. At first that was a hardship, she said, and with only her income to pay for much of Rhiannon’s therapy, the Himmelfarbs found themselves in debt.

But even working part time, Ms. Himmelfarb worked well and hard, having her office calls forwarded to her cellphone at all hours.

Her bosses noticed. “A few years in, the firm came to me and said, ‘We think you’ve been working harder than we’ve been paying you,’ ” she said. “They made it up to me. They gave me the difference. It dug us out of the hole we were in.”

She knows that as a flex-time partner, she is still the exception, but there is hope that she could become the rule. At the law firm of Rider Bennett in Minneapolis, 5 of the 11 lawyers in the trusts and estates department are women, and many work flexible schedules. And this year, at the Miami office of Greenberg Taurig, there was a first: a lawyer was promoted to partner after working flex time and while on maternity leave. At Sidley Austin, in Chicago, 83 female lawyers work a reduced schedule, and 22 of those are partners.

The most reassuring example I’ve heard comes from the Multnomah County Circuit Court in Portland, Ore. It brings hope because it shows lawyers can aspire even higher than partner while still finding flexibility, and also because it is not just a woman’s story. Judge L. Randall Weisberg hears criminal cases while sharing his job with Julia Philbrook, a mother of young children. They each work every other week, for half pay and nearly full benefits. “It wouldn’t work for everyone,” said Judge Weisberg, which is part of the point.

What works for Judge Weisberg might not work for Ms. Himmelfarb. True flexibility means tailoring each job to fit each worker.