October 2001

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Is Balance a Mere Myth? How They Make the Dual Role Doable.
By Steven T. Taylor

It’s 8:00 a.m. and you’re on a conference call with three of your firm’s partners, two associates and two clients—important clients. You’re at home because you want to spend just a little more time with your young children before you have to go into the office. You’re a senior associate on the verge of partnership and you need this transaction to go smoothly. You hear a break in the conversation and seize the silence to make your key point, your critical contribution. You say, "I think what we need to keep in mind is that the statute allows … "

But wait. From the other room, your three-year-old hears your voice, remembers you’re at home this morning, and decides he should be where you are. He knocks on the door, and you instinctively cup the phone and try to continue with your salient point. He can’t believe the door is locked. And then it comes, piercing through the walls like a fireman’s ax: The Scream. An agonizing howl that would make Edvard Munch cringe. The nanny rushes in to sweep the little screamer away, but the damage has already been done. Your point, needless to say, is history. You apologize to all, being extra contrite to the clients, but you never fully recover. Later you may laugh about this. Much later.

It’s a Tightrope Walk in a Binary World

The complex balancing act of juggling work and parental responsibilities is not easy for many professionals. And it’s not a stretch to say that lawyers—with their long hours, late-night calls and pulse-racing pressures—are especially challenged. This binary universe poses two important questions: Can one be both an effective and successful lawyer and a loving, present and dependable parent? And if so, how?

In interviews with a dozen lawyers who are also parents, the answer to the first question is a resounding yes—but it’s no walk in the park.

"It’s daunting to think about the exponential increase on the demand of my time and energy at home, and with my very demanding practice," says Lori Schechter, a successful partner and busy litigator with San Francisco’s Morrison & Foerster. Schechter recently gave birth to her second child. "Just when I thought we’d made it work with one child …. But it’ll all work out somehow."

As to just how parents-at-law pull it off, well, there is no one answer. Some have chosen to forge ahead with their full-time work schedules, while others have opted for reduced workloads. Some have left the large firm environment for the flexibility of solo practice, while others say they count on the support of their partners and associates. Many rely on nannies, others on their spouses. Most credit technological innovations with making their dual roles doable. Some feel the multidirectional pull of guilt, while others have reconciled that conflict. Here are some of the scenarios that real-life parents-at-law face.

The Squeeze Play: Where’s the Balance?

Whatever the circumstances, it’s clear that parenting and lawyering affect each other—for better or worse. One of the most evident effects is physical. "I can’t remember ever being so consistently tired for so long," says Carl Roberts, a partner at Philadelphia’s Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll. He was responsible for the night feedings and diaper changings after his son, Dennis, was born. "I’d nod off at my desk in the middle of the afternoon," he says.

Roberts, who is separated and essentially a single dad, says he spent a lot of time before his son was born considering how he’d raise Dennis. He came to the conclusion that he’d be a very hands-on father: "I wanted to have a strong role in raising him and decided I was going to make significant changes in the kind of [work] schedule I kept."

Eleni Kouimelis, an environmental attorney and partner at Chicago’s Winston & Strawn, is the mother of three girls, ages ten, eight and six. She tries to perform as many school-related functions as she can, and, at the same time, realizes that parenting has made her a better lawyer. "I think it’s made me much more efficient because I have limited time in the office and I have to get work done," she says. "And I certainly have better listening skills, which I attribute, in part, to raising kids."

Paul Smith, general counsel of Denver-based netLibrary, Inc., agrees that there’s no place for watercooler chit-chat when you’re an involved parent. "A positive impact of having children is that you learn to manage your time better and meet deadlines," says Smith, who has three kids, ages 16, 14 and 11. "If you have to pick up your kids at day care at 6:00, that’s going to be on your mind at 1:30, so you’re going to work extra diligently."

And like other lawyer-parents, Smith doesn’t appreciate dawdling colleagues, those who get sidetracked and fail to understand that a parent-at-law has to leave at 5:30, for example, to pick up a daughter at basketball practice. "You have to be there. It’s that simple," Smith says.

The toughest aspect of the dual roles, says solo practitioner Dena Kleeman, a family lawyer in Los Angeles and mother of two, is when your child is ill. "Trying to work at home preparing for an important case when one of your kids is home sick—now that’s a challenge because, if you’re the parent of a sick child, he or she takes priority," Kleeman says.

New Lights Play on Old Perspectives

Most lawyer-parents—regardless of how well-intentioned they are in striving to strike a healthy balance—probably think they aren’t performing either role very well. On the one hand, some lawyers see their profession as having a broad and positive impact on the way they raise their kids. Of course, there’s the remunerative income that most lawyers make, which offers many opportunities for their families. But there’s also an intangible, perhaps more meaningful, upside.

"Kids learn certain values from you as a working parent, including the value and benefit of working hard and meeting your obligations while still being a good parent," says Deborah Telman, a senior associate at Winston & Strawn and mother of two-year-old twin boys. And she indeed works hard; she billed 1,900 hours last year. "When I came back [from maternity leave], I made sure that people still viewed me as a team player. I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t keeping commitments because I was a mother. So I asked to be staffed on a complex transaction to demonstrate that being both a mother and attorney can work."

Telman, who is married to an attorney, says the couple has a wonderful nanny and thinks there’s nothing deleterious about raising kids in a home with two working parents. "My father worked and my mother had two jobs, so I was raised in a family environment that believes your children can turn out all right if both parents work."

Moreover, kids pick up and adopt as their own the skills of their lawyer-parents. "I was just thinking that my daughter has all the underpinnings of a lawyer," Schechter says. "Today, she wanted a hug and she needed to get her diaper changed. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll hug you for five seconds and then we’ll change your diaper.’ She looked up at me and said, ‘Okay, ten seconds.’"

Lastly, most lawyer-parents acknowledge that being responsible for the happiness and well-being of a child has an effect far beyond any on-the-job obligations. That is, parenting tends to put one’s life in proper perspective and lightens up even the most hard-charging lawyer. "I don’t think I practice with any less vigor since I’ve become a parent," says Morgan Tovey, hiring partner at Oakland’s Crosby, Heafey, Roach & May and the father of two small children. "But at the same time, I’m probably able to keep the results of petty discovery disputes in perspective now.

"The other thing that dawned on me after we had our first child was that it is pretty hard to be full of yourself when you come home and you’re swinging on swings and playing dinosaurs and pretending to be Batman. Parenting is very grounding." (For more on Tovey’s parenting-lawyering experience, see the sidebar, "Kids Do Say the Darndest Things.")

The Times Are a’ Changing

As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, the legal profession was not forced to accommodate lawyers who wanted to play active roles as parents, at least not to a significant extent. Partnerships were composed of hard-shelled, business-comes-first lawyers who thought nothing of working until midnight, even if that meant missing their children’s graduations, recitals and state championships.

But that ethos is clearly changing. "We do a lot of strategic planning with law firms and we always raise the [parenting-lawyering] issue," says Robert Denney, a law firm consultant based in Wayne, Pennsylvania. "A few of the firms pick up on it and are very positive about it. There aren’t as many accommodating firms as perhaps there should be, but I see more each year."

Several phenomena are fueling this paradigm shift in the profession. First, as more women become lawyers and work their way into firm leadership roles, they can convince their partners to accept a simple concept that most corporations have understood for years: Working women give birth to babies, too—so deal with it.

Couple that reality with the ever-prevalent trend of increased attrition among associates. As a consequence, law firms have simply had to change to make allowances for parents-at-law, implementing longer parental leave policies, flex-time schedules, child-care provisions and even, in a few progressive Silicon Valley and Bay Area firms, private nursing rooms.

"We try to go the extra mile to accommodate lawyers who are parents," says Robert Coleman, managing partner of Philadelphia’s Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin. The firm offers 16 weeks of paid parental leave and one year of unpaid leave. "We have one attorney, a mother of three, of whom I’ve often said, ‘She has the best legal mind in the firm.’ She works seven hours a week for us now, and she wants to quit but I won’t let her," Coleman adds with a laugh.

The advent of technology within the profession has also given rise to more parents-at-law. "If I need to leave at 5:00, I leave at 5:00, and I can check my e-mail from home," Schechter says. "I can work on a document from home and pass it right on to someone else who needs it later. Technology has made that possible, so nobody thinks twice when they leave at 5:00. I don’t think that was true even five years ago."

Today most law firms have the technological capabilities to link easily to their lawyers working outside the office. In addition, many firms have night support staff, which adds another degree of flexibility. "I do quite a bit of work from home later in the evenings, after I’ve played with the kids, and fed, bathed and gotten them to bed," Telman says. "Winston has good technology, so I have access to the same tools at home as I do at work. The firm also has night support, so I make use of the evening secretaries. If I have to revise documents, I fax them in and they make the changes and then they fax or e-mail the documents back to me."

Still, There’s a Long Road Ahead

None of this is to say that the profession doesn’t have a way to go in making work environments family-friendly. "I think the firm has come a long way in developing work-balance policies and programs. But we’re miles away from changing the attitudes of many individuals, policies and programs," Kouimelis says. "Consider Take Our Daughters to Work Day, which the firm has done very nicely in the years since its inception. But when I walk around the office with my girls, I still get the sense from some of the older lawyers that we’re not here to do this. Work is work and home is home and it should forever remain divided."

What’s more, firms continue to be run by older white males, some of who still harbor 1950s attitudes about women in the workplace. "It’s really hard to find good women litigators," says a law firm leader at a major East Coast firm, "mostly because everyone has protected them all their lives. So they get more flustered than guys do when they run into attack dogs. We’ve had several women leave to raise kids. But still, when we find good female litigators, we try to do what we can for the ladies."

It’s also safe to say that, while women may have broken through the glass ceiling, men continue to dominate partnerships. "Most of the partners are men who have stay-at-home wives who allow their husbands to devote their lives to their work. The wives take care of everything at home," says Dr. Ellen Ostrow, who performs personal career coaching for women lawyers.

Ostrow, who has a Web site called Lawyers LifeCoach .com, also says that reduced workloads are seldom real in practice. She tells the story of a seventh-year associate who felt she would probably make partner. The lawyer had a reduced time schedule and was the single parent of two children. "She was getting paid for a reduced workload, but she’d still often work until 2:00 in the morning," Ostrow says. "Having done this for five straight years, she was completely burned out and didn’t care about making partner anymore. The problem is, ‘reduced hours’ doesn’t mean that. You can have a policy, but too often the firms don’t support the policy."

Some who work reduced hours say that you simply have to limit your expectations. "If you think of yourself as being Monday, Wednesday and Friday, nine-to-five or something along those lines, you’re going to be disappointed," says Jo Tucker, a partner at Morrison & Foerster and mother of three. "If you have a client who needs something done, you can’t say, ‘Yeah, but it’s 5:00 and I’m out the door because I’m part-time.’ You can’t charge the kind of rates we charge and not be client-driven. And if that means staying late, or working seven days a week some weeks, then you do it."

"You just have to be able to take advantage of the downtime," she says.

"I Made a Decision that I Am Not Going to Kill Myself …"

Although solo practitioners have their share of long nights and voluminous responsibilities, they also have the advantage of being their own bosses. Some have purposely left the law firm environment for greater flexibility. Heidi Tuffias, a solo family lawyer who works from home in Los Angeles, decided to leave her small firm before she started trying to get pregnant. "It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to have the same flexibility as a partner of a law firm as I would in my own office," she says. "It was a gamble, but I decided that before I was pregnant was a better time to do it than after I had the baby." While Tuffias finds herself "accomplishing a lot for my clients while working in jeans and a T-shirt," she faces a problem familiar to many who work from home: trying to keep the baby from crying when she’s on the phone.

David Porter, a solo practitioner in San Francisco, all but gloats about his work style away from the Oakland firm where he once practiced. "I’m not typical, but I’ve made a decision that I am not going to kill myself [working]," he says. "As a result, after winning a big case last year, I worked half-time for the next 90 days. I traveled and got to spend a lot of time with my daughter. On the other hand, I have a friend who goes to work in the dark and comes home in the dark and says, ‘I haven’t seen my kids in a couple of days.’ That’s not for me."

While solos can avoid encountering the family-critical attitudes of some partners, they still meet hostility within the profession. Family attorney Kleeman, who is a divorced single mother, recalls a 1992 case for which she appeared before an older male judicial officer who was anything but understanding about her family needs.

"We were on the morning calendar, but then he wanted to put my matter over into the afternoon, reconvening at 1:30," she says. "I indicated that I had to be home at 2:30 for child care. And I asked the court if I could have priority or if the matter could end at that time. He emphatically said, "No." Fortunately, I reached a grandparent who could care for my children."

But, much like lawyers within firms, legal officials are beginning to change their attitudes as well. "Over the years in family law in L.A. County, the judicial officers have become more sensitive to these kinds of conflicts," Kleeman says. "They are more willing to help lawyers juggle schedules and are permitting telephone calls in. That sensitivity has come from the judiciary itself—there are more women on the bench—but also from bar groups and committees making recommendations."

Survival Tips: You Can Do Both

Every situation is different, but the parents-at-law interviewed here have found ways to balance life and succeed in their dual roles.

Here’s some of their advice for others who are trying to pull off the lawyer-parent challenge.

Paul Smith says, "Think through all aspects of life. It’s a lot easier to spend time with kids, for example, if you spend less time commuting. Keep work and family settings close. If a meeting with a teacher is only 20 minutes away, that’s a lot different from an hour away." In addition, Smith says, "Although people don’t like to talk about it, you may have to modify your career expectations. Do you really have to be the star performer in terms of billable hours? How important is that?"

For Deborah Telman, "It’s important that my husband and I work as a team. When I’m busy he can pick up the slack at home and vice versa. We have a good system because we try to be as flexible as possible."

Heidi Tuffias says, "Just try to do what a human can do. Set your priorities. Think outside the box. Just because everyone says you have to do it one way, you don’t. Everyone told me I had to get a full-time nanny and that the nanny had to be at my house at the same time every day. My daughter is with me, my parents and our part-time nanny. It’s a nice mix."

Carl Roberts advises, "Try to separate things. When you’re with your kids, be with your kids. Focus on them. They are so sharp that if you’re not paying attention, they’ll know it. And if they get used to you not paying attention, that’s not good. When you want to get work done, get quality work done and concentrate on that. Make sure you’ve got child care that you’re comfortable with so you’re not feeling the tug."

Lastly, Jo Tucker offers these sage words about combining parenting and the law: "Everybody is different. You have to do the thing that’s right for you—and don’t think that you can’t do both. You have the opportunity to be in control."

Steven T. Taylor ( is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes on subjects in the legal media. He lives in Portland, OR, and can be reached at (503) 245-3209