Tough Choices: Creatively Mixing Law Practice and Parenthood
By Marica Pennington Shannon
Combining parenthood and a demanding career is no easy task. In fact, it often feels like a juggling act. But for most of us, one role enhances the other, no matter whether we work sometimes, part-time or full-time. There are lots of creative approaches to being a parent while still having a rewarding career. Let me share one with you: the Shannon approach.
How Do We See Our Roles? How Do Others See Us?
About three years ago, my husband, Mike, and I realized that we were heading toward those treacherous years— adolescence. Michael, our oldest, was 11 at the time and preparing to enter middle school. Patrick, our other son, is 3 years younger than his brother. In our never-ending attempt to stay ahead of our children’s stages, we had read that the preteen and teen years can be difficult for children. Often, we heard, they are more in need of parental attention than at any other period of their lives. Up to that point, we had been satisfied with having an in-home sitter to care for our children while both of us worked outside of the home. But we felt we were heading to a new stage, one that demanded more full-time, at-home attention from one of us.
At the time, I was in the second year of a new business. It took me into the city each day, and also demanded more frequent out-of-town travel. Mike, an attorney in solo practice, suggested that perhaps he should be the at-home parent, moving his office to a home base. This was by no means an easy decision. Mike knew that he would not just be a lawyer who worked from home, but rather a parent first, who would fit his practice around the demands of home and parenting.
We had lots of questions about how this would work, especially because there are few role models for fathers considering becoming their children’s primary caregiver. How would family and friends view us? How would a profession that demands so much view Mike? How would we deal with our changing roles and each other? How would the boys react to their father working from home? Could we deal with the decrease in income that would follow Mike’s new priorities? Then, of course, there were all the logistical questions. Where would Mike see his clients? How would we handle his court dates? What would happen if we had conflicting demands that took both of us away from home?
Making a House More than a Home
Mike, whose practice consists mainly of bankruptcy and commercial litigation, has set up an entire office in our home. He calls it his "virtual office." It incorporates everything he needs to run his practice. Mike sees his clients in a shared office space close to home. A receptionist at the office space answers his phone, then three-ways calls to Mike’s home office. Most clients and other lawyers are unaware that he does most of his work from the comfort of home. While he has lessened the amount of work he takes on, he still gets regular calls from new clients and referral sources. If Mike has an important meeting, we arrange our schedules so that I can be with the children.
Three years into this process, Mike remains the main parent-at-home. The boys are absolutely thriving. It’s not unusual to find Patrick doing his homework in Mike’s virtual office while Mike is on the phone with a client. And this past summer, all three "boys" went to Boy Scout camp together because Mike is now the troop’s scoutmaster.
While we continue learning our way through this process, it has been well worth it for all of us. When our sons were asked to share how this arrangement has been working for them, Michael, now 14, says that he wouldn’t want it any other way. Patrick, 11, comments, "It’s cool to be able to talk to Dad whenever I want to."
Handling Upside Down: Lessons
For any family considering such life and work style changes, let me share some of the lessons we have learned.
■ Decide what is most important to all of you. This acts as your compass, a reminder of why you’re doing what you’re doing, especially when things aren’t running as smoothly as you want. In our case, our goal is to ensure the boys make it through adolescence in one piece. Our home, thanks to Mike, has become the spot where Michael and Patrick’s friends "hang out." Michael’s rock band even practices at our place. (We are grateful for tolerant neighbors.) We are aware of who our sons are with and what they’re doing, without making them feel that they are under constant watch.
■ Be willing to take a creative approach. Our approach will not work for everyone. The most important factor is for both parents to work as a team. We decided first what our goals were, both for our family and our careers, and then brainstormed all sorts of ideas before coming up with the one that we eventually put in place. We had to be willing to look at our roles as parents and professionals, and turn our imbedded ideas upside down to make this work for us.
■ Keep the communication channels open. We’ve run into emotional as well as logistical issues. For instance, Mike is more isolated from other lawyers because of his home office. To overcome some of that isolation, he has become more active in bar association meetings and regularly meets other lawyers for lunch. Being the main breadwinner carries emotional along with financial demands. Communication has allowed us to handle these issues productively.
■ Adapt as you go along. Any approach taken to combine parenting and a career has to have some flexibility. Our children change. Their needs change. Our own needs change. We must adjust the approach to fit the present situation.
■ Remember, this is not forever. That is something my husband has said throughout this process. Michael will be entering college in four years, Patrick in seven. Since people are now working well into their 70s, we probably have another good 25 to 30 years to work. But we have a very short time with the boys still at home. For Mike and me, our sons are the priority right now.
■ Define success for yourself. One size does not fit all. You are the one who will be looking back over your life some day and evaluating it based on what’s important to you. It is not the least unusual to be persuaded that success is narrowly defined by the "gaining of wealth, fame, rank, etc.," one of the definitions in Webster’s New World College Dictionary. I’d prefer to go by another Webster’s definition: "a favorable or satisfactory outcome or result."
Whatever strategy you use to combine the all-important role of parenting with the rich career of life in the law, here’s hoping you have a favorable outcome!
Marcia Pennington Shannon ( www.shannonandmanch.com) is a principal in the Washington, DC attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is co-author of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA 2000).
These resources are helpful in thinking through the process of combining a career and parenthood:
- The Lawyer’s Guide to Balancing Work and Life by George W. Kaufman. ABA Law Practice Management Section, 1999. (See George Kaufman’s article on reducing stress on page 42 of this issue.)
- Changing Directions Without Losing Your Way by Paul and Sarah Edwards. Tarcher/Putnam Books, 2001.
- Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. Perseus Books, 1980.