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Family-Friendly Policies Galore--But Who Uses Them?

Vivia Chen

September 14, 2011

Woman:baby2 I know you've got list-fatigue. So let's just cut to the chase about Working Mother and Flex-Time's 2011 top 50 law firms for lawyer-moms.

Here's the news flash: All 50 winning firms now offer lawyers reduced hours. Even more remarkable, 47 of them say that reduced-hour lawyers are eligible for equity partnership. (About 100 firms submitted entries this year, says Flex-Time founder Deborah Henry Epstein.)

Now for the news behind the news: Only 10 percent of the lawyers at those firms actually work reduced hours, and only 0.375 percent lawyers got promoted to equity while working part-time (see post on Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, which elevated a part-timer to equity this last round). Job-sharing gets a big fat zero, although five of the firms offer it on their books.

"Job sharing is going nowhere," admits Henry. "The big challenge" for all these programs, she adds, "remains in usage rate." Still, having those policies on the books is a significant first step, says Henry, because it will encourage people to use them in the future.

For now, though, it seems form trumps substance at most firms. So how meaningful are these lists of family-friendly firms?

It depends who you ask. Elizabeth Anne "Betiayn" Tursi, chair of Women in Law Empowerment Forum (WILEF), says focusing on so-called family-friendly firms is a distraction from the real problems that women face--namely, power and money. "I don't care care about flex-time, part-time, or anytime," says Tursi. "And I don't care which firms have lactation rooms." WILEF's own survey, she says, focuses on the bottom line--like how many women are equity partners and hold leadership positions.

"From where I am sitting," explains Tursi, "it is virtually impossible--except in rare circumstances--for women to become business developers and leaders while working flex- or part-time. Law firms compensate people for two things--the business they bring in and the hours they work. Until the profession figures out a new model, that's the way it is going to stay."

Working Mother Media president Carol Evans strongly disagrees with Tursi: "Having a child is not a distraction in a woman's life." Balancing work and family, she adds, is the "essence" of the issue facing working women today. "Most women--though not all--choose to have children," says Evans, "and if most women want children, how can you ignore how work and family come together?"

So what should women focus on when they look for a law firm job--the firm's family-friendly offerings, or how many women there attain real power? Can big firms offer both quality of life and advancement--or is that just an illusion created by the firm's marketing department to suck you in?


Related posts: Yale Law Women Picks of the Year, Making Babies (in Your Head),  Can You Trust Working Mother's List of Top Family-Friendly Firms?


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I am the chair of the Women's Initiative at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and am pleased to say that our flex policy is both used and effective. We have many women on flex schedules, they are routinely promoted to income partnership with no issue, one recent equity partner promotion went to a woman who had been on flex time, and I foresee more ahead as our flex-time lawyers mature in their practices. Some of our flex schedule lawyers are unanimously viewed as the future leaders of the firm. So I conclude that it can work--if firms are supportive and pay more than lip service to the concept of flex time.

Neither Viv nor Cynthia care about an equal playing field except as benefits women - the entire article is based on the assumption that women are the ones who get to work flexible hours to raise their families - a telling bias.

They just want the best of everything, not equality.

Unfortunately, both Tursi and Evans are right. The difficulty women have had advancing at large law firms is a complex, multi-faceted problem. The Project for Attorney Retention knows this from its research, and its work focuses on both work/life issues (for all lawyers) and power/money issues. Many significant law firms have begun adopting multi-faceted solutions with commendable results.

Fortunately, Tursi is not right about the possibility of women becoming rainmakers and leaders on flexible or reduced schedules. PAR’s research, as well as the experience of many lawyers at PAR-member firms and legal departments, shows that when a firm has successfully implemented a non-stigmatized flexible work program, women are retained and indeed do become rainmakers and leaders. PAR’s Part-Time Partner study (report available at www.attorneyretention.org/Publications/Part-TimePartner.pdf) found that a majority of part-time partners spent as much or more time on business development than their full-time counterparts and had significant books of business. It also found part-time partners held leadership positions in their firms, including managing partner, executive committee member, and practice group head. PAR’s annual Flex Success awards, given to lawyers who are working reduced schedules and who have achieved remarkable professional success, are further evidence.

There is clearly a lot more work to be done by both law firms and lawyers. The playing field is far from equal, but recognition of those in the forefront helps the forward momentum.

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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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