California Bar Journal
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Women attorneys struggle to balance career and family
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Marina Park helps daughter Eve Sutton, 5, into her car seat.neys are very satisfied with the allocation of their work and personal time, the report notes. "That says it all," Rhode said. "We're just not doing an adequate job."

The report, "Balanced Lives: Changing the Culture of Legal Practice," illustrates the dilemma of attorneys struggling for balance in a work culture that stresses longer hours, inflexible commitment and instant accessibility. It also provides advice and model policies for alternative work schedules and family leave.

Drawing on surveys, statistics and other research compiled by the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession, the study cites inflexible work schedules as a primary cause of early attrition and the "glass ceiling" encountered by women in law firms. It points to stories of attorneys closing deals and drafting documents from their hospital delivery rooms. In one instance, an attorney described working 2,200 billable hours during the year of her maternity leave. In another, an attorney's frustrated 6-year-old son announced: "When I grow up, I want to be a client."

Most legal employers have adopted work/family policies, the study found, but many such policies are inadequate and attorneys often fear using them. While 95 percent of law firms now have policies allowing part-time work, for example, only three percent of lawyers actually work part-time, the report noted. And half of the surveyed lawyers doubted that they could work alternative schedules without hurting their careers.

"Despite substantial progress, the gap between formal policies and actual practices remains dramatic and disturbing," says Rhode, who chairs the ABA's Commission on Women in the Profession.

Changing the culture

Belynda Reck, president of California Women Lawyers (CWL), echoes such concerns. "I think that a lot of firms have policies because they are good recruiting tools, but the culture of the firm has to be consistent with the policy," she said. "That's the difficult thing to change."

At CWL seminars, Reck said, "balance of work and personal lives is always a hot topic, a topic of grave concern."

And the pressing importance of such issues is not lost on Reck. A full-time litigation attorney at O'Donnell and Shaeffer in Los Angeles, she also has two children, ages 3 and 6. She recalls working "all-nighters" into the eighth month of both pregnancies. And even though she went part- time to ease some pressure during her second pregnancy, she wound up working long hours negotiating a $30 million settlement.  "You can't always predict and control how many hours you're going to have to work," she said.

Attorneys in smaller firms such as hers, she says, do not have a "comfort zone" of associates who can step in and take over. These days, Reck and her "very supportive" husband, an engineer, manage to juggle the job of parenting. But, she said, it's always a struggle. "You try everything and it doesn't always work," she said.

And while Reck feels she has been treated well by her employers, she has seen others suffer adverse career consequences in their struggle to meet work and family needs. Two of her friends, she said, recently left the profession in frustration because their assignments, as part-timers, were so unsatisfying. "It wasn't the pay," Reck said, "it was the work."

There are success stories, however. Take Palo Alto attorney Marina Park, a managing partner at Pillsbury Winthrop. For roughly a decade, she worked part-time while she and her "very supportive" husband raised three children. During that same period, she advanced from associate to managing partner.

Park sees it as "shortsighted" of firms to be inflexible. "If the firm hadn't allowed me to go on a part-time schedule when I had my first child, I wouldn't have come back," she said. "You do emerge out of the other side of having little kids. It's not as though the firm is losing money having people on a part-time schedule. Why not allow them that alternative?"

As an associate, Park worked an 80-percent schedule with Wednesdays off. Initially, she removed herself from the partnership track to avoid self-imposed pressure. Later, however, she became a partner and, in 1999, a managing partner.

A year later, she returned to full-time, she says. But she has made it clear that her children come first. For example, she recently opted to attend a managing board meeting in New York by telephone so that she could go to her daughter's violin recital. "I'm working a flex schedule that allows me to hang on by my fingernails," she said.

Park stresses, however, that everyone's priorities and limitations are different. What is key, she says, is that attorneys identify what is important to them, decide what they need and discuss their options with the firm.

During her career, Park has found some key supporters among her male colleagues. She still recalls attending a senior partner's retirement dinner in the early 1990s and standing up to address 85 men in black ties. Asked to say a few words about the guest of honor, she welled up with emotion.

"I realized the most important part of his mentoring was that he had convinced me that I could be a great lawyer on a part-time schedule," she recalls. "If my work was top quality, everything would flow from there."

Los Angeles attorney Nancy Saunders, too, has succeeded in striking a balance through part-time lawyering. When she went part-time in 1988, she says, she was the first litigator in her large firm to do so. She recalls being tagged a "trailblazer."

Before requesting part-time, however, Saunders worked full-time during her first child's toddler years to prove to her firm that she would "never drop the ball." And working part-time (80 percent of the firm's billable hours target) has still required sacrifices - just fewer late nights and weekends at work, she said.

Deborah Rhode
Deborah Rhode

Now at McCutchen, Doyle, Brown and Enersen, she continues to work part-time and has had "great work," she said, since her arrival nearly five years ago. Recently, she became a partner.

"There's no perfect balance," says Saunders, a single mother of two teenagers. "I think I've had about as positive an experience as anyone I know . . . I feel very lucky."

According to the ABA report's findings, such employer flexibility may be a key selling point in recruiting and retaining attorneys. Recent studies indicate that the availability of flexible schedules is even more effective as a retention tool than salary increases at above-market levels. In one survey, it was the characteristic correlated with the lowest rate of associate turnover.

San Francisco attorney Claudia Lewis, who works part-time at Farella, Braun and Martel, believes that her firm is unusual in supporting its attorneys' desire to lead a balanced life.

 For her, a part-time work schedule proved crucial after the birth of her now 2-year-old daughter. "If working part-time was not an option, I would have had to seriously consider whether I continued as a partner in the firm," she said.

Lewis, a securities litigation and white-collar criminal defense lawyer, initially had some concerns about reducing her work week. "I didn't know how I'd work it out with my clients," she said, "and I didn't know how my partners would feel about it."

But her concerns were unfounded, she says. These days, she spends most Fridays with her daughter. And the change, she said, has provided some "modicum of sanity" to her dual career family. "The days when I'm in the office are really jam-packed, but I wouldn't change it," Lewis said.

She is still working out some compensation issues with her firm. And she still works long hours when her caseload demands it - something she sees as unavoidable. But for the most part, she said, both she and her firm are benefiting from the arrangement.

Such situations, however, may still be the exception. Women attorneys working part-time also describe feeling dismissed and devalued, the report noted. And one recent study showed that female part-timers left firms at a rate 70 percent higher than their full-time male colleagues.

The ABA report suggests that such work/life balance issues have taken on a "new urgency" in light of changing demographics. The number of women attorneys nationwide now totals roughly 400,000. In addition, half of all first-year law students are women.

Nor are women alone in facing these challenges. An increasing number of the nation's 600,000 male attorneys also are likely to have caretaking commitments. And the study suggests that men face even greater pressure to maintain a full-time workload. Just 10 to 15 percent of surveyed firms, for example, offer men the same paid parental leave as women, the report found.

For some attorneys, time for pro bono work is the key to a balanced life. For others, assistance with childcare or eldercare would make a difference.

Price of inflexibility

Law firms pay a considerable price for their inflexibility, the report concludes. Recent data suggests that less than 4 percent of attorneys who leave firms do so to become full-time parents; instead, they simply move to more accommodating workplaces. Finding and training a single replacement then generally costs at least 150 percent of a worker's annual salary, the report notes. And the firm suffers losses in disrupted client and collegial relationships as well.

 "The current system makes no economic sense," says Rhode. "Firms are spending a small fortune on recruiting and retention expenses, and all of the evidence indicates that family-friendly policies pay for themselves in terms of lowered attrition, higher morale and greater productivity."

Mary Cranston, chair of Pillsbury Winthrop in San Francisco, agrees that the part-time option makes "good business sense" and "is critical to the long-term retention of top women."

And a policy alone is not enough. "You need to have a commitment from the top," she said. "If that isn't there, then the policy is hostage to the particular beliefs of the individual practice leaders."

Pillsbury's policy allows attorneys - men and women - to request reduced schedules for personal reasons for a defined period of time. Currently, 16 partners and 50 associates are on part-time schedules.

As for those law firms that resist such changes, "the marketplace will ultimately punish them," Cranston said. "You're going to be competing for half the labor pool with one hand tied behind your back."

The ABA report also suggests that today's young lawyers are less willing than their predecessors to sacrifice their personal lives.

San Jose attorney Ann Nguyen, a 1995 law school graduate, is heartened to hear about women partners who have managed to balance family and career. "If they can make it work," she said, "then that shows the other partners that it can work."

A year and a half ago, the mother of two was at the end of her rope when she asked for a reduced work schedule. She was one of the first staff attorneys at Robinson and Wood, a 30-attorney firm, to go part-time, she says. "For me, balance is very important," she said. "It makes me a happier person and that carries into my work."

She, too, sees her generation as having different expectations. "We're hoping that employers will make the accommodations so that we can stay in the profession," she said. "I think we have a lot to contribute."