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Treating Family Like Business

by Carolyn Elefant

Skimming over the class yearbook distributed at my 20-year college reunion recently, I noticed that at least 80 percent of my classmates (myself included) who'd submitted a bio identified having children as the most significant milestone of our lives, with the remainder split between loss of loved ones or getting married. Not a single person mentioned career or even a job-related accomplishment.

The results from my class yearbook, while not scientific, reflect the feelings of nearly all of us who are mothers and lawyers: We value our children more than anything, including our jobs. But if that's the case, why do so many of us give our children short shrift, sacrificing bedtimes and first words and all the silly little rituals that grow out of the day-to-day routine of raising children for time at the office? Some would say it's because we don't value our children as much as the job, but as my class yearbook bears out, that's not the case. Instead, we value our children so much that we place our relationship with them on a pedestal, treating the relationship as something so sacred and cherished that we can't bring ourselves to strategize, negotiate or advocate for it with the same intellectual detachment and vigor that we reserve for our clients.

As I describe below, if we mother-lawyers approached our fight (and yes, it is a fight, where, like it or not, the parent's interest is often adverse to that of her law firm employer) to accommodate our family and career in the same manner that we approach our clients' challenges daily, we'd be far more successful in achieving the balance that we -- and more importantly, our children -- deserve.

Don't Automatically Delegate

Before describing what lawyers who want to balance work and family can do to achieve that goal, I'll start by addressing those lawyers who've never considered the possibility.

I can't recall how many times I've heard mothers who continue working full time justify their choice by saying that they don't have the patience to spend all day with their children or that a child-care provider or day care could do the job better. What I've always found odd about this reasoning is that these same mothers, when practicing as lawyers, would never dream of delegating an important client meeting or a significant argument where the client will be on hand to an associate, for fear that the client wouldn't be properly served (even though in most cases, the associate is probably just as well suited to the task as the partner). But most partners recognize that at the end of the day, they and not an underling must answer to clients -- and that's a duty that can't be delegated, even to the brainiest associate at the firm. When a partner doesn't show up at key moments, he or she undermines the relationship with the client, and if it happens frequently enough, eventually, the clients will look elsewhere.

Much as we hate to admit it, the same holds true for parenting. Even more so than a partner's duty to a client, child rearing is a responsibility too significant to delegate, and when we do, we jeopardize our relationship with our children just as the partner risks losing the client. Sure, our children can't leave us, but without a secure relationship that can only be built and nurtured if we're around more than nights and weekends, they may look elsewhere -- to a friend or to drugs if they're hurting or scared.

I realize, of course, that not every parent has the luxury of remaining home, particularly, single parents who are sole supporters of their children. Nor do I contend that it's always the woman who ought to take time off from work to stay home; any parent will do. After all, from an economic standpoint, it's far more sensible for a high-earning mom on partnership track who loves her job to continue working full time while a husband, unhappy in a lower paid, dead-end position should remain home. Or maybe, both parents could work reduced schedules and rely on a child-care provider just one or two days a week to fill the gap -- a solution that's far preferable to full-time day care. As I'll discuss in more detail, there are myriad possible solutions. But if lawyers don't start from the premise that some duties, like child rearing, can't be delegated, we don't feel the need to explore the rich range of possibilities for striking a balance that are available.

Plan, Plan, Plan

So let's say a lawyer recognizes the need to strike a balance between work and family. What can she do to make sure that it happens?

Unfortunately, most women lawyers err in waiting until they're pregnant to figure out which step to take their career. At that point, it's already too late. Nine months (much of which may be spent feeling tired or ill) is wholly inadequate to enable an attorney who's not paid much attention to her career or reputation to make herself sufficiently indispensable to negotiate for favorable terms for a post-maternity arrangement. Nor does nine months allow enough time to consider all of the possible options that might be available if a woman decides to leave a firm.

Because of these time constraints, many women, by default, either return to work full time or accept whatever part-time plan the firm may have without giving time to figuring out a more optimal arrangement. Alternatively, as was the case with some of the brightest women at my law school, some women simply leave the law completely, believing that no in-between exists between full-time work and parenting. Though I respect women who have the selflessness to completely give up a successful career for their children, it's important that this decision come voluntarily and not because there hasn't been time to examine other possibilities.

What is odd here is that when it comes to business, we lawyers excel at advance planning. For example, a lawyer representing a company with plans to go public would never wait until six months before the IPO to advise the company to get its books in order or to figure out its future goals. Rather, the lawyer would have advised the company from its inception, monitored its books and policies so that it could position itself for the best possible deal. That's the kind of planning that women need to undertake in advance of getting pregnant -- and which they often fail to keep in mind.

The first part of any plan requires a goal of achieving indispensability. From the time a woman hoping for a family embarks on a job at a law firm or government agency, she must make herself absolutely indispensable, if not to her own law firm then to others. Indispensability takes many forms -- for example, a unique practice area for which there's always a market. In my case, my lifesaver has been my energy regulatory practice, which has always guaranteed me, at a minimum, work opportunities on a contract basis for other attorneys -- and, as a last resort, qualified me for work at a couple of different federal agencies. Even though the firm that I had worked for no longer had a need for my energy expertise, multiple other firms did, and as a result, I've been able to pick and choose my base workload.

Of course, the most indispensable resource to law firms is money: Excel at rainmaking, and you can write your own ticket. Honestly, is a law firm going to squeeze out a female lawyer with $1 million in revenues from a loyal client who can be serviced through other associates with the female lawyer supervising part time? More than anything, money talks at law firms, and we can't kid ourselves that it doesn't matter.

Most women believe that diligence, brains and hard work are enough to excel at a firm. In most cases, they are. But excellence doesn't make a great bargaining chip because dozens of other young lawyers possess that same trait. Indispensability is the only way to obtain any leverage, because by definition, it means that you have something that no one else does. However, indispensability requires extra time and planning to cultivate -- several years, at least, not nine months.

Don't Take The First Offer

A good negotiator rarely advises a client to take the first offer set on the table, particularly if it comes relatively easily. Yet many women readily accept whatever crumbs a firm throws in the way of maternity leave and part-time arrangements, even if those arrangements may result in a similar workload with a 20 percent pay cut. And to add insult to injury, many women lawyers then express gratitude for these inadequate arrangements, boasting about their firm's generosity in accommodating them as if the firm has done them a favor.

As a first step to negotiating favorable work and family arrangements, a lawyer mom should visualize what the ideal work-parenting balance looks like for her -- and then start bargaining. For example, let's say that your ideal setup is working two days a week in the office and one day from home, with two days off and bill 25 hours per week. Before even making a pitch, you ought to invest in a home office setup with high-speed Internet access, a printer and a separate, dedicated phone and fax line. In this way, you can demonstrate that you're willing to take the initiative in developing an arrangement instead of passively awaiting accommodation. Moreover, with a home office in hand, it's easier to stay good on a threat to walk if the firm won't accommodate you, knowing that the home office will allow you to take on your own clients or contract work.

Next, you need to be able to convince the firm that the arrangement is to its benefit. Here's where your indispensability comes in: Remind the firm that it can't duplicate your expertise or replace the revenues that it might lose if you decide to leave. List all of your achievements and potential and emphasize that, nothing personal, but all of that comes with you if you go.

There's no telling how your firm will react. You might face ridicule or statements that "it can't be done." Here, you need to persist, because it's not about you anymore but about your child. Think of how you'd react in a situation where a judge gives you a scolding from the bench or mocks your performance, but you've still not preserved your objections for the record. At that point, you can't hang your head in shame and head back to your office, because if you don't get that objection on the record, you compromise your client's rights. So despite the judge's wrath, you persist to do what you need to do. Likewise, if you give up easily on the most important negotiation of your life, you hurt your family in the long run.

Have A Plan B

So what if the firm (or another legal employer) simply can't accommodate your requests? At that point, you may need to walk or, at least, seriously explore other options. For me, having my own law firm, where I could set my own schedule (often working from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. several nights) allowed me to spend time with my children and keep my practice going at an even-enough pace that when my youngest returned to school, I was able to resume full speed. But there are myriad other possibilities: performing legal research and writing, a government position with part-time hours, serving as a part-time administrative law judge and teaching, if you have the credentials.

You'd be surprised at what turns up if you don't burn bridges. Your old firm might even refer you cases and call you in for short-term per diem work if you keep the relationship with it.

You might also consider taking a break from work entirely and, as one of my friends did, obtain an LLM in a different field and pursue a new area of law. You could blog your way to notoriety and, after your children are older, parlay your exposure from blogging into another job. And there's nothing wrong with just fully taking a break, because when you're good, there's always a way back in. Sandra Day O'Connor took off about five years early in her career to raise a family, and she didn't turn out half bad.

Our Legacy

For most of us lawyers, we strive for work where we can make new precedent rather than spend our time mechanically applying clear-cut, black letter law. Those female lawyers who came a generation before me set precedent for the profession and their children by working full time and showing that women could succeed as lawyers. But for me, as a mom and a lawyer, that precedent from a prior generation has already turned stale. The precedent that I want to set for my daughters is that today's women lawyers have the ability, courage and vision to create a whole new way of balancing work and family that never existed before and that works not just for us but for our children.

Note: This article originally appeared in

About The Author

Carolyn Elefant is founder and principal attorney with the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C. and counsel to the Law Offices of Scott Hempling in Silver Spring, Md. Her 3-year-old Weblog, is an ALM affiliate blog that focuses on solo and small-firm practice. Mrs. Elefant invites inquiries about her law practice or starting a law firm by email at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.