Legally Ambitious

Much of the discussion about work/life balance focuses on flexible schedules, parental leave policies, equal pay and career compromises. But it's not as politically correct to tackle how women -- and men -- can parent effectively without abandoning their ambitions. Since its founding in 1979, one voice has consistently insisted women can have it all: Working Mother magazine.

Now, for the first time Working Mother, which also publishes the well-known Top 100 Companies for Women list, tackled one of the most competitive fields for men and women: law. Last week, the magazine and Flex-Time Lawyers banded together to announce the top law firms for women looking to strike a better work/life balance -- and climb to the top.

Almost half of law school graduates over the past 15 years have been women, but we make up only 16 percent of equity partners (those who share in a firm's profits) in large law firms nationwide. To highlight the advantages to top law firms that accomodate women's ambitions and their kids, Working Mother and Flex-Time Lawyers, a New York organization committed to improving work/life balance and career success for female attorneys, selected 50 firms that have a significant percentage of female equity partners, penalty-free flex schedules, and mentoring programs.

"It's a funny thing about prestigious lists," says Jamie Gorelick, 57, a former Justice Department official and now a partner at one of Top 50 law firms, WilmerHale, and the mother of two teenagers. "Employers want to get on them. This list will lead to efforts to make the workplace more amenable to lawyers looking for better work/life balance."

See the August/September issue of Working Mother to view all 50 winners,* who include (in unbiased, alphabetical order):

Arnold & Porter (Washington, D.C.)
Baker & McKenzie (Chicago)
Bryan Cave (St. Louis, Miss.)
Covington & Burling (Washington, D.C.)
Dorsey & Whitney (Minneapolis, Minn.)
Duane Morris (Philadelphia)
Hogan & Hartson (Washington, D.C.)
Heller Ehrman (San Francisco)
King & Spaulding (Atlanta)
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (New York)
WilmerHale (Washington, D.C.)
Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice (Winston-Salem, N.C.)

Lawyers wield great power in our society. It is in every woman's best interest to have more (and more successful) female lawyers. So let's hear from lawyers out there -- especially ones working for these Top 50 firms (or bottom 50 if that's your opinion). Tell us what really matters in your life as you balance law and your life. And for the rest of you: What ambitions have you held on to -- and let go of -- since becoming a parent?

*To qualify, a firm must have at least 50 or more lawyers.

By Leslie Morgan Steiner |  August 20, 2007; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  You Go Girl!
Previous: 'High School Musical' Hype | Next: Staying for The Sake of the Kids

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Law & Order:OB

Episode 1 - Status

Posted by: hillary1 | August 20, 2007 7:45 AM

Although this blog is my favorite feeding ground, I just may have to go somewhere else today for lunch if a bunch of lawyers show up. As a professional courtesy to my own kind, I rarely feed on them.

They also leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Posted by: Mako | August 20, 2007 8:16 AM

This list cracks me up. I see some of the biggest sweatshops in the industry listed here. Here's the deal with stuff like this: most of these firms have a full-time person whose mission in life is to complete the surveys listing all of the firm's work-life initiatives and how x percent work flex schedules (with attorneys at these firms, that's 100 percent can work flex time but they're still putting in 70+ hours a week).

The fact is, an associate is not profitable for the firm for the first 3 years at a minimum and it's stretching into 4. Lawyers who can't bust their bottoms with the best of 'em do not make it at these firm (there are exceptions but they are as rare as a coconut in Antarctica). It is just the reality. There are plenty of people, good lawyers and otherwise, who opt out of the treadmill and get a job as in-house counsel, working for the government, or a smaller firm, etc. THOSE are the people who have their lives more in balance.

I appreciate what Working Mother is trying to do, but this is the view of an insider. My $.02.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | August 20, 2007 8:23 AM


"This list cracks me up. I see some of the biggest sweatshops in the industry listed here."

I concur. This article is a BIG bag of b.s.

Posted by: hillary1 | August 20, 2007 8:35 AM

I have to chime in with workingmomx - I have consulted for two of the firms listed above and both seemed to be sweatshops, not a whole lot of smiling going on in the corridors...

Posted by: jjtwo | August 20, 2007 8:47 AM

Leslie, this is hysterical. Any article that includes Skadden and "work-life balance" in the same sentence is an exercise in irony.

WorkingMomX is right. These lists simply represent the huge firms with enough cash to pay for an HR department to identify and implement initiatives to get them on these lists. And how do they get that cash? Ye Olde Ponzi scheme: a big law firm is a pyramid, with way, way, way more associates at the bottom than equity partners sharing at the top. And how do they keep that lovely pyramidal shape? Yep, you guessed it -- make it harder for people to move up, so that only the really, really top of the class even has a shot at making partner. So how likely is that to be someone working part-time billing 1600 hrs/yr, when the competition is billing 2300? And seriously, if you want to bill 1600 hrs instead of 2300, how much bargaining position do you really think you have? With entering classes of 50+ associates, do you think they really care if one jumps ship? Heck, they NEED that kind of attrition to keep up the pyramid.

I also seriously doubt this survey accurately reflects equity partners. Most big firms nowadays have both equity (profit-sharing) and non-equity (non-profit-sharing) partners. Many of those firms are happy to have part-time, "family-friendly" positions at the non-equity level -- as long as they don't have to share the pie, it's no skin off their nose, right? So they can keep people around who have valuable skills and high billing rates, and at the same time report good numbers for these surveys, all without having to further divide their profits. But equity partnership is reserved for the big billers and big rainmakers (not necessarily in that order).

Look, the law is a great profession, if you enjoy it. And some of these big firms actually can offer reasonable career tracks -- their size and profits give them the ability to create these kinds of positions and that kind of atmosphere, IF the equity partners decide that's important enough to spend some of their profits on it. But don't take these surveys at face value. Look at what people are actually doing, look at how many people are in these flex positions and actually making partner, pay attention to the firm atmosphere. And if you really want to both be an equity partner and maintain some sort of balance in your life, then take a look at smaller firms, too, who don't have the time, energy, and money to play the magazine game. A smaller firm won't have the same formal programs. But you have a better chance of being seen as an individual with valuable skills who they really don't want to lose, not just as Fungible Associate #873. Which means you are in a much better position to negotiate for what you want.

Posted by: laura33 | August 20, 2007 8:49 AM

This list makes no sense. Yes, having women partners is important, but how many of those women are mothers? How many hours a day/week/year do those women work? Some of the firms listed are the worst offenders when it comes to work-life balance.

Where are the childcare subsidies/on site care stats? Or the paid leave, benefits, etc? I think this list is wrong.

Posted by: moiragrl | August 20, 2007 8:52 AM

Laura -- I wasn't going to name names, but what the heck. When I saw Skadden, on the list, I absolutely laughed out loud. I'll bet the female associates at Skadden aren't laughing, though.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | August 20, 2007 8:57 AM

Would women consider staring their own law firms to achieve this balance?

Posted by: chemguy1157 | August 20, 2007 8:58 AM

Laura, if you can only get a job where they paid you by the word, I bet you could make a million dollars in less than a year. ;-)

Posted by: Mako | August 20, 2007 9:10 AM

Regarding ambition, I have a cartoon strip (can't remember the title) clipped and hung on my cubicle wall that says:

"Intelligence has always run in my family; ambition, however, has always walked with a limp."

Posted by: jesselewis | August 20, 2007 9:22 AM

It's been a long while since I've posted, but this article just cooked my goose. Working Mom X and others echoing her, you are SO right about this list being a bunch of BS. I've seen a few of these guys end up on a bunch of these "best places to work for" list and i've even worked for one of them, and let me just say, what CRAP. What these law firms tell the magazines and how they skew their figures- and what the associates and partners actually do there- are two completely different things. I have rarely been so infuriated as looking at the names of the well-known sweatshop-chew-'em-up-spit-'em-out firms on this list. ARGH.

Let's start commending some not-so-well-known firms where family-work balance is ACTUALLY in place. Are there any? Does anyone on this blog work for a law firm where you can say that your family life is respected? I certainly would love to hear about it.

Posted by: CreamOfTheCrop | August 20, 2007 9:45 AM

Ugg, lawyers and their problems? What a perfect day to skip OB.

Posted by: pATRICK | August 20, 2007 9:56 AM

Actually, what law firms do vis-a-vis flexibility impacts all of us. Those same firms are advising companies all over America about their HR practices.

Unfortunately, law firms are rarely on the cutting edge of innovative practices. Part-time at a big law firm generally still means 40+ hours a week, but with no real chance of partnership. These firms cannot turn to their own HR policies when clients ask for help drafting something that is employee-friendly.

I'm writing this from my desk at a small law firm, where I genuinely am working part-time, on my own schedule, paid on an hourly basis. I'm 18 years out of law school and not interested in partnership track, so this is a good fit for me. Back when I was an associate at a large firm, it was all too obvious to me that partners, both male and female, had put work first and family last. Most of them had and needed an at-home spouse as a support system.

The younger lawyers in our extended family who are at big firms are putting in 2500+ billable hours a year, working routine 70 hour weeks. That's fine if you have a 5 year plan and an exit strategy, but I don't see it as a viable long term lifestyle.

Posted by: SolontheGreat | August 20, 2007 10:05 AM

I too think this list missed the mark. Why assume only large firms can provide balance? Small firms and government agencies should have a place in the survey as well.

I myself am a lawyer at a small non-profit and get the great benefit of bringing my baby to work with me. No complaints here!

Posted by: jpjb123 | August 20, 2007 10:07 AM

I'll never forget sitting in assicate meetings listening to the partner in charge of associate relations discuss our firm and balance. First, we were informed sometime in my second year, the firm was no longer a "lifestyle firm," and we'll all be expected to step up accordingly. Second, he'd detail the part-time program. Basically, what it came down to was that in some very specific circumstances, the firm would work with associates who wanted a part-time schedule. However, he reminded us, the key to such schedules is flexibility -- if the firm needed the associate on a case, then they'd need to be available, even if it meant working full-time (or more) hours for weeks or months at a time (at the part-time salary, of course). What a joke!

I loved my firm and the work that I got to do, and I'm very much looking forward to going back to work. But there's little chance I'd ever go back to a big firm -- it's just not worth the long hours. And I think it's just the nature of the beast for long hours to be expected, even for associates who ostensibly work part time.

Posted by: newsahm | August 20, 2007 10:15 AM

to jpjb: I think the point was that if (big IF) the big firms are actually paying attention to work-life balance, it's supposed to flow down to other firms, and to other types of companies.

I have a friend who graduated law school, eventually found a job, was there for a while. Then had a baby and really didn't want to go back to work (had law school loans *and* DH was a lawyer too - so they have plenty of loans to pay back).

Her firm offered her to stay on - three days a week - at about the same pay (no benefits). She ultimately declined (I thought she was crazy). But some companies (that hire lawyers too) are changing, slightly. but probably not as many or as fast as many of us would like.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | August 20, 2007 10:21 AM

As a working mom/associate at a big law firm, part of me wants to see articles like these published because I think it gets firm management talking and at least thinking about work/life issues for its attorneys. But yes - it is funny to see firms like Skadden listed and not think the list is a complete joke.

Law firms are businesses - they pay us associates lots of money and in return, we need to bill lots of hours. You can't expect to get paid as much as big law firms pay and work 9-5.

I don't have much sympathy for attorneys who think "work-life" balance means that they just get to work a "reduced hours" schedule but get paid full-time. Please - that just isn't realistic. But this list and an accompanying article DO highlight those things that make working the hours easier - child care and flexible working schedules (e.g., working from home when kids are sick) among others.

My problem with the list though is that it doesn't give any real specifics as to how it was compiled. I'd like to see more details. Considering how little info was given as to its methodology, I'd agree that it was probably subject to which firms decided to put their PR dollars into play...

Posted by: londonmom | August 20, 2007 10:23 AM

I have to agree, when I saw Skadden on the list, I had to start laughing. I know attorneys at many of the major firms here in DC, including Hogan & Hartson and King & Spaulding, and they will all tell you that the hours are killer, and worse, unpredictable. You make plans for the weekend or after work, and there is always a good chance that you will have to cancel and work instead. Yeah, the money is good, but money isn't everything, and many of these attorneys are looking for ways to get out and get a life.

On the other hand, I know people who work for Dorsey & Whitney, and they are pretty happy with the firm's respect for their personal lives. But you'll notice that DW is in Minneapolis, not DC or NYC or SF. My guess is that smaller-market firms are a lot more family-friendly than those in major markets. In any case, work-life balance in a large law firm is always relative--if you really want work-life balance, your best bet is the government or non-profit.

Posted by: Katya2 | August 20, 2007 10:23 AM

Echo all of the rest of you. This list is TOTAL BS. There might be a significant number of women partners at these firms, but how many of them are moms???? I'll be it's not even a third.... I have friends (both genders) that have worked at several of these firms and even if you could get some sort of flexibility after being there for 5 years, you're essentially ending your upward mobility with the firm because of it. These lists are so fake anyway - whoever said it's the firms who have the HR people to fill our these surveys to make them look good is right... SKADDEN????? uh. whatever.


Posted by: dsimonetta | August 20, 2007 10:26 AM

-not a lawyer-

But really, do agree with some of you - if you want to work at a big firm, or a wall street hedge fund, or whatever, and want the money - then yes, it's going to cost you in time and life plans. That's just the way it goes.

And, why should the big firms bend over backwards to accomodate those not wanting to give them the hours? I'm not sure I agree that they should. They do what they do - people are pretty much aware of it, they always have plenty of people to hire, why should they change? It's the deal you make when you get hired, and that's the way it is. As someone said, you want something different, work in house as an attorney, or work for the govt, open your own office...whatever...

Posted by: atlmom1234 | August 20, 2007 10:31 AM

Posted by: Mako | August 20, 2007 09:10 AM

Mako -- actually, I get paid by the hour. Which if you think about it can be pretty much the same thing. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | August 20, 2007 10:32 AM

"It's the deal you make when you get hired, and that's the way it is."

Sometimes, yes. But firms change and people change.

When I was job hunting in law school, I targeted the firm I eventually worked for because, in part, it was a "lifestyle firm." The salaries were significantly below market, but that was ok because the expectation was that we'd work fewer hours.

Two years in, they decided to bump us all up to market and increase the pressure to make high billable goals. That's when we were told we no longer worked for a lifestyle firm. I didn't ask for the raise, and would have been perfectly happy to keep going as we had been, but the partners wanted a different kind of firm.

And, of course, people change. What they want as 24-year-old first-year associates can be very different from what they want as 30-year-old mid-levels. I guess every single person whose needs/wants change can simply quit wholesale, but why not at least try to see if the firm would be willing to work out a part time schedule?

Posted by: newsahm | August 20, 2007 10:42 AM

The real problem with big law firms trying to sort out the whole "work/life" balance issue is that an attorney's experience will differ TREMENDOUSLY depending on who you work for. My firm has all the necessary programs that go into making it a "family friendly" place - backup child care, work options program, reduced hours, flex hours, great maternity and paternity leave - you name it, they have it. But these programs don't mean much if you happen to work for a partner who is a complete a$$. But for those who work for partners who respect your family time, then a big law firm can actually be a great place to work - interesting and challenging deals, top notch pay and benefits, etc.

At the end of the day, I think it is a total crapshoot.

Posted by: londonmom | August 20, 2007 10:57 AM

NewSAHM, I think you have it right: lots of these law firms (ahem, A&P, Covington & Burling, WilmerHale) didn't used to be this way-they changed the deal midway through, assuming associates would jump at the pay bump in exchange for turning their lives over to the firms in a wholesale manner.

The problem with shrugging and saying "hey you signed up for it, so go to take your big paycheck to the bank and stop whining" is that law firms have been creeping up the hours and the commitments and becoming far worse places to work over a gradual period of time (much like the rest of the American work place). And as the big ones did it, the small ones followed. And so on. So things have gotten really bad in a very broad swath of the legal community. This isn't just a matter of saying no to a few of the top firms and going elsewhere: these days it seems to be the vast majority of law firms trying to play oneupsmanship with those they view as their peers. So where's a law grad to go these days ('cept for the government)?

It shouldn't have to be this way. It's getting harder and harder for educated women who want to succeed and yet also want to have a family not to throw up their hands in frustration and quit their jobs altogether. And I, for one, find this solution totally depressing (as I have commented before)- it shouldn't be the choice between leaving the firm in a city like Washington, New York or Chicago altogether or staying and continuing to bill 2500-3000 hours a year just because all the law firms in town are doing it. There has to be a middle ground here, and the law firms that are pretenders to the throne (see Leslie's cited article) are absolutely not putting their money where their PR clearly is.

And for posters like pATRICK, what women lawyers do matters because women lawyers, business execs, etc. are leaving their firms and corporate workplaces in droves rather than fighting for work-life balance in the workplace, and as I have always maintained, that affects the future of women, not just the few women lawyers sitting in the offices at Skadden at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday.

Posted by: CreamOfTheCrop | August 20, 2007 11:24 AM

newsahm: of course, it's easier to try to deal with a company you already have a job with. But I've found that sometimes, it's just easier to understand where they're coming from, realize the change is not necessarily coming (and even when it does, as others have said: now you're never going to make partner, or whatever). And find a place where the workplace works better with your choices.

This is the more passive aggressive approach, I suppose, but if all people were leaving the sweat shops, then those firms have to do something to keep their talent (of course that's not happening, but something like it could). Yes, you could work from inside and help change the rules, or work from outside, and just decide not to play by the rules, find somewhere else to work that works better for you, etc. But the reality is that few companies will change for the employees. They always say they want to, but the atmosphere is the atmosphere and an employee without much power is rarely going to change that. When a horrible manager is known to be a horrible manager but is let alone to do whatever they want, there's not much an employee can do but leave. Clearly, most HR depts don't really care about turnover (and pretty much every one of them at any company will always say: our turnover rate is par with the industry - I've rarely heard anything else).

Posted by: atlmom1234 | August 20, 2007 11:32 AM

I think I've posted about this in the past couple of months, but the latest associate pay bump came with an expectation of an additional 200 billable hours a year, and we've got a pretty good chunk of associates (male and female) who said "thanks, but no thanks". It seems they want a life. Shocker. This has been the subject of many meetings lately, as has the ongoing topic of how to retain female associates after they've had children. An increasingly large number want to quit altogether or have a viable option for part-time that still keeps them on the (albeit slightly delayed) partnership track.

I think things are changing, but the prosaic reality is that these firms are not non-profits and they will continue to expect crazy hours in exchange for excellent pay and benefits. As someone else pointed out, it's a great short-term wealth building strategy (you won't have time to spend all your money), but it's not practical over the long term unless your planning to stay childfree and probably single. The divorce rate among attorneys at large firms is astronomical.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | August 20, 2007 11:34 AM

Unless you started at Covington, A&P, etc. a good 6+ years ago, I'm not quite sure anybody could argue that these law firms were marketed as "lifesytle" firms. I started 5 years ago and I knew exactly what I was getting into when I joined.

But I don't bill 2500-3000 hours a year either. I know people in NY who routinely do it at the big firms (like Skadden) but not in DC. I think 2000-2100 is more the norm. If people really are working 2500+ hours a year, then I don't blame them for complaining. But if you do the numbers, most attorneys at the big law firms (at least in DC) really aren't putting in those hours. I think that is more fiction than fact.

Posted by: londonmom | August 20, 2007 11:49 AM

I've always been curious about how billable hours work. If you bill 2500 annually that works out to 50 hours per week, in a 50 week year (assuming two weeks vacation). So is the idea that you must work a 70 hour week in order to bill 50 hours, because of things like taking time to eat lunch, go to the bathroom etc?

Posted by: jcadam | August 20, 2007 12:17 PM

Law & Order: OB
Episode 1 "Status"

Scene One - Major Case Unit Squad Room

Det. Leslie storms into the office of Captain Danny Ross to give him a piece of her mind about the lack of flexible schedules, generous parental leave policies, on-site child-care, and promotional opportunities for women in the Unit. During Leslie's rant, Captain Ross, a recovering alcoholic, eyes the desk drawer where he has kept an unopened bottle stashed for five years.

Spent by her tirade (but not for long), Det. Leslie drops a few VIP names, tosses her blond tresses, and flounces out of the office. Leslie takes her seat at her desk across from Det. Irish Girl. Irish Girl adjusts her oversized bosoms and wonders where she will find the time to complete this week's assignment for her Master's Degree program.

Scene Two - Offices of the District Attorney

ADA Laura is getting chewed out on the phone by her boss, Executive ADA Jack McCoy. McCoy wants Laura to turn up the heat on the ongoing Murder Two trial of an illegal alien from Mars. The Martian brutally murdered and partially ate two preppies who jumped the Martian in a porn shop parking lot. Even if the Martian is convicted, no one is sure where to confine the Martian. Medical Examiner Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers can't figure out if the Martian is a man or a woman. ADA Laura goes down the hall to update her co-chair on the case, ADA Hillary. Hillary is daydreaming about Colin Farrell and planning her upcoming trip to Ireland.

Law & Order: OB

Episode 2 "Raincoat"

LA Homicide Detective Columbo comes to town for a Police Convention. Columbo is mistaken for a "Kiddie Flasher".

Law & Order: OB "Plague"

Famed author & amateur sleuth, Jessica Fletcher stops by the Unit for some background material for her next book.

Posted by: hillary1 | August 20, 2007 12:25 PM

Pretty much, yeah. Although, if you're really busy enough to have 50 hours of billables a week, then the rest is taken care of - you eat lunch at your desk, keep breaks to a minimum, etc. You tend not to take 20 hours a week for non-billable stuff.

For me, the biggest problem wasn't actually putting in the hours when there was work to do. It was the incredibly annoying times when there simply wasn't enough work to fill 50 hours of billables a week. When you're on a big case, it's great, because there's a steady stream of work coming in and you can just keep trucking. But a few bad weeks where there isn't enough work coming in can shoot your chance of meeting your goals for the whole year.

And, of course, as a low-level associate, you can't just take off when things are slow. You've got to be in the office, pounding on doors and looking for work, while at the same time being instantly available should your primary partner need you for something. That uncertainty was ultimately what lead me to quit, and is a big part of why I'm reluctant ever to return to a big firm.

Posted by: newsahm | August 20, 2007 12:29 PM

Even if we use your statistics on 2000-2100 a year, that's still not exactly a good work-life balance at any BigLaw firm. This is because on top of the billable hours, you have another 500 hours of Business Development, Recruitment and, my favorite, forced Pro Bono hours (only a miniscule amount of which count toward the above billable figure- and I say forced because these same law firms that try to get themselves on the Top 50 places to work and Top 50 Most Profitable etc also try to make the Top 50 Most Pro Bono list). So your billable hours don't really reflect your total working hours.

But I don't want to quibble about how many hours billed is insane versus how many hours is just a bit overworked. The main point is that law firms are killing the lawyers that work there through the unrealistic expectations and literally forcing them to choose between families and their jobs. And that's not really an acceptable choice.

Posted by: CreamOfTheCrop | August 20, 2007 12:47 PM

jcadam --

You're partly right, but it's not just lunch and bathroom. Billable work is literally work that can be billed directly to a client. You can't bill a client for a lot of the stuff that goes on in an office -- from administrative (timesheets, bills, expense reports, etc) to HR-type stuff (staff meetings, harassment training, mentoring, etc.), to going out and getting the clients and staff in the first place (traveling to client meetings, doing client presentations to get business, writing articles, giving/attending seminars, recruiting, etc.). It's necessary, it's gotta be done for the firm to survive and succeed, but it's not billable, so it doesn't count. So 2,000 billable hours is more like 2,200-2,300 total hours.

Also, that 50-week number is a little high. Most firms have 9-10 vacation days a year, and most people will take at least half of them. Then throw in the various sick days, doctor's appointments, car breakdowns, meeting the furnace repair guy, etc. -- you're down to 50 weeks even before vacation.

So if you've got @ 240 work days, and you want to hit 2,000 billables, you need to average @ 8.3 billables/day. Add the nonbillables on top, and you're up to close to 10 hrs/day -- say 8-6:30 M-F on average, counting in a quick lunch at your desk and a few mental health breaks. And that's just to be "average" -- would probably still get you nowhere near partnership at some of the big firms named in this article. Add on the DC commute, and I don't think it's that hard to see why a fair number of folks want another option.

Posted by: laura33 | August 20, 2007 12:52 PM

londonmom, I agree with everything you've said.

"And if you really want to both be an equity partner and maintain some sort of balance in your life, then take a look at smaller firms, too, who don't have the time, energy, and money to play the magazine game. A smaller firm won't have the same formal programs. But you have a better chance of being seen as an individual with valuable skills who they really don't want to lose, not just as Fungible Associate #873. Which means you are in a much better position to negotiate for what you want."
Posted by: laura | August 20, 2007 08:49 AM

laura, not picking a fight, but I work for one of the firms listed and, while I'm under no illusion that I've entered the land of Oz, those formal programs you belittle sometimes make a big difference in providing the framework that educates management about these issues and makes it possible to balance. Back-up childcare makes a big difference to some of us. Having a formal part-time program that is available to everyone, not only associates who work for the lone Sainted Practice Group Leader is more fair and lets families know what their options are. I've never been Fungible Associate #873 because we are divided into practice areas, then teams, and my team has less than 10 colleagues. Assumptions about small firms and large firms don't often serve to inform outsiders, only spread the same old same old.

"Would women consider staring their own law firms to achieve this balance?"
Posted by: chemguy1157 | August 20, 2007 08:58 AM

How having to put even more time into running a business could possibly improve balance is a mystery to me. Doing the work is enough. Developing new business and expanding existing business stretches me as far as I can go. If I also had to worry about attending Rotary Club meetings or worry that each economic downturn could eliminate my ability to pay the rent, I'd call it a day.

"Does anyone on this blog work for a law firm where you can say that your family life is respected? I certainly would love to hear about it. "
Posted by: CreamOfTheCrop | August 20, 2007 09:45 AM

Yes, What do you want to hear? We get the work down. We all have families. They are the purpose for our lives. What else is there to say?

"Ugg, lawyers and their problems? What a perfect day to skip OB."
Posted by: pATRICK | August 20, 2007 09:56 AM

Note to self: If there's ever a blog day on those who sell financial services, be sure to skip it.

"And, of course, as a low-level associate, you can't just take off when things are slow. You've got to be in the office, pounding on doors and looking for work, while at the same time being instantly available should your primary partner need you for something. That uncertainty was ultimately what lead me to quit, and is a big part of why I'm reluctant ever to return to a big firm."

Posted by: newsahm | August 20, 2007 12:29 PM

Even as a first year associate, if things were slow, we went home. Sure, you need to be available, but phones and e-mail give you the flexibility to be available from home. It's not the '80s any more, and different firms are, well, different.

As in most industries, the keys to balancing firm life with family life or any other non-work commitments and interests are (1) understanding how the business operates and your role in it, and (2)selecting a supervising member and practice group leader who share your values and priorities.

Posted by: MN | August 20, 2007 12:56 PM

To Mako

Laura is one of the most thoughtful and eloquent posters on this blog, which prompts me always to read what she has to say. I'm only sorry I wasted my time and vision on your snarky crack. Go take a deep dive somewhere.

Posted by: mehitabel | August 20, 2007 1:17 PM

I agree with you Laura, a 10-hour workday is expected at a big lawfirm. I have some slow days, but generally can bill the majority of my day. I eat lunch at my desk and keep the socializing to a minimum. So generally - billing 9 hours a day requires me to be in the office about 10 hours a day.

Where I disagree is with this notion that working 8:30 am to 6:30 pm is an unreasonable request for these law firms. Starting salaries for first years is now $160k!

That is a LOT of money. Of course firms want you to work at least those hours. And the hours working in-house or for the government are not that much better - maybe you can manage working 9 am to 6 pm, but that's an hour less a day for a good deal less money.

So I guess my point is that it isn't just about the hours when we talk about work/life balance. I think the list and article hit on a really big issue - which is flexibility. To me, it isn't that I want to work fewer hours. I think that is unrealistic. I just want more FLEXIBILTY in the hours I work. If my son gets sick, I want to be able to work at home and if I can't, I like that my firm has backup child care. I want to be able to get home for a reasonable number of dinners/week and then have the flexibility to work at home after the kids go to sleep. Again, I think it is a bit of a crapshoot because some partners are great and don't put much value on face time while others want to see you in the office at 9 pm every night to know you are doing your work, but that is a different issue.

Personally, I think that flexibility is key and is something that law firms (hopefully) are starting to realize will make the difference when it comes to attorney attrition.

Posted by: londonmom | August 20, 2007 1:24 PM

Ok, post disappeared, so apologize if this is a double.

MN, of course you're right. I don't mean to paint all big firms with the same brush -- I know there are a number out there who take this very seriously. I just get annoyed at the hypocrisy of some of the firms, who brag about their work-life balance, then consign anyone who actually wants to work part-time to the mommy ghetto. Which is why my ultimate advice was for people to look at what these firms actually do in practice, instead of relying on what they say about it.

I also don't mean to paint smaller firms as some bastion of wonderfulness. I do know some smaller firms that are just as much sweatshops as the larger firms (I just tend to find them less annoying, because they're usually more straight up about it, not having the time or resources to devote to hiding it). But it just fits me better. I like not having formal programs, because I would rather have the flexibility to handle things on an individual basis -- and I know I can trust my partners to do so fairly, because I've seen it time and again (yes, we're not perfect, but we all know exactly who the [expletive deleted] is and ignore him accordingly). Although come to think of it, I would kill for a formal backup childcare program right about now. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | August 20, 2007 1:56 PM

mehitabel, I wasn't being snarky to Laura, I thought I gave her a compliment in my own "sharky" sort of way. Heh heh

I think Laura is a very sweet girl too, not that I've ever taken a bite of her so I wouldn't know. Like I said before, lawyers are off-limits. Perhaps we could settle for a nibble or two every now and then? :-)

Posted by: Mako | August 20, 2007 2:05 PM

Londonmom, I agree that you can only expect flexibility not less hours when you're making a big firm salary. I took a 50% pay cut to come to federal government and therefore feel that I somehow "paid for" the unmatched flexibility, reasonable hours and family-friendly environment. It's a trade-off. However, I think that options for flexibility should be available for those mothers who choose to remain at law firms.

Posted by: mrsbookaddict | August 20, 2007 2:31 PM

Mako- I though that was hilarious.

londonmom- Ding ding ding. 10 hours a day for $160K a year? We should all be so lucky to have that option. It's why people keep going to law school. I'm also convinced it's how women can stay at home after having babies in DC: they're married to lawyers. It may not seem like a lavious lifestyle when all you're surrounded by is other lawyers, but out here in the real world, that's a heck of a living.

Posted by: atb2 | August 20, 2007 2:55 PM

Holy typos.


Posted by: atb2 | August 20, 2007 2:56 PM

Hmmm . . . I'm surprised there are not more comments. This seems to be such a hot topic being that so many women in DC are lawyers. I've never been to a place with so many lawyers. Very relevant topic despite someone's earlier comment suggesting that she/he will skip reading OB when addressing lawyers & their problems. As a previous poster stated, the dialogue about flexibility in law firms really affects us all since law firms' policies sort of reflect and influence what may be going on in other workplaces.

Posted by: mrsbookaddict | August 20, 2007 3:15 PM

Dang, second one in a row that disappeared.

Anyway, Mehitabel, Mako, I'm feelin the love today. :-) Mehitabel, I appreciate the nice defense; Mako, no offense taken, and thanks for extending the professional courtesy. :-)

Posted by: laura33 | August 20, 2007 3:21 PM

I have to agree that this list does include a number of sweatshops. I spent many years at one of the firms, and I have not heard from any of my friends still employed there that things have changed in any substantial way. When these large law firms start recruiting for and employing part-time lawyers in substantial numbers, I'll start to believe the hype.

Posted by: christine.nell | August 20, 2007 3:26 PM

Wow, after reading this blog today, I'll never have remorse for not going to law school. Hats off to you women here who balance motherhood and a legal career.

Posted by: pepperjade | August 20, 2007 3:32 PM

mrsbookaddict-I would not say law practices 'react and influence what may be going on in other workplaces'. Law practices may be an example but only that.

All you lawyers out there: if the practice was publicly traded, would things be different? More transparent perhaps?

Posted by: dotted_1 | August 20, 2007 3:37 PM

I would actually say that law firms are typically the last environment to adopt what is becoming (or has become) common practices at other kinds of companies. If someone proposes anything radical (a recent example: granting 5 days of bereavement leave to non-exempt staff instead of 3), it requires meeting upon meeting upon meeting with every possible interested party (or a partner who's got an axe to grind). We also have pre-meeting meetings and postmortem meetings once a decision has been made. Law firms don't like change.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | August 20, 2007 3:53 PM

dotted, don't know that that would help -- other than increasing the pressure to collect outstanding bills to quarterly, instead of just yearly. :-)

Seriously, I think the profession is somewhat limited by its business model. A lot of the hours issue is driven just by basic economics: most of the costs are fixed, and rent and electric has to be paid regardless of how many hours people work. Sure, you can cut back on salaries, but when your only real asset is the people you hire, cutting back too far may damage your ability to do the quality of work your clients expect. And the associates themselves have only a 3-4 yr super-profitable period: their first few years out, we make very little money (or lose money) on them because there's so much training involved and writing off of time; and after 7-8 yrs, you need to make them partner and so further split the pie.

We are fairly middle of the road here -- decent offices, not fancy; decent salaries, but not the top; and decent but not extravagant partner profits (zero reason for any normal person to complain, but still nowhere near what the big DC and NY firms make). And yet if everyone here just averaged 1500 billable hours/year -- basically, "lawyer 3/4 time" -- we'd really seriously struggle to survive. Other firms may do better if they have practices that can support 5, 8, 10 associates per partner -- but the tradeoff there is that it makes it tougher to make partner, and you're still likely to award that limited position to someone who is both really smart and willing to bill 2200 hrs/yr. So I don't really know how to convert the law firm concept into a true part-time model.

Posted by: laura33 | August 20, 2007 4:03 PM

Hmmm...lawyers starting at $160K (three years of graduate-level work)
teachers with MEd starting at $45K (one year of graduate work, even if it takes seven years to earn 33 credits one class a semester)
Ten-hour days vs ten-hour days
One-third the money, but summers off...
Working with spoiled demanding creatures all day vs working with children...
I *guess* I'm glad my dad didn't talk me into law school.

Posted by: educmom_615 | August 20, 2007 4:09 PM

"We also have pre-meeting meetings and postmortem meetings once a decision has been made."

I love this-it's so true!

"All you lawyers out there: if the practice was publicly traded, would things be different? More transparent perhaps?"

Doubtful. I only have to look around at women friends in the corporate environment to see that family friendly policies aren't only lacking in our business. At the end of the day I'm just not sure that these heavily male-dominated environments have much tolerance for change.

I will agree also with something, I think, that londonmom said. I have placed a lot of emphasis on billable/BD hours today, but I agree that the emphasis really should also be on flexibility. Fewer women would leave the firms if they were provided with the ability to telecommute more often, to eat dinner at home with their families a couple times a week (and I personally don't know a single law firm lawyer whose day ends at 6:30 p.m.!) and to do more late-night/ early morning work instead of the 7:30-8 p.m. work many male partners seem to prefer. This increased flexibility, combined with a less crazy focus on billable hours (even if it came with a reduced, two-tier salary system) would make a huge difference in the ability of women with families to remain in these kinds of environments.

Until then, you'll continue to see large attrition rates for women who just don't want to make the kind of sacrifices it takes for the $160,000 paycheck.

And to whomever said it was 10 hours a day for $160,000, if that was really what it was, do you think so many people would be complaining about it??? Seriously!

Posted by: CreamOfTheCrop | August 20, 2007 4:12 PM

educmom, I once overheard a help desk specialiast say to another while doing orientation/training "Have you ever worked with children before? Well, you will here!"

Posted by: WorkingMomX | August 20, 2007 4:13 PM

Oh and one more thing (and then I'll try to shut my mouth): no one here (I think) has even mentioned the weekend work. Lawyers, unlike many other civilians, tend to do A LOT of work on the weekend, hence the cancelling and/or non-scheduling of weekend getaways or other plans. This can become particularly difficult where a family is involved. I've heard of honeymoons being "postponed" for client demands, and I've certainly canceled vacation plans that included plane tickets, hotels abroad, etc. This is the just one of the many wonderful strings attached to that $160,000 paycheck, educmom.

Posted by: CreamOfTheCrop | August 20, 2007 4:25 PM

Actually, the concept of billable hours is not just applicable to lawyers. For example, those working for I've-Been-Moved know they have to make X% billable/year or else they are laid off. However, because I've-Been-Moved is public, the total hours/year available must be achievable in normal FT hours/week minus holidays minus vacation....that certainly helps on the balance side. Though I've known many who worked more hours to get a job done well. Call that pride.

Posted by: dotted_1 | August 20, 2007 4:58 PM

Wow, this is timely. I had my first law class today. Ask me again in about five years, then I can contribute to the discussion. :-)

Posted by: Monagatuna | August 20, 2007 5:23 PM

Special News Report: Dotted's back! and abu and bababooey jumped out a window over the stock crash!!

Posted by: gcoward | August 20, 2007 5:24 PM

For the last 8-9 years, since older son's autism was diagnosed and DH and I started our informal training program in disability education law, I've been toying with the idea of getting a law degree.

Thanks you all for your comments. More food for thought. I suspect that I and my family are *much* better off if I stay put in my mommy-track job as an application systems engineer for a major financial services company.
(I love the b.s. titles - it sounds so much more impressive than the more honest 'Cobol dinosaur at a top-10 national bank' which is what I say to people who have real engineering degrees!)

I do love my employer's family-friendly policies. For example, when older son was born, prior to the Family Medical Leave Act, I had better leave benefits after 8 1/2 months with the company than the federal law later provided. And the benefits didn't change for younger son's birth after FMLA, either.

Something else that really inspires my loyalty is managers (yes, more than one has said this sort of thing) responding when DH called to say he was going to the emergency room with a kid, or had some other emergency:
"Why are you still here talking to me? Go take care of your family!"

Posted by: sue | August 20, 2007 5:26 PM

laura, thanks for your response. mehitabel's compliment is well-deserved.

dotted, good to have you back!

mona, some day (if you're comfortable doing so) tell us how you resolved your financing - your dad? private loans?

back on topic: a couple of unrelated comments:

1. one of the dirty little secrets of part-time lawyers that no one wants to mention or about which no one wants to complain is that overhead is divided by head-count and attributed to each attorney in a firm. The increase in numbers of attorneys -- and there is an increase -- who are officially part-time means we are maintaining more and more offices, and paying rent on square footage, occupied by people only generating X amount of revenue. The flexibility of some increases the burden on everyone. This may be a social good, and may benefit firms, as well, but it is increasing the financial expectations the rest of us have to bear.

workingmomx, I appreciate that your comments reflect your firm and your experience, but many North Carolina and other firms gave the last raise with NO increase in billing or revenue expectations. It was just the cost of doing business. If your firm is trying to impose that cost on its associates, particularly with a 200 hour increase, and if I worked there, I'd be circulating the ol' updated resume to other North Carolina firms. btw, not all of us are making more money than we can spend, because not all of us graduated from law school with zero debt, mumsy and daddy covering our health insurance costs in school, and/or single. Some grown folk are practicing law, too. Just sayin'.

Posted by: mn.188 | August 20, 2007 5:33 PM

gcoward, Do you suppose Abu and Babba are out gathering up the elephants before Hurricane Dean strikes the mainland?

Posted by: mehitabel | August 20, 2007 5:36 PM

Mona, Congratulations on your first day of Law School. Hope it isn't like "The Paper Chase" ;-)

Posted by: mehitabel | August 20, 2007 5:38 PM

Thanks, mehibatel! :-) I don't think it will be like that SCU is verrrry collaborative and not as cut-throat as other schools. There is competition, of course, but no mean-spirited things like razoring pages out of books or hiding books, and if you need help, you'll get it. So far, I love it, but reading assignments over the weekend were killer.

MN, thanks for asking. Without going too much into detail, I had some old loans that were delinquent and needed to be paid off before I could get a Grad Plus loan. BF lent me the money to pay them off (I recently paid him back), which allowed the lender to supply the funds (yay--pay off debt, incur even more! Yay!). It's very embarrassing to need that kind of help, and I hope I won't get too lambasted for having old debt. My father and I are still not speaking. I'm not that mad at him for not co-signing, because I do understand his reasoning, and it worked out in the end. I'm more mad because of things he said: that he'd help me out if I moved back to WVa (I don't know why, since he never cared to spend time with me before I moved), and that I don't "deserve" a graduate education. I'm pretty angry about that. With that reasoning, there would be no lawyers, doctors, scientists, clergypeople, politicians, etc. Ugh.

Posted by: Monagatuna | August 20, 2007 5:50 PM

Mona, how's the weather in Santa Clara? That's one thing you sure won't miss about good ol' DC!

Posted by: mehitabel | August 20, 2007 5:53 PM

Mehibatel, I'm sitting outside "reading my property text" under an umbrella, by a big fountain, with my shoes off, there's a breeze, it's 75 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. I may get used to this whole summer thing. ;-)

Posted by: Monagatuna | August 20, 2007 6:13 PM

Mona - I'm jealous!

MN - missed you. It has been one heck of a summer. Your head count comment confuses me. Do you mean if you are PT, you are assessed FT space costs, etc. by Workingmomx's company? But not by yours? If so, that ranks as unfriendly at best. At worst...well, if it stinks, it must be ...

KLB - hope you're somewhere having a margarita or whatever for me!

Posted by: dotted_1 | August 20, 2007 6:23 PM

Adding my comments a day late.

The idea of working for a big firm -- or any firm -- has never appealed to me. I graduated from law school 6 years ago. I spent 5 years working for a federal agency. Now I work for the state of Maryland -- half time, with full benefits.

For me, government work has been a great fit for my life. I made a good salary with the feds, and I worked only one weekend in my 5 years there. I had flex time and up to 6 months of maternity leave. No one blinked if you had to cancel an important meeting because of the need to take care of a child.

Part time work with the state is great, too. I work my hours and go home. I take off when my kids are sick. I make a decent salary, and I keep my "foot" in the profession so that when my little ones are both in school in a few years, I can look for full time work again. And yes, I'll be looking for government work. I can't imagine doing anything else. It's meaningful work -- very personally fulfilling -- and yet I have a life, too.

Posted by: lorn26 | August 21, 2007 7:45 AM

"Do you mean if you are PT, you are assessed FT space costs, etc. by Workingmomx's company? But not by yours? If so, that ranks as unfriendly at best. At worst...well, if it stinks, it must be ..."

I don't know how WorkingMomX's firm allocates overhead. The fact is, though, that the office is reserved for an attorney whether she uses it on a full-time or part-time basis. In other words, part-timers don't use any less resources than full-timers in terms of the two biggest costs - office space and allocated staff support. Law firms don't use secretarial pools. A part-timer's secretary is allocated specifically to support her, whether she utilizes his or her skills on a full-time or part-time basis. All firms have to assign an office and secretarial support to each attorney, I'm surprised that you think it stinks to allocate overhead equally across the board, rather than only a portion to part-timers, but frankly overhead is a fixed cost to the business. It's not as though lessors decrease the rent for office space because a business permits some of its employees to work part-time.

As a full-time attorney, my business concern is that every part-time attorney occupying an office is a person who has voluntarily capped her ability to generate revenue for the business. If a full-time attorney occupied that office instead, the revenue-generating potential would be higher. I'm not suggesting anyone should work full-time if working part-time is best for her and her family - I am pointing out the tension though in the legal services industry between flexibility to the individual, and fairness to colleagues and owners.

Posted by: mn.188 | August 21, 2007 11:11 AM

Eight years ago, as a commercial litigator, I founded Flex-Time Lawyers LLC, a consulting firm advising lawyers and employers on work/life balance and the retention and promotion of women. In 2006, I met with Working Mother to propose conducting a national survey on work/life and women's issues and to create a list of the Best Law Firms for Women. My motivation was simple: use competition as an instrument of change. As I brainstormed with Working Mother, many concerns came to mind: celebrating firms too soon; encouraging bragging rights; creating complacency; and minimizing the struggles of women lawyers. These are the same concerns raised by some of you who have posted to this blog. I believe these concerns are outweighed by the long term benefits of running a survey that will help overcome obstacles for women lawyers. These benefits include: using competition as an instrument of change; creating a benchmarking standard; sharing information to open the dialogue for women and facilitate policy changes; empowering women law students to become another pressure point for change; and raising the visibility of work/life and women's issues.

I have watched as the numbers of women partners at law firms, the numbers of women leaders at law firms, the numbers of women rainmakers, the numbers of women working flexibly and the numbers of women advancing while working flexibly, have remained exceedingly low and stagnant. It is long overdue to create a baseline for law firms not only to let them know where they stand today but, more importantly, to help them improve their future standing. Many firms are poised to start devoting significant attention and resources to improve their retention and promotion of women. However, they do not even know their strengths and weaknesses or where to start. Firms that elected to participate in our free survey of about 500 questions received a scorecard giving them a snapshot of how they compared to the other applicants. Firms have also been invited to purchase an extensive benchmarking report to begin answering their own questions to reverse the gender gap. The ultimate objective of the Best Law Firms for Women list is to invigorate a dialogue, measure where we are, arm firms and lawyers with information to change, create a competition and compulsion among firms, and continue to raise the bar of what makes a best law firm for women. For an article that explains the survey methodology and provides a more thorough discussion of why the Best Law Firms for Women initiative is so important, please see and for more information about the initiative, please see

Deborah Epstein Henry, Esq.
Founder & President
Flex-Time Lawyers LLC

Posted by: dehenry | August 21, 2007 11:32 AM

Ms. Henry, I'd be interested to know what percentage of the firms surveyed actually responded. These are the best 50 out of how many?

Also, I've got to say, as the large-firm world goes, this isn't a spectacularly helpful list, for all the reasons that others have listed above. Honestly, I think you'd do better to list the worst 50 and let them try to work their way off.

Posted by: thistleflower9 | August 21, 2007 2:35 PM

Kudos to Flextime Lawyers. We all know that surveys are fundamentally flawed because they cannot capture the shades of grey that I'm sure we all are aware of, working at these firms. But I like the idea of encouraging change through competition. These firms still need to attract the best and the brightest out of law school- and associates are going to be looking at stuff like this when making their decisions.
Here's what worries me- my big famous white-shoe LA law firm didn't even make the top 50. Bogus list or not, what should I make of the fact that my firm is not even on it? And yet they seem to encourage flextime, mentoring, networking etc- and I think that there is movement toward more change, at least in my office.
Also, and this might be due to my practice group, which is a small group in a big firm- but I'm managing to balance pretty well. I have an 8mo old, and at the moment am working full time. I expect to make my hours (1900), but still have managed, with some exceptions, to get home early at least once a week to spend QT with my son. Is it ideal? No. But when I take into account the astronomical salary, benefits, etc., that my job affords me, I end up reasonably content.
That said, I'm not really planning on trying to make partner. Maybe if I were I'd be singing another tune.

Posted by: KTJazz76 | August 21, 2007 2:59 PM

I left big firm life for the government like many women and men who want more balance and am so very thankful I did and that the opportunity was there. Money is tighter (I am the breadwinner), but I prefer time to money, which is something law firms don't get. While part time is a difficult proposition for lawfirms perhaps on a large scale, job sharing is possible. In job sharing, there are two people doing one job, doing the same cases, using the same office, etc. just on different days. It could take some getting use to and may be somewhat less efficient, but it can't be significantly less efficient that having an army of overworked associates not getting enough sleep, not able to really analyze things (just going through the motions), reading/writing slower due to lack of sleep, and making mistakes due to exhaustion they have to spend time rectifying.

Posted by: rybatskoye | August 22, 2007 11:14 AM

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