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Sidley Austin: Bring on the Work/Life Balance Seekers!

Vivia Chen

August 18, 2010

Poppk1It's only mid-August, but the summer associates have already departed, and the fall interview season is in full swing.

It's a crazy, busy time for hiring partners, but we managed to corner Karen Popp, the hiring partner of Sidley & Austin's Washington, D.C., office. Though Sidley is a 1,700-lawyer firm, the hiring is handled on an office-by-office basis. Its 250-lawyer D.C. office is famed for its appellate practice and is home to Carter Phillips, who's argued 66 Supreme Court cases so far.

Sidley's D.C. practice sounds very high-powered. Is it more elitist about hiring than the other offices in your firm? 
I can't say that. We all look for the top students at the top schools.

What qualities do you look for in your new hires? 
We pride ourselves on our collegial and collaborative environment. We look for lawyers who are not sharp-elbow types, who show maturity and good judgment. We give them a lot of responsibility early on.

And how do you figure all that out in a 20-minute interview? 
We engage in substantive conversations. We ask them about their law review notes or their judicial clerkships. You can gauge a lot from how someone explains what they've worked on.

Who do you consider your competitors in the D.C. market? 
Covington, Wilmer, O'Melveny & Myers, Latham, Gibson Dunn, Jones Day, and Williams & Connelly.

That's a pretty long list. So what distinguishes your firm? 
We're both an international firm and a traditional D.C. firm. We're the first non-D.C. firm to open a branch office here, so we're viewed as an established D.C. firm.

I noticed that Sidley made the Yale Law Women and Working Mother magazine lists of the best places for women to work. Do those lists really make a difference in recruiting?
Yes. Young lawyers are concerned with work/life balance issues. This is a wonderful place for women. We also got the Catalyst award [for promoting women in the workplace] four years ago; we are the second law firm to receive the award, which has been given since early 1960s.

But isn't it taboo to bring up work/life balance before you get an offer?
Not only is it not taboo, but we bring it up ourselves! We have a number of female partners who are part-time. We also have a female partner who made [partner] while on maternity leave. There's such a sisterhood in this firm; there's no messing with us. Kudos to the executive committee for embracing measures to retain women!

Have you done part-time yourself? 
No, but I am the epitome of diversity. I'm openly gay, and my wife is a Sidley lawyer who is part-time.

Diversity, work/life balance, and even part-time partners--this all sounds too progressive to be true. Aren't you afraid that some law students will flock to your firm for lifestyle reasons? 
Not at all. We attract top students to do top legal work at Sidley. If they wish to also have work/life balance, that is fine with us!, 

Isn't something missing in the job description?
We are still a business, and the practice of law is not a 9-to-5 job.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email The Careerist's chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

Photo: Courtesy of Sidley & Austin

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The site https://www.cubecheck.com reviews the work environments of firms and lets you know if it is a good place for your career

(1) Karen Popp is conflating diversity in sexual orientation with work/life balance. They are NOT the same. (2) Worse, she focuses her comments regarding work/life balance exclusively on women. But it is not simply a women's issue, and to cast it as being simply a women's issue is unfair to families. Furthermore, to cast it as being a women's issue perpetuates the sort of discriminatory dualist thinking that traps both professional women and professional men in separate and unequal tracks. (3) This is a cynical marketing ploy. I'm glad to hear about the sisterhood (congratulations if you made the club) but I would NOT want to be a father practicing within 300 yards of her corner office.

I wish more firms had your outlook. I am a young atttorney who has been practicing 6 years. I have two small children and my firm will not let me have a 3 day work week even though other women at my firm work 2 or 3 days a week or work from home. I wish more employers would be open to flexible schedules. I believe productivity will soar if an employee is happy and can concentrate on their job while they are there.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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