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The Opt-In Project: Making the Business Case for Work-Life Balance

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That is the state of the discussion regarding work-life balance today. Women are beginning to push back on traditional workplace business structures that have made them "opt out" and, in doing so, are pulling their companies and firms toward changes in those structures that will result in more work-life balance for all workers, not just women.

The Opt-In Project was designed to move this process along in all industries, but particularly in law firms, which are notoriously cautious and conservative in approaching changes to the business structure. However, now these firms, like many companies, are facing crises in terms of attracting and retaining talented and qualified workers.


For example, despite the tremendous financial investment law firms make in their associates (at large firms, this investment begins at $160,000 for the first year and goes up dramatically from there), the attrition rates at law firms are not that dissimilar from the attrition rates in industries with lower entry-level wages. That model is not sustainable. And law firms are beginning to recognize this.

The Opt-In Project tackled this problem head on, looking to change the discussion from why people opt out to how we can get people to opt in. Over the period of a year, the project reached out to other industries—professional services firms, accounting firms, high-tech industries, and government—to ascertain what they were doing to increase the retention of women in the workplace. Based on those findings, the project made several "observations" of the issues that are facing law firms (and other industries) and then suggested several solutions for consideration.

Some of the solutions involve radical changes in the business model of law firms:
  • eliminating the billable hour as a measure of internal evaluation and external pricing

  • eradicating the tracking of careers by years out of law school

  • replacing the "up-or-out" system of partnership with a system that recognizes that people advance at different rates because they take time off to have children, pursue personal interests like dancing, write great American novels, or care for ill parents
Other suggestions are less grand in scope but still impact the ability of people to opt into the workplace. These include such things as:
  • creating teams of people with different work schedules to cover the ever-growing global timeframe of 24/7

  • allowing people to work from locations other than an office and at times other than "office hours" to increase flexibility

  • bringing services into the workplace to make it convenient to do such chores as dry cleaning, shoe repair, and car maintenance

  • creating "summer hours" so that people can work harder during 10 months of the year and less during the summer
The complete report is available at optinproject.org and contains numerous other innovative and creative solutions that might allow more people to opt in.

After this year-long study; however, one thing has become clear. The Opt-In Project has created great impetus for the "push me" part of the fictional Dr. Dolittle character, trying to get law firms and other companies to reconsider their traditional business models. The question now is whether the "pull you" part of the animal is awake and listening.

About the Author

Patricia Gillette is a shareholder at Heller Ehrman, LLP, and is co-chair of its labor and employment practice group and co-chair of its gender diversity committee. Patricia spearheaded the Opt-in Project, which is committed to identifying and raising awareness of the obstacles that exist for women in the workforce. Its mission is to address and highlight viable solutions that can help overcome these impediments.


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