Thursday, May 23, 2013

Your Turn - Sarah's Story

"Your Turn" is a series of posts where readers share their stories of parenthood, work, the struggle for a balance, or just life generally.  If you are interested in contributing a story, please email me at, or click here.  

When I joined a large Washington, D.C. based law firm six years ago, I fully expected that Big Law firm life was incompatible with family, but I thought that I had plenty of time before I had to worry about it. After all, I was newly married, no kids, and a lot of ambition.  About two years into litigation practice, with a baby on the way, I knew that the time had come to take stock of my life, my career, and my priorities.  I came home only to shower, sleep, change clothes, and occasionally walk the dogs.  My husband took care of everything else from cleaning to bill paying to grocery shopping.  He was growing tired of our arrangement.  Our home was my hotel, restaurant, and dry cleaning service.  Convenient for me; painfully frustrating for my husband.

After a particularly grueling month of working around the clock late into my pregnancy with our first son, my husband gave me an ultimatum: do something about your job or this marriage/family is going to fall apart.  Bamm! Less than 2 years into my legal career and I was at the mom vs. career crossroads—job or family.  The next month I requested an alternative work schedule (AWS). 

My firm offers a part-time policy that allows attorneys to work a percentage of the full-time 1950 billable hour track.  In return, I received pro rata compensation and pro rata annual advancement.  For example, if I worked 70% AWS beginning in my third year, I received 70% of the salary of a 3rd year associate and advanced to a 3.7 year associate at the end of year 3.  In my fourth year on AWS, I received 70% of a 3.7 year associate salary and advanced to a 4.4 year associate at the beginning of my 5th year.  

Moving to AWS was a life-altering decision.  For starters, I stopped stressing about billable hours.  Before moving to AWS, I thought about billable hours ALL OF THE TIME - in the middle of the night, at family gatherings, on lazy Sunday afternoons - when all I wanted to do was relax.  After adopting AWS, I set my billing target low enough to be achievable by working 7 hours x 4 days a week.  Now I have just enough work to keep me fully billable, but not so much that I allow work to interfere with my family time.  I also work from home at least one day of week and take off most Fridays. Of course, I may work late into the evening, on a Friday, or a weekend every now and then, but I view that as a small inconvenience. 

Choosing a part-time schedule in a big law firm is not without its drawbacks.   First, some attorneys will not work with part-time associates.  Several of my “go-to” partners prior to going part-time will not call me back now that I am on a reduced schedule.  To them, I violated an unspoken rule and I can never be trusted again.  If not for the large number of partners in the firm, I would find myself without work and out on the street in a hurry.  Fortunately, our firm has enough good partners that are perfectly fine with my arrangement, and I have been fully billable for the past 3 years.   A growing number of partners do not care where you are in the world or what time you work, so long as the work is done.   However, when those sources for work dry up, it is a real challenge drumming up new work.  All things being equal, traditional partners who have never worked with a part-time associate would prefer to use another (often less expensive) associate who is in the office 5 days a week and available 24/7.  By comparison, I am only in the office 3 days a week and am often the parent who has to stay home when my child is home sick from preschool or the baby sitter cannot come to work.  And as a practical matter, I have fewer opportunities to run into important people in the elevator or smooze at happy hours. 

Second, my career track has slowed down significantly.  I am no longer viewed by many in the firm as a superstar associate on the rise to partner, but instead as a mom limping along on the inevitable path to salaried of-counsel.  True, my road to partner is longer and less certain than that of my full-time peers, but odds are that I will still be here while the “superstars” burn out and fade away to other law firms, companies, or government positions.   Do I care whether I make partner in 8 years, 10 years, 12 years, or never? No, I do not. But I would never forgive myself if my children grew up knowing that mommy was a lawyer and that’s about it, or if I let my marriage fail.  

In full disclosure, I have an amazing husband that works a normal 40-hour week work schedule, does our grocery shopping, packs our lunches every day, and is an equal partner in parenting our two young boys.  Credit where credit is due.  We also are in the financial position to hire a nanny four days a week for our infant and send our 3 year old to full day preschool 5 days a week.  I have it pretty darn easy compared to so many other women.  That being said, sometimes I wonder about job opportunities outside of big law.  But the reality is that it will be very hard to find a job that pays as well as this one, that gives me the flexibility to work from home, and that offers a 35 hour work week. 

As I write this, I am unclear of my own long-term career objectives.  Perhaps I will strive for partnership at my firm, or an of-counsel position, or maybe my future lies in another company, in the government, or another career entirely.  But I am certain that there is no other place that I would rather be in this phase of my life than in my current firm.  No doubt that I would have left my Big Law firm years ago without a part-time alternative work schedule option.  Moving to AWS saved my marriage and allows me to be the mom that I want to be to my children. I think that I am a better lawyer because of it, or at least a less stressed one.  I am that rare example of mom-lawyer-litigator who is actually happy in a Big Law firm.

This post was written by "Sarah."  


  1. Great story, Sarah. I love hearing about moms that make it work, since the media tends to bombard us with articles about how impossible it is! This is not meant to rain on your parade at all, because I think you fully recognize this risk, but I too had a Biglaw AWS after my kids were born, and it worked great for a while. Then the economy faltered, and those "good" partners really dried up for me. I felt my arrangement made me an easy choice for being pushed out the door, but no matter how bitter I might have been back then, the fact that I was able to keep my toe in practice at my firm allowed me to land well, and I'm really happy at my inhouse job now. AWS and other similar programs may not be perfect, but I am grateful that law firms are at least offering them! It kept me from having to face the more drastic decision of whether to leave the workforce altogether, which I don't think would have been right for me. Best of luck to you!!

  2. This is a great post. I'm encouraged whenever I hear about parents who are able to make a law career work. There are lots of bad parts about Biglaw, but AWS is definitely a silver lining of Biglaw that many smaller firms don't offer.

  3. Sarah, it's people like you who prove to enough partners that an AWS can work that paves the way for others. I’ve no doubt there are cost inefficiences in AWS, but I imagine there are also cost inefficiences in the turnover rate/investing in associates that leave the firm because of the intense work schedule. I’m at BigLaw and it happens all the time. Even associates without children long for the more manageable job situation and suffer burn out eventually. Unless firms stop hiring people need work-life balance in the long run, AWS seems a good goal to me. I am very happy for you that you found a way to make it work!

  4. Thanks for sharing this perspective. I only knew a handful of women with AWS at my old Big Law firm and nine of them were particularly happy with the arrangement, often noting that they ended up working what felt like full-time schedules at reduced pay as well as reputational harms. I'm happy to hear that it can work better elsewhere. I also appreciate your acknowledging that people view you differently now. My theory is that they key to happiness as a lawyer in a high pressure environment, whether you have kids or not, is to let go of the need to be a superstar. Accepting that you don't have to be the best relieves so much pressure and frees you up to be good at your job and other areas of your life.

    1. None of them were happy. Not nine of them.

  5. I also went AWS and there was so much work that I was consistently saying no and stressing about that. My 70 percent turned into 100 percent (everyone else in my niche was at 100 percent and working 150 percent). I eventually had to leave because my husband works at 70-80 hour week and at least at my big firm (AmLaw top 10), AWS was not supported in more than lip service by the firm's management. When I talked to the powers-that-be, they basically told me that it was untenable but what were they supposed to do? I am so happy that you made it work and I hope it becomes a viable option for more women and men in the long term.

  6. This is really interesting. I am a man, unmarried, midlevel at an NYC biglaw firm and I discussed AWS with my firm after getting fed up working, unexpectedly, until 2 am on a Sunday (again). To the firm's credit, I think they really do try to make it work, but client demands simply don't allow it. They told me that moving to 80% time (I could have chosen to go as low as 65%) was basically a function of assigning me to fewer deals at the same time. But what I was really after was predictability, like being able to go home at a certain time or being able to take every weekend off. Reducing the number of deals may reduce hours and increase the likelihood of a good weekend or evening, but the level of uncertainty would still be high enough that it wasn't really worth the pay cut and I decided not to do AWS.

    I'm not sure what kind of law Sarah practices, but it would be unimaginable in my field (securities) to consistently just take Friday (or any day) a week off or work from home. M&A and other deal-oriented practice areas at my firm I think would be similar. She should be happy to be in a biglaw field where any partner will give her work with that kind of limited availability. Maybe litigation is more flexible?

    As a somewhat related aside, my firm has a fairly significant observant Jewish population that disappears on Jewish holidays and for Shabbat at sundown Fridays. The viciousness with which some of these very competent lawyers are attacked for observance (almost always from non-observant Jews at the firm, of which there are lots) is, well, eye opening. I've heard people say that you simply cannot perform legal services at our level with that type of observance and that they should quit. And this is for just taking off FRIDAY NIGHTS and like maybe 5 SCHEDULED holidays a year.


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