Panel Finds Juggling Work, Family Challenging But Rewarding

April 4, 2003
Vaughan Aaronson
Panelist Vaughan Aaronson, above, chaired the Virginia State Bar Young Lawyers Division in 2002. Holly Weiss, below made partner after having children.

Holly Weiss

Meeting requirements for billable hours and juggling kids and family may seem impossible for women struggling to stay in the law firm rat race, but changing attitudes within some firms may be helping them meet their goals at home and at work, according to a panel of three female lawyers — also moms — sponsored by Career Services and Virginia Law Women March 31.

"The balance issue is kind of one I've done homework on," said panelist Vaughan Aaronson, the 2002 Virginia State Bar Chair for the Young Lawyers Division. Aaronson, who is two months into her maternity leave, became a partner at Richmond, Va.-based Troutman Sanders two years ago. "Let's face it — what we do is very demanding." More and more women are leaving the profession because of the rigid schedules of big law firms, she added.

"I think it's an issue people are really looking at right now and dealing with," she said. "The key is flexibility."

She encouraged students in the room to "meet everybody you can" when deciding which firm to work at, and ask questions about the firm's culture. An earlier experience at a large firm in Washington D.C. taught her that "it would have been tough to stick it out five or six years" at a firm that "wasn't for me."

Although Aaronson hasn't worked part-time yet since she's currently using her three months of paid maternity leave, she said chairing the Bar Division took about 800 billable hours of her time, and her company proved to be flexible with that arrangement.

Panelist Holly Weiss, a partner at Schulte, Roth & Zabel in New York City, agreed that young lawyers should ask questions about the culture of the firm and how it deals with family leave, but said it was important to first focus on "do they do the work I want to do and do they do it well?"

An employment law specialist, Weiss noted that it was illegal for firms to make hiring decisions based on marital status or family concerns, but also noted that at larger firms you shouldn't necessarily have to ask about family leave policies either, since firm policies should be readily accessible. She recalled a brown bag luncheon in New York recently about issues of work and family and 175 women showed up. "People want to know what's going on in firms across the country," she said.

Weiss had twins in her fourth year at Sullivan & Cromwell and was able to take six months of paid and unpaid leave and get back to work at about 80 percent of her previous level. But because they didn't officially track hours, 80 percent was hard to define — in her case it meant she never got the Friday night calls anymore, and she wasn't expected to be in the office seven days a week. Cutting back on her hours also allowed her to limit her travel as well. When she initially got back from maternity leave, she was rushed with projects, so she asked that her mentor be her "gatekeeper," which helped considerably.

"I could not have done it" without cutting back on billable hours, she said. "There is not a template that is going to work for every person."

After four years she decided to focus more on employment law and found a senior associate full-time position at Schulte, where she was eventually promoted to partner this year. Her current firm has a part-time program that requires billing at least 50 percent of the target 2,000 hours a year. Schedules within that program are adjustable, she said, and 10 percent of the women in her firm are part-time. If employees end up working extra, they may be compensated, and if they work less than their set target, they may lower their target after a yearly review.

Valerie Long '98
Panelist Valerie Long '98 chose to work in Charlottesville.

While bigger firms may be more likely to have a steadier flow of part-time workers, smaller firms have advantages also, according to panelist Valerie Long '98, an associate at McGuireWoods in Charlottesville, who said she was surprised at how happy she was at a smaller firm in a smaller town.

"I never would have dreamed I would be here now, practicing in Charlottesville," she said, describing her own initial ambitions. Long focuses on real estate law and has a 9-month-old son. She was able to take three months of maternity leave and now works at a reduced salary and reduced hours, which translates into an 8- to 10-hour workday.

"That for me works out really well," she said. "For me it's been the best of both worlds."

Long said her firm's smaller office deals with employees who want part-time work on a case-by-case basis and asks them to submit a written proposal. When she questioned other part-timers about what the firm's leaders look for in the proposal, "they all said 'stress your flexibility.'" As a result, although her hours are limited, she tries to be there when needed and provide helpful assistance to her colleagues.

Asked by an audience member about disadvantages of working for "megafirms," Weiss responded that if a firm has been around for a while, you also may see "attitudes that may have been around for 100 years." Tiny shops can be a problem too, though, since they don't offer the same backup capability, and traditions may be slower to change there as well.

Long noted that the first female partner in her office was made partner just a few years ago in 1998. One male associate helped pave the way for her to work part-time because his wife was a resident at the University hospital, and he had to reduce his hours when they had a child.

Other audience members asked about the effects of going part-time on the panelists' careers. Long said she and the firm decided not to set up a timetable for naming her partner — they will consider her at the same time she would have been considered before. She said both women and men have made partner as part-time partners, so "I didn't want to close down any options." She added that it's not unreasonable that you would be behind on the partner track if you worked part-time, because you aren't getting the same amount of experience.

Weiss added that some firms won't consider part-timers for partner. She recalled her law school peers who said they would wait to have kids until after they made partner.

"I'm a firm believer in not having your job dictate when you have your children," she said. Now, some of those women have successful legal careers, but no children.

The women on the panel said they have experienced little resentment due to their relaxed schedules. Long said she made it clear to her colleagues that she was taking a pay cut, and her continued efforts to be flexible have helped her work better with co-workers as she works less hours. Although it's possible some may look down on her, "I finally just decided I couldn't worry about those things so much," she said.

Weiss added that she knows several men who work in the part-time program at her firm as well, indicating there's no need for resentment when anyone can enter the program. Worse than resentment, she said, is that "some people are going to think you're not dedicated or loyal," a reason many women leave law practices. She stressed developing personal relationships as the most important factor in firm politics.

Switching firms after having kids may even have some benefits, Weiss said. If your firm remembers you for your reputation as the hard worker before children and now views you as a less dedicated worker because of your family, a new firm can offer a fresh start. Several women do switch firms after kids, she said, and she even had one firm call her during her maternity leave in search of part-time workers.

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