During the first-ever Women's Forum in May, we had the privilege of speaking to a group of 200 professional women who were smart and fun, and had plenty to say about what is working and not working in our industry. One of the most interesting ideas bantered about was part-time partners as a common concept for the firm of the future. We decided to speak with a few firms that are blazing the trail for others to follow and have currently implemented this practice.The part-time partner position within the firm is relatively new. It usually results when someone making a major life change approaches the firm to ask for a new way to work. This life change could be the joyous occasion of a new baby, or it could be the other most joyous occasion in life - retirement!

Read almost any industry magazine or book today, and you will note three realities that will make this a necessary practice for accounting firms over the next few years:

* Baby Boomers are cutting back on work schedules and preparing to retire.

* Many women are seeking greater balance between work and family obligations.

* Members of Generation X and Y want more out life than a great job - they want a strong family balance, also.

In our conversations, the first two were discussed most frequently by a majority of firms. Let's look first at a current partner who is nearing retirement.

RETIREMENT ON THE HORIZON

When a partner expresses a desire to cut back on the normal 2,400-to-2,600-hours-per-year investment, the firm has a choice: Bend to that desire or lose the talent. It is hard to believe that some accounting firms actually prefer to let talent walk out the door, but in recent years firms are far more likely to find a way to make a part-time situation work.

Steve Harms, a partner at Kiesling Associates LLP in Madison, Wis., said that his firm currently has two part-time partners who are "easing" into retirement. This has been a unique and valuable transition time for the partners and the firm. The firm retains the wisdom of these talented individuals, while they have the opportunity to get used to retirement and ease out of their job roles.

Jeff Anderson, president of Contryman Associates PC in Hastings, Neb., said that they have one retiring partner who is taking advantage of the firm's formal part-time partner program, and he anticipates that there will be others in the future. He also said that this is a terrific way for the partner to phase out of the firm over a number of years, rather than face an "immediate split" situation.

SEEKING BALANCE

While retiring partners are one type of part-time partner situation, another population is emerging - women seeking a balanced life of career and family. Carla Grant, a partner at the firm of Hungerford Aldrin Nichols & Carter PC in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that she approached the partner group about reduced hours when she found that she would be having her first child in 1990. The firm had two outstanding women in the same situation, and they chose to find a way to retain both. Carla has been part-time now for 17 years, and in 2001 she became a partner working between 1,500 and 1,800 hours a year by developing a niche in the area of employee benefit plan auditing.

When asked about the secret to her success, she said that it is not just one thing; in fact, it is many things - but the keys for her are technology (so that she can work from home as if she were in the office) and training her clients to understand when she works and when she doesn't!

Beth Wiener, a partner at Marcum & Kliegman LLP in Melville, N.Y., said that while her firm has been amazing in supporting her efforts in the niche she co-founded - hedge funds and investment partnerships - the flex time she experiences in her position would not be possible without personal drive and dedication. She said that after 12 years with the firm and a variety of work arrangements, she finds that balance between the important areas of family and career is only possible due to her personal accountability, strong work ethic and the support of her colleagues and family.

THE PART-TIME PARTNER PROFILE

So, what is the typical profile of a part-time partner? While it will vary greatly from firm to firm and person to person, these are the most common characteristics we gathered during our research.

Part-time partners:

* Work between 1,500 and 1,800 hours a year;

* Have a solid niche that they developed from the ground up;

* Are driven to be successful for themselves, their families and their firms;

* Are loyal to their firms because their firms are loyal to them; and,

* Are thrilled with this work arrangement, and few would "go back" to the hours and work they did before it.

So, what is the checklist for a firm that wants to implement a part-time partner program? A great place to begin is to:

* Ensure that partners are all on the same page of the songbook;

* Talk about it before it becomes an issue;

* Have an agreement in writing to ensure both parties understand expectations;

* Ensure that technology is A+ when it comes to remote accessibility;

* Don't make the plan "one size fits all." Flexibility is the key to a successful program; and,

* Form a compensation committee, and teach them that it is not all about the "billable hour."

Along with the firm making some changes and setting expectations clearly from the beginning, the employee must also follow a few guidelines:

* Ask for what you want - you'll never get it if the firm doesn't know about it!

* Be ready to negotiate - it is not all about you!

* Find a niche that allows you to succeed in a part-time role.

* Be driven to succeed.

* Understand that sometimes it is all about home, and sometimes it is all about work. Perfect balance is unrealistic!

* Set up a way to communicate with the office 24/7.

Preparation is critical

The reality for the accounting industry is that the times, they are a-changing, and we had better make some changes soon to prepare for what is happening in front of us.

As Cindy Wyatt, a partner at the firm of Warren Averett Kimbrough & Marino LLC in Birmingham, Ala., said, "The perfect way to retain top talent is to develop a program for part-time and flex-time talent - and partners. By defining expectations and communicating those expectations clearly to everyone in the office, this can be a very successful venture for the firm and the partner."

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president, and Sandra L. Wiley is the chief operating officer and senior consultant, of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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