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Coach's Corner: Self-Help

New York Lawyer
October 23, 2008

I am four months pregnant, have been at my current firm one year, and would like help figuring out the best way to try to make use of the firm's much-touted but little-used part-time policy when I return from maternity leave.

I wonder how your firm's part-time policy has received so much publicity without being utilized. In fact, Joan Williams and Cynthia Calvert of the Project for Attorney Retention ( are adamant that a part-time or "balanced-hours" policy be evaluated based upon its usability; a low utilization rate may indicate that the policy is not very user-friendly or effective.

In order to make best use of your firm's policy you not only need to know exactly what it states, but, more importantly, what it actually means in practice. Usually policies are stated in broad outline but the details will be dictated by the nature of your practice area, your personal needs and the culture of your firm.

In order to know what to expect when you're no longer expecting, consider talking to all of the new parents you can identify at the firm, especially within your office. Find out what's worked best for others. It would be useful to know about the experiences of other attorneys who have returned from parental leave, even if they've always worked 100 percent time.

One of the biggest problems attorneys working part-time encounter is what Joan Williams calls "the maternal wall:" the assumption that reduced hours reflect reduced commitment to career and clients. Even lawyer-moms who work full time frequently face this bias, which tends to manifest itself in the form of poor quality assignments, particularly in comparison to what they'd received prior to going public about a pregnancy. The best way to guard against this is to develop a close working relationship with one or two partners. They are your clients; give them great service now, demonstrate your investment in their practices, and plan your future role with them before you go on leave.

Also ask around to determine whether the attorneys who have used the policy are considered "superstars." If so, it may indicate that the policy is window dressing rather than a genuine commitment to increase the retention of talented attorneys who want some balance in their lives. If you are a superstar then you can breathe a partial sigh of relief, but keep in mind that you need to be viewed as very valuable to the firm, not just to one or two partners whose tenure is never certain. You'll need to maintain your reputation as unfungible after you reduce your hours.

If your firm has a highly touted policy then hopefully it has a balanced-hours coordinator who will be your advocate and protect you from schedule creep, which is the tendency to wind up working full-time hours for reduced-time pay. Pick the brain of the person in this role in order to propose a schedule most likely to be viewed as a "win" by all parties involved.

Has anyone at the firm advanced to partnership while working an alternative work schedule? The opportunity to do so is crucial if that is your goal, or if your firm has an up-or-out policy. Keep in mind that you should expect to advance at a rate that is proportional to your experience and skill development, and that it's natural for this rate to decelerate when you reduce your hours. Let the partners with whom you work most closely know, through word and deed, that you are committed to advancing to shareholder.

Probably the best indicator of your likely well-being at the firm, part-time, after returning from maternity leave is the attitude of the partners for whom you work as well as your relationships with them. Do they have families? Do they leave the office to spend time with them? Often their reactions to your happy news foretell the future.

Partners' own values and experiences are likely to influence the lens through which they view your decisions. If they understand that no attorney is available to any one client 24/7 and that reducing the number of clients or matters you take on will not reduce your availability and commitment, then you're more likely to be successful.

But be sure to reciprocate the firm's flexibility. Don't make promises you can't keep; be responsive; have back-up child care; emphasize what you can do, not what you can't; communicate to partners and clients when you'll be in the office, how you can be reached when you're not and clarify definitions about what constitute emergencies. Don't feel compelled to confess where you're going every time you leave the office. Act as if you're off to the courthouse. Above all, maintain realistic optimism: Expect things to work, since expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. And keep your network alive and well, just in case . . .

I am a first-year associate at a large firm and am completely overwhelmed. I have administrative and/or managerial responsibility for seven different projects all running simultaneously. My hours are only slightly above pace but the mental acrobatics of having seven different partner-masters is overwhelming. Everyone expects me to be on call 24/7. To whom do I respond first? I've spoken to the assigning partner in my practice group but he has not offered anything to help me maneuver through this period.

If the assigning partner is the person who gave you seven projects with seven different partners, no wonder he hasn't been helpful! He sounds overwhelmed himself, or at least not a very good manager.

First of all, take a deep breath and try to take a step back. As difficult as it is, this situation won't last forever. Assess your resources. Is there a senior associate who can serve as a guide? Have you been assigned a mentor? Anyone who's been there longer than you should be able to provide some perspective. Ask them what they would do in your situation. With the help of these individuals and the partners for whom you're working, try to determine which assignments take priority.

It's up to you to manage your managers by assertively requesting their assistance. Don't take full ownership of the problem yourself. Clients need your best work, and you can't multi-task like this and provide great client service.

Ask all of the partners to schedule some time with you to discuss their projects. Explain that you'd like help prioritizing so that you can give their work more focus and attention. Although it's natural for each partner to consider his or her own work most important, each individual may well be unaware of how thinly you're spread. Your current load is not in their best interests any more than yours.

I'm guessing that at least a few of your partner-masters will be responsive to your efforts. Depending upon your sense of the head of your practice group and information you gather on her or his likely responsiveness, you may want to seek guidance from that attorney. The heads of recruiting, associates, and professional development are also good candidates for providing direction or running interference.

It takes a while to adjust to big-firm life and learn how to take control of your career there. As long as you insist on viewing the work as a joint project you won't drown. When the siege is over, work on developing an internal network that can help you understand and navigate the territory.

Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist, consultant and certified coach, is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach, a firm providing executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers. She can be reached through


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