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Marcy Karin Headshot

A Call to Incorporate Workplace Flexibility Into Law School Curricula

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October was National Work and Family Month. This year, events across the nation were held throughout October that tapped into a movement to bring new voices to a conversation about how workplace flexibility can be a core tool to support individual employees and employers as well as families and communities across the country. This conversation has helped shift our collective consciousness on work-life issues and brought a wide range of people -- from small businesses and CEOs to single moms and unions -- together to explore the opportunities and challenges of workplace flexibility.

In his statement supporting National Work and Family Month, President Obama reminded us "especially working caregivers, their families, and their employers, that while we have made great strides as a nation to adopt more flexible policies in the workplace, there's more we can do." I couldn't agree more. But there is one group that was not specifically mentioned that has been a part of the conversation -- but also has more it can do. What is that group? Lawyers and the people who train law students to be ethical and effective lawyers.

Now before the myriad of lawyer jokes begin, hear me out. Lawyers are often involved in every stage of ensuring that work-life issues are addressed for all involved parties. If a working dad wants to know if he can swap a shift with another employee to attend a conference with his daughter's teacher without getting fired, who can explain his rights and the potential consequences of his decisions? A lawyer. If an employee wants to know whether to challenge a disciplinary action that was taken after she was late to work after dropping off her father at his elder care facility when he had an episode of dementia that caused her to miss her regular bus, who should she consult? A lawyer. If a manufacturing company wants to know if it can change shift schedules to improve flexibility for the employees who work together on a specific line, who should the employer call? A lawyer. If a non-profit organization wants to revise its personnel manual to develop a robust menu of flexibility options to support employees, including parental and paid sick leave, who should the staff consult? A lawyer. If a business wants to create a phased retirement program without violating existing tax or benefits laws, who is going to be called? A lawyer. If a Member of Congress is interested in drafting and introducing a bill that would create a national social insurance model to provide wage replacement for caregivers, who is going to get one of the first calls? A lawyer.

The reality is that lawyers can play key roles in many of the decisions regarding increasing the development and dialogue around workplace flexibility. Among others, these roles include drafting workplace employment manuals with workplace flexibility provisions, negotiating collective bargaining language to create flexible options, addressing individual requests for flexibility as they arise, and helping develop what role the government should play in supporting access to workplace flexibility. And given this reality, law schools -- the institutions that train students to be effective and ethical lawyers -- need to be a key partner in helping our country realize the opportunities and challenges that workplace flexibility has for our workforce.

To answer stakeholder questions about workplace flexibility, we need to train law students to identify, understand, and analyze the reality of today's workplaces and the myriad of local, state, national, and international laws that govern employment, benefits, labor, and tax issues. Today's workplaces are complex and have changed significantly in the last forty years or so. The aging workforce and the rise of dual earner households have changed the demographic reality of our workers. For the first time, more than 50% of employees today are women, many of whom are responsible for the bulk of family caregiving responsibilities, for example. Simultaneously, the current economy has done a number on our businesses and employees, with unemployment remaining at the highest levels in decades while employers continue to attempt to provide necessary services and stay open. And there have been a range of new - and sometimes unclear or conflicting -- laws that govern these situations. Lawyers that understand these social, political, and legal realities are better equipped to appropriately respond to questions about work-life.

Of course, some law professors have been teaching work-life matters in their classrooms for years. Professors like Joan Williams and Chai Feldblum have been true pioneers in bringing the academic discipline of work-life to the law school academy. More recently, programs like Berkley's Center on Health, Economic & Family Security and the Workplace Law program at the University of Denver have further engrained scholarship and practical study of workplace flexibility into law school culture. Plus while other professors may not teach designated seminar courses or run a program dedicated to work-life, many more have integrated readings or discussions into classes on employment, workers rights, labor, disability, gender equity, women's history, family law, domestic violence, administrative, tax and/or legislative advocacy -- all topics relevant to our country's robust work-life integration policies.

So as National Work and Family Month ends, I encourage you -- my law school professor colleagues -- to join me in bringing the national conversation on workplace flexibility to our law schools. And as you begin preparing for Spring courses and dust off your old syllabi to revise, I urge you to embrace your newly uncovered identity as a work-life scholar, and consider how you can integrate workplace flexibility further into your courses. Let's train the next generation of lawyers to critically think about the impact workplace flexibility has on our country and how it can lawfully support both employees and employers. So that when the worker, business, or government representative calls for advice, our future lawyers can provide an informed response.

[And for colleagues who teach in other disciplines, the Alfred P. Sloan Work and Family Research Network has collected a wealth of teaching materials, including a syllabus database and module materials, from leading work-life scholars that may be of interest as you prepare for your Spring courses.]