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Successfully Juggling Work and Family: Tips for Lawyers

  • Julie Stauffer

Rushing to the day care before it closes, taking your budding soccer star to a weekend tournament, attending parent-teacher interviews, and still meeting your targets for billable hours … combining family responsibilities with a legal career is not easy.

The good news is it’s not impossible. “Parents do succeed in law and they do provide excellent, wonderful role models for their children,” says Queen’s sociology professor Fiona Kay. “They also do obtain partnerships in law firms and positions of status and success in the profession.”

With more and more women entering the profession, and more and more men wanting to be involved fathers, balancing work and family is a hot issue. Here’s what you need to know.

Picking Your Practice

There are pros and cons to different kinds of working environments for parents. Lawyers in large law firms work long hours, but they enjoy a reasonable amount of flexibility. It’s often possible to slip away for a couple of hours and then make up that time in the evening.

Within a large law firm, the attitudes of the group you work with count for much more than firm policies. If your colleagues have a life outside the office, they’ll understand your family commitments. On the other hand, if the lawyers around you routinely bill 200 hours a month, your struggle will be much harder.

It’s particularly helpful if other parents in the firm have blazed a trail before you. Not only can you draw on the precedents they’ve set, but they may also be valuable mentors.

Smaller practices are often more family friendly, says Jean Wallace, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary who conducted an extensive survey of Alberta lawyers. You can decide how many clients to take on and how much money you want to make. “You have a bit more control over your workload,” she explains, “whereas in a (large) law firm, you can’t say no.”

If you’re a sole practitioner, you call the shots. You can decide how little or how much work you’re willing to take on, and you have the freedom to structure your day the way you want.

“Being a sole practitioner, you do have the flexibility of when you’re at the office and when you’re not,” says Jeff Mann, who has a general practice in Guelph, Ontario. Although there are times when you can’t drop everything to look after family issues, he has found these are fairly rare.

On the downside, if you don’t put in the hours, the work doesn’t get done, and it’s your bank balance that takes the hit.

Government is often seen as a welcoming environment for parents. Tyna Mason made the switch from private practice to the BC Attorney General’s Office after her first child was born. She enjoys more reasonable hours and a variety of interesting work, without the pressure to bring in new clients.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking a government job is strictly 9-to-5, however. The public sector is becoming much more accountability driven, workloads are increasing, and chances are you’ll face just as many deadlines as in the private sector.

Lawyers who work in corporations tend to work shorter hours than their peers in law firms, but the trade off is less flexibility and less access to family-friendly options like part-time work.

Creating a Supportive Work Environment

Wherever you work, the key to creating a supportive environment is communicating with your colleagues. Colleen Keyes recently moved from a position with a crown agency to the Halifax office of Patterson Palmer. “Be upfront with your colleagues about what’s on your plate, and identify what your other commitments are,” she suggests.

Don’t be apologetic, but do reassure them that your work will get done and your clients’ needs will be met, whether you do it at the office, or at home after the kids are in bed.

If you need to leave the office at a particular time to pick the kids up from school, let them know. Likewise, if you don’t have a family member who can provide last-minute childcare, tell your co-workers you may need to stay home if an emergency comes up.

If your colleagues understand your schedule and commitments, no one will feel you’re letting them down when you pack up your briefcase at 5:00 p.m., or spend the day at home when your preschooler comes down with chicken pox.

Judith Ferguson, Acting Assistant Deputy Minister in Nova Scotia’s Department of Community Services, makes sure that everyone knows she has young children, and that means she needs to make childcare arrangements if there’s a late afternoon meeting. “I tell people that I can stay late,” she says, “but I can’t do it on the spur of the moment.”

According to Kay, most research shows that parents work the same number of hours as childless lawyers—they simply structure their days differently.

Negotiating Parental Leave

Creating solutions that work for everyone — you, your family, your co-workers and your clients — is equally important if you’re taking a parental leave. Chances are, you’ll need to maintain some contact with the office while you’re home with the baby. That may simply mean being available to answer questions from the lawyer who takes over your files, or you may need to stay abreast of issues, as Keyes did during her two maternity leaves by having material sent to her regularly.

Silvia de Sousa, a partner in Winnipeg’s Thompson Dorfman Sweatman, was even more actively involved, handling as much work as possible via e-mail and voice mail and delegating the overflow to associates and other partners. “My goal was to have client contact,” she explains.

You’ll also need to negotiate how long a leave to take. Few lawyers feel they can be away from clients for the full year they’re now entitled to, and many don’t even take a full six months.

While law firms may accept women taking maternity leave, albeit sometimes grudgingly, male lawyers may feel that taking a parental leave is out of the question. Unless it’s an extremely progressive workplace, they may fear that staying home with a baby sends a signal that they are not committed to their career.

Some men do take parental leave from law firms and still make partner, but it’s rare. On the whole, government tends to offer a much more father-friendly environment.

Choosing Childcare

Once the parental leave is over, you’re faced with the issue of childcare. Some lawyers, like de Sousa and Mason, are fortunate enough to have a spouse stay home when the children are young, which alleviates a lot of stress. If that’s not the case (many lawyers are married to other lawyers or professionals in equally demanding careers) it’s a choice between a nanny and daycare.

If your hours are unpredictable, a nanny may be the best solution—no need to worry about racing to daycare at 5:00 p.m. when you’re working on a difficult case. An added advantage is that nannies can clean the house as well.

That’s the option de Sousa envisions after her second child is born and her husband goes back to work. “More to manage our household so we both can be spending quality time with both children,” she explains. “So instead of wasting time going grocery shopping or picking up dry cleaning or doing errands, maybe someone could be doing that for us.”

Eric Golden and his wife, both litigators in large Toronto law firms, saw the attraction of having a nanny for their two sons. They chose daycare, however, because they worried a nanny would make it too easy to work late instead of spending time with the kids. “It really provides a kind of perverse incentive to not leave the office as soon as you should,” he says.

Daycare is generally less expensive, and it provides an opportunity for children to socialize and learn routines.

Whatever arrangement you choose, it’s important to know your child is happy and well looked after. It’s difficult to focus on work when the child you just dropped off at daycare was crying or clingy.

As your children get older, they become less dependent, but looking after them may require a patchwork of different care arrangements. Instead of being with a nanny or in daycare from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., children shuttle from before-school programs to school, and then to after-school programs. If they’re involved in activities like piano or swimming lessons, someone needs to chauffeur them around.

Considering Alternative Work Arrangements

Some firms and offices offer parent-friendly options like part time or flex time. Thompson Dorfman Sweatman, for example, offers a “special partner” option that involves working four days a week instead of five, while other firms have created permanent senior associate positions.

According to Wallace’s survey, only 50% of corporate lawyers in Alberta have access to alternate work arrangements, whereas more than two thirds of government offices and private firms offer family-friendly options.

Unfortunately, many mothers are hesitant to take advantage of these options for fear of jeopardizing their careers. They worry they won’t be given interesting files or they’ll miss out on opportunities for advancement if they choose the so-called “mommy track.”

This is even truer for fathers. “As ‘bad’ as it is for women to work part time for family reasons, it’s actually worse for men,” says Wallace. Not only are they seen as flippant about their career, but there also exists a perception that ‘real men’ work full time.

Lawyers who do choose to work part time (and in many firms, “part time” means 35 to 40 hours per week) often take a disproportionate cut in salary. “Part time is sometimes half the salary,” says Kay, “yet they’re working at least two thirds or three quarters the hours.”

Some areas of law are more amenable to part-time practice than others. It’s easier to be a part-time intellectual property lawyer, for example, than it is to handle mergers and acquisitions four days a week.

Government has a better track record than private firms when it comes to accommodating family needs. Mason successfully negotiated a four-day week at the BC Attorney General’s office, where she puts in 35-40 hours per week. “I had to commit to making the operational needs a priority, so it’s not always four days,” she says, “but whenever it can be four days, it is.”

Putting It All Together: Six Tips for Balancing Work and Family

1. Be organized
The average Canadian lawyer works 50 hours per week, and billable hour targets keep creeping upwards. When you add kids into the mix, it’s clear you need to be highly organized, both at work and at home, in order to fit everything into the day.

Say goodbye to leisurely lunches with friends or colleagues. Efficiency is key, and that means delegating work, prioritizing your tasks, focusing on billable work, and eating a sandwich at your desk. Most parents put a priority on eating dinner as a family, so that means leaving the office at 5:00 p.m. and bringing unfinished work home to tackle once the kids are asleep.

No matter how hectic things are at work, your downtime doesn’t begin when you leave the office. Golden says the hours between getting home and getting the kids to bed are his biggest challenge. He’s kept fully occupied feeding his two boys, playing with them, bathing them, and getting them to bed. “Those three hours make nine hours of work look like a walk in the park,” he laughs.

And if your office daytimer is jam-packed, chances are the calendar on the fridge is equally full. “The logistics of figuring out the schedules for the activities of the children is often more complicated than running a law practice,” says Mann, whose three teenagers are all involved in team sports.

Most parents perform as a tag team, so comparing schedules is a daily ritual. One drops the kids off at school or daycare in the morning, while the other one picks them up in the afternoon. Come evening, the same thing: one parent takes the oldest child to softball practice, while the other takes the youngest to Brownies. Don’t forget to jot down the field trips, birthday parties and PD days so you’re not caught by surprise at the last minute.

2. Have a Plan B
The challenge of combining a legal career with family lies not only with the number of hours you’re expected to put in, but with the unpredictability of those hours, the expectation that you’ll be available on evenings and weekends, and, for some lawyers, the need to travel.

So when an important file keeps you working late at the office, you need someone who can look after the kids: a spouse, family member, friend or paid caregiver. Likewise, when your child wakes up with a temperature of 102ºF, or your nanny decides to quit, you need to be able to call in reinforcements.

De Sousa keeps a list of people who can step in at a moment’s notice beside the phone, and when a crisis hits, she starts calling. For other parents, a sick child means rescheduling appointments and working from home.

Since Eric Golden and his wife are both litigators, they make sure they never book a court date on the same day, just in case an emergency came up at home. “Always checking with your spouse before you commit to any dates — it’s certainly a pain sometimes,” says Golden, “but it has to be done.”

3. Make use of technology
You can accomplish a tremendous amount from home, thanks to laptop computers, e-mail, and voice mail. Blackberries allow you to pick up e-mail while you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment, and a cell phone enables you return client phone calls while you’re waiting for playgroup to finish. Many employers will even provide you with the ability to tap into the office network from home.

So whether you’re spending the day at home with a sick child, catching up on work at the end of the evening, or staying connected during parental leave, make use of the tools that are available. Do set boundaries though—technology makes it easy for work to infringe on family time.

4. Foster supportive partner and family relationships
A supportive spouse, who understands that you may need to work until midnight to finalize a closing or prepare a court case, makes a world of difference. “It’s a team in our house,” says Ferguson, who is married to a naval officer. “He does as much as I do.”

Open, honest communication is crucial. It may be tempting to work late and let your spouse pick up the slack at home, but you need to respect each other’s workloads and constraints.

If you’re a single parent, it’s even more important to have a strong support network to rely on. Having family or friends nearby who can step in if you have to work late or there’s an emergency reduces a lot of stress.

5. Carve out time for yourself
With all that juggling, your own needs often get sacrificed. It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing nothing but working, sleeping, and looking after the kids, but over the long haul that’s a recipe for burnout. Make sure you carve out a few hours in the week for exercise, outside interests, or just a quiet half-hour with a good novel.

Couple time also takes a beating once children arrive. Consider hiring a babysitter on a Friday night and going out to dinner, or leaving the children with their grandparents for a weekend. Most years, Keyes and her husband take a one-week vacation without their two children in order to recharge their batteries. “The first time I did it, I felt somewhat guilty,” she said, “but I’ve come to realize that it’s an important part of the balance.”

If that seems unrealistic, think multi-tasking—naptime or soccer practice can be a good time to catch up with your spouse.

6. Keep your expectations realistic
There is no perfect balance. Don’t be misled by the myth of the supermom lawyer who bills 200 hours a month and still has plenty of time to spend with her kids. In reality, there’s only 24 hours in a day, and that means you’re forced to make some compromises.

“I’ll never say I’m a hundred percent the best mom, and I don’t think at this point I’ll say I’m a hundred percent the best partner,” says de Sousa. “As long as I’m at 75% on both sides, I’ve accepted that’s OK for now.”

For successful, high-achieving lawyers, children can come as something of a shock. Your professional skills are little help when it comes to dealing with a colicky baby, a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum, or a teenager challenging your authority. And just as you figure out how to deal with one stage, they’ve moved on to the next.

Having children will change your priorities. Suddenly work is not the be-all and end-all of your life. “I’m a mom now,” laughs Mason. “I used to be a lawyer, but now I’m just a mom who practices law.” That doesn’t mean you can’t have a full, rich rewarding career, though. “I love being with my kids and I love my practice,” she says, “and I love that things are flexible enough to allow me to do both.”

Julie Stauffer is a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ontario.

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