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Advice on work-life balance from the MCCA Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference

How to make a win-win situation for both employers and employees

Deborah Epstein Henry, founder and president of Law & Reorder, moderates a panel on work-life balance at the MCCA Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference.

It's no secret that we are far from achieving total equality for women in the legal profession. While 40 percent to 50 percent of law school classes are women, only 15 percent of equity partners in law firms are female, and only 18 percent of the top legal spots at corporations are held by women. A huge reason behind this is the lack of work-life balance for lawyers, who are often expected to work incredibly long hours that sometimes leave little room for family time.

At the Minority Corporate Counsel Association's 13th Annual Creating Pathways to Diversity Conference in New York City, a panel titled “Walk a Mile In Her Shoes: Working Mothers and Career Advancement” discussed the challenges of creating work-life balance and ways to make it work for both employers and employees.

A common conception is that lawyers looking for more flexibility will head in-house, where they can escape the billable hour. But that doesn't always work, as panel member and senior attorney at American Airlines Michelle Peak pointed out. “A lot of times, in-house [work] is triage. You don't know when the emergency's going to happen.”

Management can also be a struggle in-house because if your department is resistant to putting policies in place that promote work-life balance, there may be nothing you can do. One panelist worked in a department where flexible schedules were just not an option. “Our general counsel made it clear, there's no such thing as working from home in his department,” she said.

But increasingly, lawyers are making work-life balance a priority, especially the younger generation. In a 2008 New York University Law School survey, students ranked work-life balance as their No. 1 concern. The panelists had lots of advice for making it work:

  • Written policies are key, both for giving management the chance to sit down and work out difficult issues, but also to make them official.
  • Compensation should be proportional to the work done. So if someone is working 80 percent hours, they should receive 80 percent pay.
  • Provide leave for those who need to care for their elderly parents, as well as their children.
  • Lawyers should schedule their personal lives the same way they schedule their clients, and maybe not tell their colleagues why they're unavailable from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. “Sometimes offering explanations is to your disadvantage,” says Martha Warren, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon.
  • Policies need to apply equally to all lawyers, throughout their careers, to keep colleague resentment down. “The more we can move this away from being just a mommy's issue, the better off we'll be,” says Deborah Epstein Henry, the panel moderator and founder and president of Law & Reorder, a division of Flex-Time Lawyers.

Visit InsideCounsel's Transformative Leadership site and learn more about women making their way in the corporate legal profession.

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