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Mothers In Law

By Megan Kinneyn | Aug. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Aug. 2, 2007

Mothers In Law

With women now constituting about half of all law school graduates, maternity issues are among the most immediate of Gen X and Gen Y concerns affecting major law firms. And firms are beginning to respond. By Laura McClure

By Laura McClure
      A new generation of women is changing the way law firms operate.
      The crib will go in the back of the law office. Maitreya Badami, a criminal defense attorney eight months pregnant with her second child, points to a room past the bookshelves lined with early-20th-century law texts, beyond the African fertility sculptures and the hip, red conference-room chairs. The plan is for a child-care provider to join her at work when she returns part time after maternity leave. Already, there are often children in the office at Badami Hartsough & Leonida, a three-woman, two-mom San Francisco firm located across the street from the criminal courthouse. Bust magazine (tagline: "For women with something to get off their chests") overlaps Allure on an end table in the lobby; every partner's office holds the framed photos of infants. "This is a women-owned law firm," says Badami, her silhouette an elegant 'B.' "Being female is beyond not a hindrance."
      Young, bright, and talented, Badami graduated from UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law and was a practicing attorney by age 26, almost a decade before the birth of her first child. "If it had ever occurred to me to question 'career or children,' I would have said, 'I get to have a career where I get to have children.' " She started in a criminal law practice, then spent a year in "a nice little swanky civil practice" that paid well but didn't leave much time for a life. "The culture of a civil law firm is 'work first,' " she says. "But they all say, 'We're a lifestyle firm,' because they don't fire you when your kid has some emergency and you leave to go get them."
      Badami later traded money for time. Now she makes a "middle-class" living, at a firm that formed like a pearl around the fact that two of the founding partners were also the mothers of preschool-age kids. "People see what they're used to and think those are all the options, which is a problem with law firms in general," she says. "This place, we built it the way we wanted it instead."
      Radical as it may seem, Badami Hartsough's working-mother accommodations may one day be commonplace at firms of all sizes. Years of rising associate attrition rates, especially among women, have led even big firms to consider creative solutions to stem the economic loss, which experts estimate at upwards of $200,000 per departing associate. In some ways, attorney-mothers like Badami are the canaries in the billable-hour coal mine. Women now constitute about half of all law school graduates, making maternity issues the most concrete of Gen X and Gen Y lifestyle concerns in a society that still considers women to be the primary caregivers of young children. According to a 2006 ABA survey, work/life balance was the number one issue among women lawyers who were under the age of 36 or had been practicing law for fewer than five years. In another study, young men said they'd happily take lower salaries in exchange for more free time. Clearly, though, not every firm was paying attention, as spiraling associate salaries and the billable-hours arms race attest. But where their concerns aren't addressed, associates are voting with their feet: The average annual attrition rate for both male and female attorneys hit 19 percent last year, according to a report by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Some observers feel California firms are lagging behind East Coast firms in dealing with what are national retention issues.
      Women who want children still face subtle pressures to go in-house, enter the public sector, or leave the law altogether. But alternative work arrangements?including on-site child care, flextime, and telecommuting arrangements?are gradually going mainstream. According to the NALP's 2006 Directory of Legal Employers, 96 percent of large law firms allow part-time schedules. The percentage of attorneys actually using the policy at any given firm (typically women, and often mothers) seems to be a good marker for attrition issues overall: A 2006 study by the Bar Association of San Francisco found that firms with more attorneys working part time enjoyed lower attrition rates.
      Already troubled by the impending retirement of baby boomers and the potential flight of unhappy associates, large law firms must also anticipate the effects of fewer workforce entrants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a steady, long-term decline in the annual growth rate of the labor force, from a boomer-fueled high of 2.6 percent in the 1970s to .6 percent a year from 2005 to 2050.
      Add to these pressures the threat of competition from alternative firms such as Badami Hartsough and a skyrocketing number of antidiscrimination lawsuits, and conditions are ripe for change. Indeed, law firms that fail to attract and keep female lawyers will likely bear a heavy cost.
      For decades, feminists have said that if the first challenge is to get women into traditionally male jobs, the second is to make sure they can stay there. Celeste Greene, a 46-year-old M&A partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager & Flom, who splits her time between the firm's Palo Alto and San Francisco offices, sighs when asked if M&A is an unfriendly practice area for women who want to have children. (She does not have children herself.) "Isn't it just tough to be a mother and a lawyer, full stop?" she asks. "Maybe it's a generational thing with me, but I remember my older sister being very influenced by the '70s, when women created this expectation?and sometimes this self-imposed standard?of being able to do everything. And we're realizing that you may be able to do everything, but that doesn't mean you're able to do everything well."
      Even with the institutional architecture in place to support child-friendly flextime schedules, it seems unlikely that Skadden's M&A practice will find itself flooded with applicants who want to try being primary caregivers as well. "We're service providers, and as such we don't control our schedules," says Greene. "The challenge for us is to continue to deliver a standard of legal services that our clients expect, while creating a conducive environment for women attorneys, male attorneys, mothers, fathers, to be able to raise their children while practicing law." Greene adds, "I frankly think that without the ability to create that environment, we're losing a rich pool of talent. I wouldn't be surprised if we collectively recognized the business imperative for creating some flexibility around what we do." But she sounds unsure that this is possible.
      At some large firms, when the baby boomer women lawyers reached partner age, they changed the structure of the practice from the inside out. Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman was among the early adopters of a model that rejected the traditional one-size-fits-all schedule. "When I came to Pillsbury in 1975, there were very few women here-mostly you saw tall white guys," laughs Mary Cranston, the senior partner in the San Francisco office and immediate past chair of the firm. "I was the first woman to ask for maternity leave?at a time [1977] when no other law firm in San Francisco had maternity leave?and Pillsbury said, 'Absolutely.' The firm has always been very advanced on these kinds of policies for the retention of women."
      A generation later, Pillsbury was one of three law firms in the country to make Working Mother magazine's "100 Best Companies" in 2006. "Far from being less committed, I think [mothers of young children] are incredibly efficient and driven to make it all work," Cranston says. "If you can get women through that period of their lives, by the time their kids are off to high school, they're amazing. They have tremendous time and energy, and they see another jump in their practice." Rather than lose these lawyers, she says, "We've made sure our policies for part-time [work] and maternity leave are as flexible as possible."
      One skyscraper over, Alison Tucher of Morrison & Foerster agrees. "My daughter was born eight and a half months after I started at MoFo, so you do the math," says Tucher, a commercial litigator who made partner in 2004 following a period when she took two maternity leaves and worked an 80 percent schedule. "I consciously chose a firm that I thought would be supportive, and they have been." Some of the scaffolding MoFo provides goes far beyond the standard big-firm fare of offering BlackBerries and telecommuting options. In addition to a lactation room where new mothers can pump and store breast milk in privacy, MoFo will arrange at-home child-care providers if, for example, an attorney-mom or -dad needs to work over the weekend. More important, the firm doesn't stigmatize its part-timers with glorified paralegal work or take them off the partnership track. The chestnut that you can't be a mother and a partner is just "nonsense," says Tucher. "I don't think anyone would ever say you can be a partner at a law firm or a father, but not both."
      To the contrary, retaining and promoting women (including mothers) to positions of power is a business imperative, says Tanya Forsheit, a senior associate and litigator-mom at the Los Angeles office of Proskauer Rose. "On top of everything else, clients are demanding that firms have teams that include women and attorneys of color. It's regularly part of beauty contests now."
      Responding to that imperative, Folger Levin & Kahn, with 23 attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco, now boasts almost 50 percent women partners. Joan Haratani, partner in the San Francisco office of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and last year's president of the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF), made work/life balance her primary focus at BASF after two decades of watching mothers rise through the ranks and then leave when they hit what experts call "the maternal wall." Haratani says she felt "empowered" to take on the issue because she couldn't be accused of self-dealing, having chosen not to have children herself. She adds: "When I joined a law firm, I thought, 'I want to be a partner; I'm going to do whatever it takes to be partner'?the whole old-school, traditional model. Well, that model has changed."
      The changes wrought for Gen X parents are especially apparent at the Los Angeles office of Katten Muchin Rosenman, where Stacey McKee Knight and Abby Feinman have practiced since they were first-year associates in 1996. Both are now partners and mothers; each has two children and works full time. Of the more than 80 attorneys in the Los Angeles office, almost half are women. "When you find something that works, you tend to stay," says McKee Knight, an employment lawyer. "I work remotely, I BlackBerry. If I want to attend a [child's] field trip, I do. Make no mistake, I work really hard, and I make my hours. There are times when I don't get to do all the things
      I want to do. But I don't think women lawyers are the only ones who have to make sacrifices."
      Feinman concurs: "It's all about billable hours, but [the firm] doesn't dictate when those hours have to be." A strong, formal women's group and an informal mentoring network provide role models of moms who are making it work. Even the swag is welcoming: When a child is born to a Katten parent, the firm sends a wicker basket stuffed with baby goodies. The breadbox-size bundle includes a white onesie emblazoned with "Future Lawyer" and a cartoon stork dangling an infant above the Katten logo. A Winnie-the-Pooh binky, yellow Pooh terrycloth socks, and a five-ounce baby bottle are tucked in like Easter eggs, along with pamphlets on child-care consultants. A gift card to the baby from the firm's Women's Leadership Forum reads: "Welcome to the world. We wish you happiness, good health and admission to the law school of your choice." The whole thing comes wrapped in a pink and blue bow.
      Silly though the gesture may seem, Katten has given away so many of these baskets recently that it's about to reorder. Whatever the firm is doing to address work/life balance concerns, it appears to be working.
      In general, when large firms fail to lead, small firms increasingly pick up talent at their expense. Jonathan Klein, a partner and one of eleven attorneys at Kelly, Herlihy & Klein in San Francisco, has more than a dozen photographs of his wife and two daughters adorning his downtown office. On one wall, a pink boat sails on a sea of blue construction paper toward a card with a child's scrawl that reads, "You know I love you Daddy." Down the hall, two mothers work part time as litigators; a third mother at the firm stays home on Wednesdays. "You can operate a litigation practice without it always being last-minute," says Klein. "These are exceptional people who I'm happy to work around, people who want intellectual work and a lifestyle, too. Not promoting a pro-mother environment, if you will, leads to people leaving big firms and coming to places like mine."
      Upstart firms such as Axiom Legal, now in its seventh year, are already taking advantage of the resources part-time lawyers provide. With very little overhead, no partners, and no billable-hour requirement, Axiom essentially offers clients an attorney/client matching service. Several of the attorneys it employs are moms trained at big firms who left because of inflexible work requirements.
      There is a word in Japanese for "death from overwork": karoshi. Joan C. Williams, a legal work/life balance expert, often mentions karoshi in her frequent talks to law firms?right before she drops the factoid that Americans work longer hours than most Japanese. In 1958, the ABA estimated that there were only "approximately 1,300 fee-earning hours per year"; now, some California lawyers bill twice that many hours.
      Offering the option of a 40-hour workweek with one weekend of duty a month?instead of regular workweeks of 12-hour days plus however many weekends it takes?is a return to the way law used to be, not a radical departure. "The bottom line is this," Williams told a roomful of Townsend and Townsend and Crew attorneys this spring in San Francisco. "Every time hours ratchet up, women bleed out faster."
      Among other distinguished entries on a long résumé, Williams is the founder of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Most recently, she has been tracking the boom in lawsuits alleging family rights discrimination (FRD), which Williams defines as "employment discrimination against people based on their caregiving ?whether for children, elderly parents, or ill partners." FRD includes, she says, "maternal wall" litigation (motherhood as a trigger for gender discrimination; the equivalent of the glass ceiling), and discrimination against men who participate in child care. A common feature of the situations the suits address, Williams says, is the stereotypical assumption that a woman can't be both a good mother and a dedicated employee. She has compiled a list of more than 1,000 lawsuits, finding that the volume of such cases has jumped more than 400 percent in the past decade. In San Diego, a deputy district attorney won $250,000 in a suit against the county over poor evaluations and a change in assignments after she announced her pregnancy. The largest jury verdict to date in an individual FRD case is $11.65 million.
      Competition and the threat of lawsuits are just the most tangible pressures for change. The success of Williams's work at Hastings?and the selection of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as not just the first woman but also the first mom to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?suggests that the issues of working mothers are increasingly part of the zeitgeist.
      A thin canon of workplace literature is now emerging on such topics as "the mommy wars," "on- and off-ramping," and working moms "opting in or out." Online support groups and tip sheets for young women lawyers and professionals, some of which were started by attorney-moms in California, are flourishing. Amy Keroes, once a fifth-year associate at Latham & Watkins, began an e-zine called Mommy Track'd. Michelle Fowler, formerly a business attorney with Farella Braun + Martel, cofounded a job-matching service called Flexperience. And Joan Blades, cofounder of and author of Mediate Your Divorce, has also cofounded MomsRising, a new venture that seeks to get moms of all stripes to become more politically active.
      "Of course it's possible to have it all," says Jennifer Altfeld Landau, a partner at the Los Angeles office of Sidley Austin. "The secret is that you can't have it all, all of the time. You need to know how to triage." Landau, president of the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles and a Los Angeles Daily Journal "Top Woman Litigator," is a role model for many Gen Xers. So is Landau's firm. Sidley Austin has adopted written part-time and paternity-leave policies, retains part-time partners and associates, and provides reduced schedules for many of its full-time women lawyers?including Landau following the birth of her first child. The firm also provides subsidized emergency backup child care through Bright Horizons. "I have never felt for one instant like a second-class citizen at Sidley because I am a woman, because I have kids, or because I want to have an enriching, balanced life outside the office," Landau says. "I have been blessed to work on the most challenging of cases and, though busy, I have never, ever, been bored. I love my job. It's as simple as that."
      Recently, San Francisco's Heller Ehrman shook the web of entrenched norms at law firms even more. The firm released a report in late May detailing the findings of its Opt-In Project, a yearlong study group. Though Heller carefully refrained from endorsing any of the group's recommendations, the report presents a guided tour of how law firms could respond to Gen X/Y attrition. The possibilities include doing away with the billable hour; paying off the law school loans of associates who agree to stay for a certain number of years; allowing associates to choose among salary levels matched to both billable hours and length of partnership track; basing partnership on performance rather than years of service; implementing team structures for clients; making the workday and work year more flexible; introducing sabbaticals of up to a year for any attorney who wants one; allowing associates to intern in public-service law firms; and rehiring women who had previously opted out of the firm to raise children.
      Opting back in?still very difficult for many women attorneys?may become the first widely adopted proposal. Sidney Hollar, a former associate at Pillsbury in the early 1980s, told her opt-in story at a recent panel sponsored by UC Hastings. After law school, a federal clerkship, two years at Pillsbury, and a stint at public-interest law, Hollar quit to be a stay-at-home mom. "At the time, I was overwhelmed by the cost of babysitters," she recalled. "Well, that's stupid?what's the cost of a babysitter compared to how hard it is to get back into practice?"
      While raising two children, Hollar was a guest lecturer at the Stanford, Boalt Hall, and Hastings law schools. But when she and her husband divorced, it became financially necessary for her to find full-time work. After 14 years away from a law firm, Hollar said it took a lot of perseverance to land her current job at the Center for Families, Children and the Courts in San Francisco.
      Hollar acknowledges that she loved staying home with her kids, but she also loved being a lawyer. If she could do it over again, she says, she would have worked part time or maintained some connection to legal practice. "The legal world doesn't realize that there are all these women who want to come back, and it's so hard," she said. "They're missing out on this skill bank."
      Historically, work/life balance concerns have been the province of mothers, but recently men have started to get more involved. This spring, Stanford law students Andrew Canter and Craig Holt Segall went to 100 top law firms and asked them to commit to driving down billable-hour requirements in exchange for lower associate salaries. The two have used their online group, Law Students Building a Better Legal Profession, to promote their goals, which they term "re-firmation."
      "These aren't just women's issues?they're human issues," says Pillsbury's Cranston. "Professional-service firms do best when they have lifelong relationships with their professionals, and life includes children, and aging parents, and all."
      The ballroom at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco was crammed with lawyers the night of Heller's release party for the Opt-In Project report. At the cocktail hour beforehand, lawyers hovered near the open bar as caterers circulated with trays of canapés. The 150 or so attorneys in attendance wore name tags from O'Melveny & Myers, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Keker & Van Nest, and Morrison & Foerster, among other major players.
      Many in the room nodded when Patricia Gillette, the Heller shareholder who headed the project, cited one study that found a 78 percent attrition rate for associates in the first five years of practice. Many glanced around surreptitiously to gauge reaction to such ideas as reconfiguring the first two associate years. Even more clapped and cheered when Gillette predicted that the billable hour, which became widespread only in the 1950s, would not see another decade.
      "And then, the pièce de résistance," Gillette said. "Measuring [partner] performance based on how many [associates] stay."
      Laura McClure ( is an associate editor at California Lawyer.

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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