Friday, July 25, 2008

Mommy Track

The time has come to create an action plan for when I return from maternity leave and continue with my practice at Big Firm. I met once with our career counselor and will again before I pitch my proposal to the department head. I think the career counselor has a tough job trying to reassure associates while convincing management that things need to change.

To refresh any new readers I am a financing deal attorney - primarily doing borrower-side work in LBO deals. Being a deal attorney is vastly different than being a litigator - much more up and down in your schedule, lack of control while you are immersed on a deal (not that being a litigator isn't tough).

Below are some items I've been mulling over for the majority of my pregnancy:
  • Maybe you just can't make it work unless you are willing to sacrifice seeing your kids. While the Counselor doesn't want to think that way honestly I don't see how that isn't true based on what the men in my department do with their wives who stay home. Apart from a few women with stay at home husbands or round the clock nannies (day and night) the only women I know who work "part time" are litigators or do investment management work that is more predictable.

  • Try to work "part-time" - which is 80% and is at least 40 billable hours a week. I don't know that this is feasible given the deal work we do. I only know of 2 attorneys who are part-time.

  • I could try to transfer departments but after 5 years at my Firm I think starting over would be difficult. Plus frankly I like the type of work I do.

  • Switch clients - less LBO deals and more lender side (we do some mezzanine lending). This will certainly impact my partnership trajectory (although the jury is still out whether I'm "in it to win it"). The department has been clear that they want me on the large LBO deals since we have such limited staffing as it is.

  • Come up with an alternative to present to my department head. Since I want to make it work or at least try to I'm going that route. Most women just "give up" before it even gets tough because they "see the writing on the wall". I want to be honest in my attempts to make it work and give the Firm a chance to show its commitment to women deal attorneys.

Now comes the hard part - what is my "proposal"? I'm going to speak with the 2 female partners with children in my practice group. Although one hardly sees her kids and the other has a stay at home husband I want to get their thoughts before I discuss with the department head and make sure they think the department would be onboard. I also want to get a sense as to how this would impact my partnership possibilities.

This will need to be a long term solution - not a 3 month "ramp up". I'm currently leaning toward "deal on/deal off". This is not something currently done at the Firm but here is how I'd envision it. And please chime in with suggestions!

1. Take on a deal - one deal at a time unless it is very small and I could do 2 deals. Wait, I'll be firm, promise - 1 deal.

2. Work "normal" deal hours to get deal done. My deals usually last no more than 1 month at a time.

3. Take a "break" - I won't immediately be staffed on another transaction but take 2-3 weeks before I take on another project. During this time I would work from home to the extent there are clean up items or other clients who pop up for minor items (happens all the time) and see my kids. We'd still have the nanny of course but I'd be more involved during that "break" time. Husband will also be happy to have a hand to put them to bed.

I actually have quite a bit of leverage at my Firm right now - we are seriously understaffed for midlevels/senior associates (technically I'm a senior associate this Fall) while our work level has not fallen off very much this year. You'd think that would not be the case given the financing markets but private equity still has plenty of money to spend!

I did speak with one female partner and she thinks it is a good idea and that we can always re-evaluate if it doesn't work out. One of her suggestions was to make sure I have good staffing on my initial deals to help ease myself back in. I'd be the first at my firm to try this approach.

Let me know what you think - I have a final meeting Monday with the Career Counselor before I meet with my department head.


A. said...

Not familiar with all this "lawyering" stuff, so I can't speak to the feasiblity. I would suggest, though, that knowing you, you will either feel guilted into saying "yes" to too many deals, or you will overestimate your capabilities. I foresee you with more than one deal at a time, or not enough time off between deals. You need to really strive not to let this happen. Is there a way to get this plan in writing and signed off by the powers-that-be? A sort of "contract" that EVERYONE (you included) can refer to when you've been back at work for 9 months and everyone's forgotten that you worked this out.

Remember, even if Husband were to become a stay-at-home dad (I realize this isn't on the table here, but you have mentioned it as a solution others have used in a way that seems you think highly of it), that takes care of who takes care of the kids, but it still doesn't give YOU any time with them. You end up missing A LOT. Putting the burden (of the good and bad stuff) on one parent is a lose-lose situation.

Stacey said...

I agree with Allie that a written contract is a great idea here. And, when you get back, some of your performance goals should be related to this balancing. For example, "Associate has been successful in maintaining proposed work schedule of 1 deal at a time and no more than 40 billable hours a week." I find that if you have it in your peformance plan (particularly at a large company) then the more that the company and your boss pays attention to it. I would also argue that BigFirm cannot continue to attract and retain quality associates if they don't start doing what you are suggesting with female (and male) associates. More than 55% of all college graduates are now women. I would anticipate that graduate school will also be that way (if not now then in the near future). Given that their talent pool will have a majority of women, now is the time for them to test out ideas for work/life balance. I also work for a big firm (BigFinance) and they have been testing out these thing for at least 10 years. It is still mostly men at the top but 3 of the top 10 positions are women who have families and they don't have stay at home dads! Document, document, document. You are a valuable employee for them and don't let them forget it!

Anonymous said...

I like the deal on/deal off proposal. Do you think it's feasible with changing schedules? My limited experience assisting with corporate deal work is that they tend to drag on much longer than expected or the dead ones perk up at the very worst time for your schedule. Would you be able to manipulate your schedule so that you didn't take a deal until the last one was dead and buried, so you wouldn't end up with one that's supposed to be closed when a new one is starting?
It sounds like you're in a really good negotiating position and have done your research, so keep doing what you're doing. I see a lot of variation at my firm as to how people control their careers -- and how successful they are at doing so -- so researching your proposal and talking to people whose career track you'd most like to emulate sounds like a good way to do it.
Good luck! Let us know how the proposal goes.

T. said...

I like your plan and think you are in a great position to set a standard for other mothers in your firm that are looking to find that work-life balance (and to prove that working mothers can still have professional success!). And it seems like given that the Firm is short-handed, you will definitely have some leverage as you negotiate.

My one concern is the same as A's concern - you and I both know that it is impossible for you to give anything less than 100%, and it may be difficult for you to stick to your plan, say no when needed, saying "just this once," etc. Now, maybe that will change once the little ones arrive, but getting it in writing, getting it tied to your performance goals like Stacey suggested, or some other checks and balances will be needed if I know MommyEsq and her great work ethic :-)

Bessa said...

This is very interesting! I wonder how you're going to deal with the hours requirement with the deal on/off schedule. It seems this is a similar idea to working an 80% schedule. Are you going to suggest reduced pay? Or do you think you can meet your billables requirement with this schedule? If you're suggestion 80% hours, 80% pay, what about hours-based bonuses? I wonder if you can pro-rate those or if firms only think they're worth paying for associates who bill, ex. 2400 hours.

Mommy, Esq. said...

To answer brittae's question I would try to stay at 100% but re-evaluate after a few months of hours. I suspect I'll make our minimum of 1900 hours for a bonus. Otherwise my firm does pro rate you and if you end up billing the 1900 they'll "gross you up" for the hours you worked (so you don't lose out on salary. Very fair of them.

To Stacey and Theresa - a firm is not a corporation so there is no getting anything in writing and I don't have personal goals. That is MBA type stuff done at corporations but not firms. Maybe some day.

Nancy said...

...I think my jaw is still on the floor that 40 hours isn't a full work week...

Keep in mind that you may find the perfect solution for you - until the time to go back comes. My sister was 100% sure she was going to go back to work after her child was born, and had even made plans with the company like it sounds like you're doing. When the time came, she was back for 2 weeks - to give them her two weeks notice.

I, on the other-hand, needed to escape from my twins for a while and play grownup when the time came ;) But I'm not sure I would have been able to stay away for long periods of time, and loved that I had a set 2 days a week that I worked from home.

Good luck with your decision!

Bessa said...

1900 is probably do-able with kids. That's a great number - esp. out East. I think it's a great idea.
My situation is complicated by the fact that our lowest bonus threshold is 2100 and that is a LOT with kids and 2 working parents. And not only is it out bonus threshold, but they "hold back" a part of our salary if we don't hit the 2100 hour minimum. So if I ever asked for less hours/less $, I'm not sure how I would factor in all those things.
I would think your only major complication will be how this affect your partnership track. But if you don't care, just say you still want to make Partner, and if they make you Partner, great. If not, so what?

Anonymous said...

Wow. You lost me at part-time is 40 hours.

Deal on/deal off does sound like a reasonable solution, if you think you can stick to your guns enough to make it fly.

H said...

Mommy- we will have to toughen you up- You are not very good at saying "no" and "i'm out" and turn off the blackberry.

I think once you see those smiling will know what to do

Sorry, ladies- lord knows I'm a pretty big feminist, but the sagest person I know, "Big H" says women can't have it all....

10 lbs of awesome in a 5 lb bag said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
10 lbs of awesome in a 5 lb bag said...

Lots to think about, and a good deal of your solution will revolve around how you structure your child care. If you want to be a deal lawyer, and not require your husband to be on call for you all the time, you'll be best served with a live-in nanny, then, second best, a live-out.

Here are some things to consider.

First, my perspective. I'm a lawyer at a firm. Keep in mind that this is just general commentary, and I don't know the firm at which you work, so I have no idea of how the comments would play out at your firm. Your mileage may vary. These are my opinions. Blah blah blah.

We have a live-out nanny, which is great, most of the time. When my wife has to travel for work, we keep our fingers crossed that work won't be crazy for me. When it is, that is tough on us and our kid. We hope that the nanny can stay late, as needed.

Second, I have friends who are at AmLaw 100 firms who have kids that are preschool aged and younger. I've seen how they balance things.

There are a couple of women I'm thinking of, both transactional types, real deal lawyers, like you. The one who has made it work like you've suggested has a live in nanny (and she has twins and another kid). Her husband is at a firm, too. They say that they couldn't do it without a live in during the week, because they have times when neither one can be home on time, and they don't have to sweat it, other than, of course, the lack of time with the kids. But there is no emergency of "who will be home?"

The other one has decided to work part time. Her husband has this crazy good job with great pay. She has been doing deals as they need her/she wants to work. She likes the work and being involved, but what she's told me is that it can be difficult to balance everyone's (the firm's, hers, the kids') needs and interests. Is there enough work to keep her busy? Is there too much work for her? You can imagine.

Third, think about the part time option now and how you would make it work. With the work that you currently do, could you, at a certain point during the day/night say, "Hey, I have to go now to relieve our nanny/get the kids from daycare?" Or do you have to be there non-stop? If you have to be there non-stop, a part time schedule may not be a great option for you, because you're the ultimate enforcer of it, without regard to contracts, promises, goals, or whatever. And then think about the deal-by-deal route - how would things work if you take on a deal and are at the office from 8:00 am through 2:00 am, several days running? Does your husband have the kind of job where he could act like a single parent for days/weeks at a time? And is he willing to be one?

Again, keep in mind that suggestions like a contract or a schedule or whatever may not cut it with a law firm for the kind of work that you do. You understand that better, and, though I don't mean to offend others who have commented here, people who have not worked in a law firm don't understand it at all. Sure, you know how it is - you probably get a lot of comments now like, "Hey, we want you to not work so hard!" But is that someone on your deal who is saying that? And, if so, what steps is that person taking to ensure that you can work less? We'd all like to work less, and until you get into a situation where there is sufficient staffing that the work can be shared, you'll be working around the clock. Sometimes, there's no way to avoid it, as you know. If that's always going to be the case for you, be wary of "part time."

Finally, think long and hard before agreeing to a part time deal that would require more than a percentage of the published minimum as your set number of hours. If the firm advertises a 2,000 billable hour requirement, and you want an 80% schedule, shouldn't you ask for a 1,600 hour schedule, and 80% of your pay? Forty billables per week, at 50 weeks, is 2,000 hours. I would be surprised if your firm advertised that as part time in the NALP guide, wouldn't you?

And think long and hard about how you'll balance full time work without at least a nanny, if not a live in. We know very few couples that both work full time in jobs that require significantly more than 40 hours a week at times, and doesn't have a set schedule. Those of us who do have nannies. And probably the smartest ones have live in nannies. Seriously, just pick a random week out of your life when you were on a deal. Could you have set things up so that you stayed at home until 8:30 am or so, with your husband leaving earlier, and you staying at work until whenever, and your husband home by 6:00 on the dot? Or vice versa? From the sound of it, you won't be able to do that during deal times. Can he do so? Is he willing to do so?

Almostima said...

Something's gotta give. You need to ask some of those point blank questions like, "if I go part time for a few years, is partnershp track still a possibility?" Because if it's not, forget all the puppies and unicorn talk about wanting to retain talented women, yada yada. It's just marketing spin to get you in the door and they will bleed you dry regardless.

You have 5 years of a proven track record, downshifting during this time isn't permanent -- they are making the decision about whether they want you for the next 30 years.

I also think it's odd that you have to make this proposal right now before the kids are here. You should have about 6 months of leave before you are back and know what your stamina might be like.

As for me, I've traveled such a long road to be in this motherhood position -- a little help here and there, sure, but I'm not ready to automatically turn my baby over for someone else to raise. I say this as a person that intends to be a working mom -- but when push comes to shove, I know the balance has to shift when my baby arrives and work will either deal with it or I'll find another job. There are always other jobs, but I only have one chance to be the parent I want to be.

Anonymous said...

Well-said, Einat. :-)

H said...

Einat, I concur as well.

T. said...

I third that - well said, Einat :-)

SMNYC said...

I guess I'm just a bit more old fashioned or grew up poorer than most here but the thought of a live in or live-out nanny is foreign to me. Is everyone here absolutely ok with that idea?

Note - not judging. Foreign != bad. I just don't quite get the point. Instead of "having it all" it seems like you end up having neither. Again haven't walk a foot in your shoes nevermind a mile.

Bessa said...

One more quick thought on this. A while ago I bought the book UNBENDING GENDER and I picked it up and read the introduction last night. It looks good - you might want to check it out.