Meike von Levetzow | Partner | Litigation | Berlin – here with an article originally printed in the legal study guide Beck’sche Studienführer Jura:
Working part-time as a partner in a major law firm – people have been talking about whether that’s actually possible for years. By now the answer is clear: yes, it is possible and it works. Two new female equity partners have been working part time at Noerr since January 2018. As one of them, I’m responsible for complex national and international litigation and arbitration proceedings in our Litigation department in Berlin. There are a total of four equity partners and 99 advisors working on a part-time basis at Noerr. The reasons for working part time are manifold: some employees (like me) look after their children on certain afternoons, while others work on academic publications or have teaching engagements at universities. In a few cases, other professional or private projects may also be behind this, such as one lawyer with a sideline assisting in large-scale private real estate and construction projects. At Noerr, we look for individual solutions that best reflect everyone’s interests in each individual scenario.
But, you may be asking yourself, doesn’t a lawyer (being categorised as self-employed), especially a partner in a major law firm handling their own client matters, have to do the work “themselves” and “all the time”? The simple answer is no, because even a lawyer or partner working full time can’t be available for client B while at the same time acting for client A in the courts or recording a sale and purchase agreement at the notary’s office. Apart from this, a lawyer involved in one of the “projects” described above (whether their family or academic activities) can usually be contacted by phone and is able to initiate the next steps. In both scenarios, the lawyer’s team and technical progress help provide a balance. A company mobile phone and laptop mean that you can be outside the office and still be ready for action.
Of course there is a “but” side to the coin, as you’ll be expecting. There’s no doubt that lawyers are service providers whose success hinges on how much their clients can rely on being able to get in touch with them easily at any time. They want answers quickly and by the promised deadline. Given this, there are a number of basic requirements to be considered when deciding to join the legal profession and work for one of the big law firms, regardless of whether you work as a full-time or part-time lawyer. I will start by setting out these basic requirements below in the first part, describing what Noerr offers to part-time lawyers to help fulfil these basic requirements. In the second part, I intend to outline the advantages of working part time at a large law firm. You may be surprised how attractive this is compared to a supposedly more part-time-friendly position at a judicial authority or other public body.
So let’s start with the basic requirements: apart from a high level of expertise, the most important prerequisites in a major law firm are definitely commitment and dedication. As I mentioned, clients want to be correctly advised and at the same time expect a reliable answer by the agreed – often tight – deadline. We work almost exclusively on matters that are extremely important for our clients and often extremely urgent. Apart from this, complex legal questions have to be answered, documents (often very long) have to be reviewed, and large-scale court cases have to be handled by teams from various departments and offices. The work of every lawyer contributing to the case is essential for our success. A constant high level of commitment and dedication is needed from all the lawyers involved to ensure that the case is successfully resolved. “How can that be compatible with working part time?” you may be asking yourself. Above all by being flexible about your time schedule and taking personal initiative, in my experience. Not every day or week in a lawyer’s life is predictable and runs exactly to plan; this is true for both part-time and full-time work. While a full-time lawyer can deal with busy times by spreading tasks out differently or slotting them in throughout the day or week, for me as a part-time lawyer this may mean adjusting my “business plan” for the week and rescheduling a “free” afternoon. Most of the time this can be planned a few days in advance, for example if a court hearing falls on one of my planned “days off” or if I want to take part in an interesting conference. But if a client needs an urgent legal review in the next few days, I can also plan any contribution needed by me over the next few days together with my team. In a best-case scenario, days off or free afternoons can then be planned in advance. But if not, flexibility is required.
This flexible time management requires a number of things. Apart from flexible colleagues and a flexible firm, which Noerr is, you also need a flexible partner at home and flexible childcare options for Project Family. Noerr has been doing its part to meet this need for flexibility for years now by offering individually tailored part-time models that are actually put into practice. It’s obviously a blessing for flexible childcare if Dad can be flexible or Grandma is happy to spend time with the children, even at short notice. Au pairs can also provide support (I had a male au pair for two years). Paying them generally shouldn’t be a problem if you’re on a salary from a large law firm, even part time. Noerr provides support for finding suitable help (including caring for your parents or looking after the household) as part of the Noerr Family programme by cooperating with the agency pme Familienservice, which I’ve found offers the best service in this field and only works for companies.
Considering all these aspects, it’s helpful for you as a part-time lawyer if you can do or learn to do two things over time: to delegate (and to a certain extent really let go) and not to have a guilty conscience (because you’re doing your best for the firm and for your other project but can never be in two places at once). But even if you know that neither of these two things comes easy to you, you should certainly not rule out working part time or give up your plans to work for a large law firm from the start. It’s much more helpful – and definitely possible for you – to grow with the challenges as they arise. Fortunately, there are more and more role models who can advise, support and coach you along the way.
As mentioned above, I’d also like to talk about the benefits of working part time in a major law firm. For one thing, we generally work on fascinating and legally challenging cases. Whether international arbitration proceedings for a Californian company concerning sales and distribution law, defending a Brazilian company before German courts against alleged contractual claims, some governed by Brazilian law, or multi-million euro claims for damages against several cartel participants with the argumentation that they charged excessive prices due to the cartel – the variety of factual, legal and procedural situations is so wide that there’s never a dull moment. At the same time, large law firms allow you to specialise to a great extent, for instance in the areas of litigation, corporate or energy law, which again entail working at a higher level and on more exciting cases. This means it’s easy to feel passionate about what you do, even if a late-night legal review or court submissions are still on the agenda. Specialisations can also be built up by publishing, lecturing and networking in a particular sector, depending on where your preferences lie. In a big law firm there are always business development staff and ever-present, knowledge-hungry research associates to support you.
On the other hand, it goes without saying that the more tasks can be delegated to assistants, support staff (such as the staff in Business Development or the Document Center mentioned above), research associates or, over time, team colleagues, the easier it is to organise a project. This possibility is, of course, greater in large firms than in smaller entities, especially sole practitioners. Finally, it’s simply more fun to work in a team of interesting colleagues who enrich your life with their different backgrounds, experiences and views.
So I can only recommend that you take the bull by the horns and don’t let yourself be put off straight away by the admittedly daunting challenges of working in a large law firm (let alone part time) in the light of the questions referred to in the introduction. This sentence by US economist Peter Drucker has always proved helpful for me: “We greatly overestimate what we can do in one year. But we greatly underestimate what is possible for us in five years.”