How Women In Law Can Have It All (With A Little Help From Your Firm)

It’s a fact that law firms struggle with gender bias issues. A dual sex workplace inevitably yields questions concerning harassment, wage gaps, and equal paths to partnership.

Within the gender debate, women dominate. After all, it’s the woman who bears offspring, takes maternity leave, and then has years left of biologically-intertwined medical needs with her children.

Law firms worry about hiring young women—aspiring mothers—and, they’re not in the wrong.

Female lawyers are often the first to give up their post in favor of family.

Naturally, having children brings with it a set of new demands and time constraints that certain jobs can’t afford. Plus, being a stay-at-home mom is still a highly respected profession in America.

Julie Turaj speaks out proudly for those former attorneys turned mothers, saying to Parents Magazine, “A job will always be there, but kids grow up in the blink of an eye.”

“I had a demanding job. In one year, I pulled 16 all-nighters and often worked entire weekends. It wasn’t just the long hours that got to me-the pressure was enormous too. I was planning on going part-time after Kaitlyn was born, but I knew even that would be hard to manage.”

As a female attorney, does the story sound familiar?

Of course, Mrs. Turaj expects to work again. But, when she does, it won’t be back in her former corporate office. She says, “I’d like to practice a more emotionally satisfying kind of law, such as being a victims’ advocate or working at a nonprofit agency.”

“My goal is to leave the world a better place—and I’m starting with my children.”

An admirable goal that many women share. Although these parents seem quite satisfied in their choices, law firms decidedly are not.

Firms lose valuable employees year after year in a time when training and rehiring comes at a significant cost. In addition, senior attorneys spend time and effort to mentor and shape associates into future leaders only to discover female attorneys are quitting to do the same (for the next generation).

The idea that the glass roof hasn’t shattered or that women still face difficult career choices is evident in articles like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and rejoinders like Froma Harrop’s “News Flash: No One Can Have It All”.

Yet, men and women are still opting to give two-career marriages a try.

In fact, the percentage of two-income married couples rose 31% in the U.S. from 1996 to 2006. Now, 47.5% of all American married couples are dual-career couples, cites the Harvard Business Review Blog.

Ultimately, female attorneys—like all women in high-powered positions—would like to have their cake and eat it, too. But it’s a team effort.

In marriage, articles like Jackie Coleman and John Coleman’s piece for the HBR Blog, “How Two-Career Couples Stay Happy,” explain how spouses can manage the expectations of their partners when it comes to communication, children, and work.

However, creating a successful work-life balance that accommodates family is not the sole responsibility of married couples. Law firms and corporations play a role in keeping their employees happy because retaining the firm’s most productive associates is a sound business strategy, not just a social service.

Countless studies reveal that great places to work are also the most productive places to work. While this should not come as a surprise, it’s quite surprising that companies and law firms are still slow to adjust to the aforementioned, famous gender issue.

So, here are four simple steps to help retain your female lawyers. It’s not about changing their minds, asking them to raise billable hours and not children. The idea is that mothers—and fathers—can, actually, have it all with your help. Here’s how.

1. Employ Flex Time

Stop fighting the trend. Flex time has been proven again and again to be both an asset to the employee and to the firm.

The 2011 Best Law Firms for Women looked at firms with written reduced hour policies and firms who offered full-time telecommuting. In addition to mentoring circles specifically for women, the working mother’s stated need is flexible schedules. There you have it.

Where Flex time fails is the uneven enforcement and one-size-fits-all policy. Develop a policy that is as elastic as the hours you keep.

The written policy should, however, include parameters for making partner while on the telecommuting path; a coordinator who becomes the point of contact between flex-lawyers and the firm; and a method for tracking and monitoring work product, billable hours, and client satisfaction for those telecommuting attorneys.

2. Give Summer Vacation

Children have summer vacation, so why not parents? It’s important that families spend time together during the holidays, so consider giving extra time off during the summer to all your employees.

Not only does summer vacation correspond with school schedules for kids, but also any lawyer would enjoy (and benefit from) an annual break. Employees will come back refreshed and refocused on casework.

Plus, you’ll find parents trying to take off early anyhow—this way, your firm can preempt the problem and balance the work schedules of its associates to ensure clients are fully covered.

3. Create A Kid Space In The Office

Some firms offer childcare services. But, if your firm is not prepared for this option, or can’t afford it, consider creating a kid space, instead.

A kid space can be a place where older children do homework, play games, or hang out safely while their parents finish up work. A kid space allows working parents to drop by and actually visit with their children before bedtime without leaving the office.

Having an area and even a single room devoted to children also sends the message to female (and male) employees that your firm is family-friendly.

4. Embrace Short-Term Losses For Long-Term Gain

Finally, the reality of working parents means law firms often sacrifice short-term benefits for long-term gain. An absence of a senior attorney for six-months to a year on maternity leave may cost your firm, but losing a valuable employee totally—their potential for partnership or bringing in new clients in the future—is far more catastrophic.

Or, allowing an important associate a few years of part-time status to gain their full-time return later may seem costly now. But, it will certainly redouble in benefits when the individual’s loyalty and appreciation for your firm’s flexibility shows up in superior work product and case knowledge in the future.

Don’t forget that each time an employee leaves and another’s rehired, salaries tend to jump. Retention keeps costs low, employee satisfaction high, and parenting attorneys happy.

In the end, if you make families a priority, your firm will become one.

-WB

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