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March 10, 2009


Dear Sang,

I was going to sign this letter "Drowning in Diapers," but that didn't seem too professional. I am the mother of a 2-year old son, and I just gave birth to my daughter in October, so I honestly don't feel very professional. I feel exhausted, frustrated and at my wits' end. I am a mid-level associate at a big law firm, and I have recently returned from my second maternity leave in as many years. I am honestly grateful that I have this high-paying job, and I know that my partners have been patient. Now that I am back, however, I don't think I can do it.

I work in commercial real estate, an area already not known for the prevalence of females. Frankly, no client wants to hear that his mortgage documents aren't ready because my baby had a cold and I was up all night. I can tell that my colleagues are getting a little tired of helping me out, even though I feel like I have given my all to cover for them when they've needed it. I just can't do the 60-hour weeks any more but I feel like all eyes are now on me to come back at 110% and produce.

I am considering leaving my firm and looking for a fresh start. Is there a way I can transition to a less demanding practice area? I really like what I do, but I cannot keep up this pace until my kids leave for college. I would like to stay in real estate, but is flex-time just a pipe dream? I have heard horror stories of other moms who have tried to make it work. Will I end up with 80% pay, just as much work, and a lot more guilt?

Begging for Balance

Dear Begging for Balance:

Congratulations on the arrival of your daughter! Your ability to juggle the demands of a growing family and a legal career is nothing short of amazing. You may not feel too professional right now, but I know, first hand, how hard you're working. Okay, I'm a bit biased. I, too, have two children under the age of 4, and I'm constantly questioning my sanity in 'giving birth' to an entrepreneurial venture and my children at the same time. We don't always choose the timing of our personal and professional pursuits, and sometimes the best we can hope for is to make it out of the house every morning in a (moderately) clean suit (mostly) free of pureed peas.

Because extraordinary professional demands and extraordinary procreative blessings often occur "inconveniently" at the same time, women lawyers often have to strike an impossible balance. "Having it all" seems to mean taking on more than any human should have to, and feeling completely inadequate at all of it. You are in good company.

I have spoken with countless women lawyers who were convinced that they would return to work immediately and without regret, after having children. But many of those mothers changed their minds once they were faced with the reality of saying goodbye to their beautiful babies every morning. Personally, when I returned to work after my first child was born, I was secretly grateful for the sense of accomplishment and routine I found at work because I certainly hadn't discovered those feelings as a mom yet. What I know now: we have to experiment, stumble, get up and try again, in both our personal and professional lives. Over and over again.

I can vouch for the challenge of finding peace in these torturous decisions. There is no right answer or manual for motherhood (trust me, I've scoured You can, however, take advantage of your expertise in your chosen field to earn a bit of breathing space at your firm. Rather than try to reinvent yourself at this hectic moment in your family life, I urge you to play to your strengths.

I understand your desire to run screaming from your current firm; you are trying your best, and why does it seem like nobody understands what you're dealing with? The idea that you can return from maternity leave as if you've just recovered from a nasty bug and put your nose to the grindstone is patently ridiculous to anyone who has one of those squirming, cute, 18-pound "bugs" at home. However, in the harsh world of law firm economics, you must consider your value -- and your cost -- from the firm's perspective.

Right now, you are a fully-functioning (work with me here) mid-level associate in a particularly busy practice area. You have existing client relationships, and now that you have returned to the firm, you are reclaiming your spot in the hearts and minds of those important clients. Do a quick exercise: Who are the clients who value you most? How many deals are you doing each year? Within your department, what are your particular areas of expertise? Are you the "go-to" associate for hairy redevelopment deals? Are you the queen of REITs? If you left tomorrow, how would your partners handle your work?

Now, for a moment, envision yourself at a brand new firm. Once the partners recover from the swoon of having successfully hired an experienced, capable mid-level, you'll start at ground zero. With no store of good will in the bank -- no laurels to rest on -- you must establish your professional reputation anew. Sure, it is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. But the chance to wipe the slate clean of I.O.U.s to colleagues is a really high price to pay for the investment required to start over. And you still have to relieve the babysitter or pick up the kids from day care at 6:30 p.m. sharp. Every day.

Flex-time was a great concept which has taken a beating in its execution. In the abstract, no one can argue with the good sense of preserving the human capital of millions of working parents. It is prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and wasteful to lose productive, highly-regarded employees. Moreover, it is arguably inefficient because these lost employees will probably be replaced with other productive, highly-regarded employees who might want to have families one day, too. Yep, the whole "it might be nice to have family time" thing - it's kind of universal.

Certain industries seemed to lend themselves well to job-sharing or flex time, and sterling examples of mothers of twelve sharing biomedical research posts were trotted out to make us all feel better. In the law firm marketplace, flex-time was a harder sell.

In high-stress, client service industries like law, finance and consulting, we are necessarily at the beck and call of our clients. They pay us princely sums not only for our peerless advice but for our availability -- 24/7. When a $500 million office building is involved, it is tough to tell the World's Biggest Developer or a MegaBank that "you'll do your best to get to it." Type-A personalities gravitate toward the high-wire-act that is big firm practice. Many others are content to dial back to less demanding work.

Real estate is a particularly salient example. It's not uncommon for high-flying commercial deal lawyers to reinvent themselves in more measured practices: leasing, in-house work for a financial institution or hospitality company, condominium association work. Some firms even have limited opportunities for real estate attorneys to focus on high-end residential work on behalf of the key executives of corporate clients, firm members and high-net worth individuals. These "non-partnership track" associate or counsel positions can be tailor-made for a working mother seeking balance.

Does your firm's existing practice lend itself to this sort of arrangement? Perhaps more importantly, will you be satisfied with an "off-track" position, if that is the price for such a deal? If you are planning on jumping back "on-track" when your kids are in school full-time, can you envision your partners accommodating this shift? Some firms have a record of supporting alternative work arrangements in theory, but in practice, the newly created "mommy track" implies a one-way ticket to career stagnation. It is often impossible to know which way your firm culture will cut until faced with a situation. And from one female lawyer/parent to another: please don't assume that women partners - moms or otherwise - will automatically rise to champion your cause. And that's a pretty complicated discussion for another day.

Look outside your firm for information and encouragement -- 9 to 5 clubs, working mothers' groups, college and law school alumna associations -- all can offer you the advice and moral support that will get you through. The war stories of working moms who have gone before you will offer you insight and inspiration moving forward. Your organization may not have made the annual Working Mother magazine list of best employers, but you can take their "best practices" and build them into a proposal for an alternative arrangement that will benefit you, your firm and your family.

If your partners accommodate your request, it will be a reasoned business decision on their part. Even firms who have endeavored to introduce formal policies for flex-time or alternative work arrangements truly boil down to the old "case by case basis." For a superstar lawyer supporting an important client function, accommodations will be made. For an "also ran" middling producer, maybe not so much.

The dearth of mid-level real estate associates in the present marketplace has provided you with some serendipitous leverage. Take an objective look at the value you bring to your firm and your group. Think about how you might be able to carve out a responsible, client-focused niche within your group. Develop a written proposal, carefully considering each client, and how that client's specific needs can be met in the context of your plan. It may take the form of working one day from home (if you can really work from home), or a reduced transaction load over the course of a year (8 200-hour months, instead of 11). In the harsh light of day, it must pass muster with your most demanding client and your most exacting partner. Only then is it ready for Prime Time.

Good luck with all of it and please stay in touch.


Do you have a question about your legal career? Click here to email Sang directly.


Sang is the President and Managing Partner of SJL Attorney Search, LLC. Over the years, Sang has placed hundreds of attorneys in the New York metropolitan area with global, national and boutique law firms and has partnered with numerous Fortune 500 corporations, investment banks and technology companies in identifying top talent for in-house legal departments.

Sang has been invited to speak at Stanford Law School, New York University School of Law and New York University's School of Continuing Education and City College of New York. She was a panelist at the 2004 NALP End of Season Series for the session entitled "Dog Eat Dog: The Reality of the New York Legal Market" and has also been featured on panels for NYCRA and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Sang consults for the Office of Career Services at New York University School of Law where she counsels, coaches and prepares law students and alumni for interviews with prospective employers.


Founded in 2003, SJL Attorney Search, LLC is a legal recruitment firm that works closely with law firms and other sophisticated legal employers to identify, recruit and ultimately hire qualified attorneys. Our consultants have successfully placed associates, partners and corporate counsel of varying rank in all practice areas of law, including mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, global finance, real estate, bankruptcy, tax, labor and employment, ERISA, intellectual property and litigation. In an industry that has a reputation for sharp elbows and cutting corners, we hold fast to our core values of integrity, quality, team work and accountability.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues