Friday, April 08, 2011


Highlights from PAR’s Annual Conference

PAR’s sold-out annual conference last week was overflowing with best practices, real-practice stories, and cautionary tales. In case you missed it, here are some highlights:

The first panel explored how the move away from lockstep is affecting diversity and flexibility. Joan Williams identified risks, such as vague definitions of merit and evaluations tainted with hidden bias, and best practices, such as providing training to evaluators. Nicole Bearce Albano (Lowenstein Sandler), Carter DeLorme (Jones Day), Kristine McKinney (Faegre & Benson), and Laura Saklad (Orrick) described their firms’ positions along the continuum of lockstep to competency-based models, and their experiences with evaluating and developing their associates. Some takeaways:

• Effective evaluation systems are crucial. The process and forms need to be audited for bias, evaluators need to be trained on recognizing and overcoming bias, and someone with expertise in bias needs to review evaluations before they are given to associates.
• A formal system of assigning work that allows associates to ask for and receive particular types of experiences is also crucial.
• Don’t underestimate the amount of management time required by a competency-based system.

The second panel provided insights into the success of PAR’s Diversity and Flexibility connection. Jeff Gearhart (Walmart), Lee Miller (DLA Piper), Michele Coleman Mayes (Allstate), and Elliott Portnoy (SNR Denton) discussed the work they had done in their firms and law departments to provide nonstigmatized reduced-hours schedules. Led by moderator Jim Potter (Del Monte), they also provided insights into the discussions between law firm chairs and general counsel about how each can help the other improve their diversity and flexibility. Some takeaways:

• Clients want firms to have nonstigmatized flexible work, because it reduces attrition and therefore improves productivity and reduces costs.
• Firms that have made serious efforts to provide nonstigmatized flexible work are reaping the benefits: lawyers are staying with the firm and are being promoted to partner, and are maintaining and deepening their ties with clients.
• Clients help the process by letting firms know when balanced hours lawyers have done a good job, and by giving them more work.

After a networking lunch at which the PAR Flex Success awards were presented, Penny Huang presented the preliminary findings of PAR’s current in-house counsel work/life study. Heidi Chen (Pfizer), Michele Coleman Mayes (Allstate), and Martha Rees (DuPont) discussed the business reasons their law departments provide flexibility and their experiences implementing balanced hours programs. Some takeaways:

• Managing expectations is key. It is important for lawyers to know real deadlines for their work, and it is important for internal clients to know that they won’t always get an answer right away on non-urgent matters.
• Transparency about compensation and advancement helps to eliminate stigma.

Following roundtable discussions facilitated by in-house counsel, the final panel of the day examined new models of legal practice. Jane Allen (Counsel on Call), Kate Fritz (Fenwick & West), Doug Scrivner (Accenture, ret.), and Michele Tyde (Tyde Law Group) discussed how their firms were structured, and how the structures provided work/life fit for their lawyers. Some takeaways:

• New models are often born of the desire to offer talented attorneys an opportunity to practice law with more control over their schedules, interests, and work/life fit, and also to respond to clients' desire for lower rates.
• Alternative fee arrangements are common at new model firms, removing the billable hour as the key metric. New model lawyers can provide top quality legal services at a cost savings for clients.

Many thanks to DLA Piper for hosting the conference in its fabulous D.C. offices. Many thanks also to the conference sponsors: DLA Piper, Arnold & Porter, Crowell & Moring, Dickstein Shapiro, Del Monte Foods, Fenwick & West, Fulbright & Jaworski, Pfizer, SNR Denton, Walmart, Dewy & LeBoeuf, Farella Braun & Martel, Hogan Lovells, Jones Day, Lowenstein Sandler, and Morrison & Foerster. We appreciate your help in making the conference so successful.

A tip for those who would like to attend next year’s conference: PAR’s conferences usually sell out quickly, so watch PAR’s website in early 2012 for registration information. PAR members are able to register before the general public. Membership information is available here.


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