Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pretty Perks: Just Cosmetic, Not Transformative

Employment perks are nice, but they don't substantially alter the workplace environment enough to redefine rights and responsibilities. That is, you're still working terrible hours--you just feel a little bit better about it. I don't deny the benefits of "benefits," but they are largely symbolic additions rather than structural changes: free dinners don't alter the fact that the employee is working late, and that these long hours make it difficult to juggle work and family care, and thus non-parent/non-primary-caregiver employees (primarily men) are better able to perform the tasks and thus enjoy the perks. A significant perk would be paid family and medical leave, free on-site day care (not just nannies), and a reduction in the billable hour requirement and workday so that you don't need the emergency nanny. But these aren't going to happen soon or easily. So enjoy those yoga lessons and catering services.

See, e.g:

Life's Work by Vicki Schultz

In Defense of Paid Family Leave by Gillian Lester

Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It by Joan Williams

But anyway, for a glossy take on benefits, the New York Times delivers:

For Lawyers, Perks to Fit A Lifestyle

Even lawyers need a hug. When workdays stretch into worknights and the pressure to meet the quota for billable hours grows, lawyers and staff members at the firm of Perkins Coie can often expect a little bonus.

In Perkins Coie’s Chicago office, members of the firm’s “happiness committee” recently left candied apples on everyone’s desks. Last month, the happiness committee surprised lawyers, paralegals and assistants in the Washington office with milkshakes from a local Potbelly Sandwich Works, a favorite lunch spot.

“That’s the whole beauty of it all — it’s random acts of kindness,” said Lori Anger, client relations manager of Perkins Coie, which is based in Seattle. “We have pretty strict hours, so it’s a nice way to surprise people.”

The benefits go beyond the laptops and BlackBerrys, late-night rides home, Friday beer-and-pretzel fests and sports tickets that are standard fare at many large and midsize law firms. Many of the new perks recognize a lifestyle change that law firms are just coming to grips with.
“Money is not the only thing that drives these lawyers right now,” said Marina Sirras, who runs a recruitment firm in New York for lawyers. “They want to be able to have a family and enjoy their family. This has never been as hot an issue.”

Law firms have been slower than some other businesses to award benefits, in part because of their smaller, and often complex, private structures.

On offer now are concierge services, in which a lawyer can have the equivalent of a personal valet pick up theater and sports tickets, the dry cleaning, take a car to the repair shop or even choose a Halloween costume.

“We compete in terms of having a life,” Ms. Anger said. “We don’t compete by dangling a lot of material perks.” Unusual in the industry, Perkins Coie offers pet insurance.

At the same time, law firms have begun demanding more from associates, raising minimum billable hours over the years.

To combat burnout, some firms also offer extended sabbaticals for a wide range of pursuits — to study classical piano, for instance, or work on political campaigns.

But while some of these benefits take the form of highly practical solutions — like on-site child care — others raise questions whether law firms are subsidizing a cushy lifestyle.

It is true that many of the perks have a lifestyle flavor. O’Melveny & Myers, a large California-based law firm with offices in Asia, holds yoga classes at its Newport Beach office for lawyers and their staffs. And Kilpatrick Stockton, a large firm with offices throughout the Southeast, has a nap room in its Raleigh, N.C., office, complete with a reclining chair, sofa and travel alarm clock.

“Yes, it gets used, “ said Carol Vassey, the chief administrator in the Raleigh office, though rarely for more than 15 minutes at a time.

Increasingly, having a life means having company-sponsored child care.

Arnold & Porter, based in Washington, was among the first to offer on-site day care, in 1995. Only a few firms, including Crowell & Morning, have followed suit — deterred, among other things, by insurance and zoning issues.

Some firms have come up with variations. Dechert, a 1,000-lawyer firm based in Philadelphia; Fried, Frank; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and Fulbright & Jaworski provide emergency nanny services, in which the firm will find and send a nanny to a lawyer’s home.

While some lawyers scoff at what they consider frivolous perks — Baker & McKenzie calls its sabbaticals and training “meaningful benefits” — the virtues of the new benefits are in the eye of the beholder.

“Forget the pet insurance and concierge services: that’s setting up people’s lives, and I find that appalling,” said Mitchell S. Roth, a principal at Much Shelist Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein, a comparatively small firm based in Chicago. “The perk we offer in our world is a culture of collegiality and training.”

Still, Mr. Roth acknowledged that Much Shelist occasionally brought in a masseuse.

“It’s for morale,” he said.