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“The work/life conundrum: Trying to be Super Mom and Super Lawyer”

Inside Counsel By Katherine M. Perhach

Article after article has been written about women trying to “have it all”—women dedicating time to raising their children and enjoying successful and fulfilling careers at the same time. Sheryl Sandberg famously encouraged women to “lean in,” while Anne-Marie Slaughter penned an equally well-read article discussing “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Women attorneys seem to be particularly challenged in their efforts to “have it all.” The need to deliver top of the line client service, regardless of the time of day, the need to develop and maintain client relationships, plus billable hour requirements and 60-70 hour work weeks don’t lend themselves well to raising a family. Well, at least if you want to see your family during daylight hours.

The challenges have led to a well-documented exodus of women from law firms. Women make up almost 50 percent of law school graduates, and yet only 17 percent attain equity partnership in law firms. Recent studies demonstrate that attorneys at every level are becoming more and more frustrated about missing out on life and loved ones. Burn-out is a very real issue, and many talented attorneys across the country find themselves questioning the sacrifice they are making to their quality of life.

Trying to achieve a work/life balance is not new. It is a decades-old issue. Women attorneys of past generations first fought on the frontlines, suffering the battle scars inflicted by an industry that had little space for them to begin with—and even less so when these pioneers attempted to raise children and account for other family responsibilities.

Work/life balance has taken on a whole new meaning in the 21st Century as technology has made attorneys available to their clients 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has become that much harder to set boundaries between work time and family time. Doctors have specific days that they are “on call.” Attorneys are “on call” every hour of every day.

I wish I could tell you that I have the definitive answer on the best way to balance all of the demands of a legal practice with all of the demands of motherhood. I can only offer you some things I have learned along the way:

Parenting is not just for moms: My husband has been a tremendous co-parent to our three boys. He is also a practicing attorney. He balances his own practice against making breakfast, packing lunches, doing laundry and dishes, getting the boys to school on time, setting up doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping, cooking, completing homework, coordinating IEP and long term care waiver documentation, attending swimming lessons and soccer, football, and baseball games, and just being there for our boys. I couldn't do what I do without him or his equal dedication of his time to raising our boys.

I get by with a little help from my friends: Over the years, I have been able to bond and commiserate with friends, colleagues and even clients who are facing the same work/life pressures that I am. I’ve joined groups of other attorneys who are also moms to talk about best practices for managing being a mom and a lawyer. There’s nothing better than finding a support network that celebrates the good times with you, helps you through the bad times and shows you that you’re not alone.

An internal champion and mentor can make all the difference: Every woman who has achieved partnership in a law firm can point to at least one person who guided her, taught her, challenged her, inspired her and made her into the professional person she was meant to be. Those internal champions and mentors are honest and authentic: They help you learn from your mistakes, they give you opportunities to advance your career, they help you through work/life balance issues, and they give you opportunities to shine. There is a direct correlation between having an internal champion and a good mentor and making it into a law firm’s partnership as a working mom.

Don't be an island: Develop a support structure both at work and at home. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, trusted neighbors and friends can often jump in to help when you’ve got a court appearance and your children are home sick with the flu. At the office, collaborate with your peers and be transparent with your work, so if a teammate needs to jump in and assist on a project, there is less time and effort spent getting them up to speed, and client service standards are met.

Firm culture matters: Many firms now have family-friendly work-life balance policies and practices embedded into their culture and promote these policies as a selling point to attract good lawyers. Some firms talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. It’s important to find firms that truly support maternity and paternity leave and flexible work schedules (that don’t just result in less pay for the same amount of work).

Take care of yourself: Don’t always put yourself on the bottom of your “to do” list. Work out. Do yoga. Get regular doctor check-ups. Get a massage. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to effectively take care of anyone else. That goes for loved ones and clients alike.

Avoid Super Mom Syndrome: You don’t always need to be “Super Mom.” It is okay to buy a Thomas Jefferson costume for your 5th grader’s American History project on Amazon instead of sewing it from scratch. It is equally okay to buy snacks for your kindergartner’s class instead of making those snacks from scratch. You might not be able to organize your 2nd graders’ holiday party and craft, but you can likely squeeze in 30 minutes to be the “mystery reader” in his classroom. Your children are going to remember the time that you spent with them more than anything else.

Balancing a legal career and a family is not easy. In many ways, you’re trying to pull off two full time jobs at once. Some days, there is no balance, just survival. Clients are demanding more and more that their matters be staffed with diverse attorneys, including women. It’s hard to meet those demands when only 17 percent of partners in law firms are women. We’ve got to find a way to do better—so that women can be moms and lawyers and not be forced to choose between the two.