A Primer for Lawyer/Moms: Just Out and a Must Have

I first met Lori Mihalich-Levin soon after her first baby was born and when she was in the overwhelmed-by-baby-and-the-thought-of-returning-to-work stage.   Our lunches were enjoyable but a bit somber.  She was struggling, and I wanted to help her.

Lori and I had been connected by a mutual friend at Georgetown Law.  Although there were many years between my years at the law school and Lori’s, we had a lot in common.  Returning to law practice after not just one, but two, babies had been difficult for me, and now that was happening to Lori.  It is hard to know what to say because law practice has its own set of rules.  Nothing is easy there — especially for women.

In time, Lori figured it all out, as I knew she would.  Lori’s overwhelmed stage morphed into the wisdom-and-I-can-do-anything stage, as with so many women who experience it.  But, Lori did not stop there.  She wrote down her thoughts and developed programs to pass on to others the benefit of all she had painstakingly learned.  Lori is the exception.  First she started a “Mindful Return” program, and then she wrote a book.   In her spare time, of course!

You can read all about Lori, her book and her projects in this article in the Washington Post.  It captures all of the profiles of the book, which is made richer by myriad contributions from experts in the many fields that combine to capture a daunting experience.  Honestly, nothing in my life prepared me for the first time I had to drive away from my baby — not to the grocery store, not to the post office, and certainly not to the  law office.  It is in a league of its own for creating doubt and fear and longing.

But, that “baby” of mine is now a woman lawyer, too.  Children survive and thrive, and so do Mommy Lawyers.  But, it never hurts to have a little help from a friend.

Lori is that friend.  Get the book!


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Solutions for the Low Retention Rates for Law Firm Associates


The subject of the low retention rates for women lawyers, as published recently on Law.com, was addressed in last week’s blog.  What?  You did not read the last blog?   Shame, shame.  I write them so that you will read them and have a “leg up” in making career decisions.  Fortunately, former blogs are so easy to find on my web site.  But to help you out, here is the link to that blog.  I understand how busy you are.

The solutions offered by the Law.com article focus on the needs to run law firms more like traditional businesses to eliminate some of the administrative tasks for junior lawyers, the use of fixed fee billing arrangements to increase the exposure that junior lawyers will have to higher value projects, an increased use of technology, and clear paths to partnership and metrics-based evaluations systems in making partnership decisions.

Those are all good thoughts, and some of them might work.  However, I like to focus more directly on the causes for the high attrition in finding solutions to improve associate retention, which, of course, includes retention of women lawyers.

  • More training and mentoring for associates.  Although lack of associate training and mentoring has traditionally been a problem, it is even more true today when newbie lawyers come into law firms and are tasked with administrative jobs that require them to be stuck to computers for ten hours a day and bear little resemblance to what they envisioned as practicing law.  The focus is on billable hours, for both associates and partners, and most senior lawyers are not taking much time out to train young lawyers and mentor them.  For young lawyers, who grew up on team efforts, it is hard to feel like a member of a team under those circumstances.  They crave mentoring and feedback on their work and, when they get little of either, they get discouraged and wonder whether they made the right choice of law firm or even of career.  The answer, of course, is to provide the training and the mentoring that will keep the talent around.  Either the training and mentorship must be provided by firm lawyers or the firm is going to have to bring in consultants to take over those responsibilities.  That will mean making a choice to pay those consultants or give “credit” to lawyers who undertake those responsibilities at the firm, and both can be sticky wickets unless the critical need for training and mentorship is understood.  But, it should be worth it to the firms — especially in the talent war for associates going on these days.
  •  Open up more clear pathways to the top.  This solution is related to PPP (profit per partner) that drives a lot of decisions in law firms.  PPP is determined by how many partners share the profit pie, and it is used by established ranking entities to rate law firms and to publish those ratings.  When profitability stagnates, as it has during the recent recession, and when equity partners are not retiring during these same challenging economic times, law firms are reluctant to make more equity partners to share in the pie.  As a result, the trend has been for law firms to make more classes of non-equity partners and to slow the path to equity partnership and/or to require larger books of business to make it through the equity partnership gate.  So, there are really only two solutions.  Either law firm partners are going to have to become less greedy to retain talent or law firm management is going to have to start forcing top partners out.  If those partners are big rainmakers, you can see that it becomes a real dilemma.  So, this one is not easy either.
  • Millennials will have to adjust some of their expectations.  Millennials have different expectations about the workplace than prior generations.  Some of those are very admirable — like the aversion to the workaholic lifestyle of lawyers and the desire for less toxic work environments.  Some of them, however, are not practical in the legal setting.  Yes, law is a business, but it is a business that is highly dependent on nuanced arguments and research that do not lend easily to the rapid responses of technology.  Some of it just takes a lot of tedious and hard work.  However, that work all does not have to be done at the office, and the movement today toward telecommuting for lawyers is a step in the right direction.  It allows for improved work-life balance, and, when done right, it also leaves adequate room for the face time at the office that is critical to issues of advancement.

One way or another, law firms are going to have to address these issues.  I have been focusing on most of these issues for a decade now through the Best Friends at the Bar project, and, admittedly, the solutions are not easy.  However, that is no reason not to put our shoulders to the wheel and find effective and lasting solutions.  The future of the profession depends on it.


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Why Women Lawyers Leave Firms: Astonishing New Statistics

Why do women lawyers leave?

I have been pondering, speaking about and writing about this issue for a decade.  It is fundamental that, before we can try to fix our profession with solutions like lateral hiring, mergers and expanding into new markets, we must delve deep into the roots of the attrition problems.

For years it was hard to get law firm management to talk about the high rates of attrition for women lawyers.  For many of those years, new law graduates were plentiful, and it was a buyers’ market.  That all changed with the Great Recession and the fall off in the number of students in law schools.  Now, there is a talent war for the best of the young lawyers, and it has shifted the focus more toward retention.  That is a good thing, but the reasons for the high attrition rates — for both male and female lawyers — are still not well understood.

So, I was very pleased to read “Top 3 Reasons for Associate Attrition and 3 Ways to Combat It” on Law.com recently.  The new statistics cited in that article and the assertion that the most expensive and surprising problem facing law firms today is not client retention or salaries but associate attrition is validation of so many of the programs that I have presented over the years to law firms and bar associations.  And, make no mistake, this “problem” is all about women lawyers — because women are at the tops of their law school graduation classes and often represent the best of the associate talent in the profession.  Losing that kind of talent can hurt a lot.

According to a report by Overflow Legal Network relied on in the article:

  • Almost 46 percent of associates leave their firm within the first three years, and 81 percent leave in the first five years; and
  • At a 400-person law firms, associate attrition can result in losses of over $25 million annually — not including the knowledge and client relationships that depart with departing associates.

Yes, you read that right.  $25 million.  That is an amazing and grim statistic, and it should grab the attention of every law firm manager.  These new statistics are consistent with a NALP survey that I have relied on for years, which found that 76 percent of women lawyers leave Big Law in the first five years, but that survey was about women associates and was explained by work-life issues associated with starting families.  However, this new statistic is not limited to women lawyers and it is not limited to Big Law.  Without those qualifiers, it is shocking and needs to be taken very seriously.

The causes for this high rate of attrition, as cited in the article, are:

  • Lack of associate training and mentoring;
  • Longer partnership tracks and requirements for larger books of business to protect the Profits Per Partner at the tops of firms; and
  • The expectations of members of the millennial generation regarding things like work-life balance, the role that technology should play in the work place, and clearly defined measures of success.

So, you say, what are the solutions?  You will have to stay tuned for next week’s blog to find out!

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Will Flexible Work Models Improve Law Firm Culture?

Below is a copy of the op-ed that I wrote and that was published on March 21, 2017 in National Jurist “Lawyer & Statesman” on-line magazine.  I hope that you find it interesting and that you, too, will gain some hope that the events described present positive changes for women lawyers and for all lawyers in law firm cultures.

The link to the op-ed is:  http://www.nationaljurist.com/content/op-ed-flexible-work-models-should-improve-law-firm-culture

Op-ed: Flexible work models should improve law firm culture
March 21, 2017

By Susan Smith Blakely

I have seen the effects of insensitive law firm cultures in my own career and the careers of so many others. Although the most severe impact has been to women lawyers with family and childcare responsibilities, male practitioners also have suffered from the inflexible demands of a profession that has refused to examine itself critically.

Until now, perhaps.

Within a week’s time, announcements by Big Law players on major work-life initiatives in their law firms have provided hope that the sands may be shifting in favor of more reasonable policies and programs to reflect a changing world. This is recognition that the millennial generation, especially, is capable of embracing current technology that could benefit both themselves and their law firms.

Last week, Morgan Lewis announced its initiative allowing associates, who have been at the firm for at least two years, the opportunity to work from home two days a week. Similar announcements followed this week by Jackson Lewis and Baker McKenzie.

Peter May, Baker McKenzie’s chief talent officer, described the incentive behind the new program this way: “If you actually create an environment that is flexible, that enables people to be at their best no matter where they happen to be, you’re going to have much more engaged employees. If they’re more engaged they’re going to be more productive, and if they’re more productive, that’s going to have huge organizational implications.”

Morgan Lewis’s rationale for its forward-thinking program, however, was the one that got my attention and buoyed my spirits the most. That rationale revolved around the recognition that losing talent is very destructive to law firms and that making tested and proven work-life concessions will help protect talent in a very competitive industry.

Yes, this rationale is more law firm centric, but it reflects the truth that we all know to be the greatest motivator for change: Competition. Let’s call it what it is. Programs like this create a bond between employer and employee that often results in the kind of loyalty that traditionally has been missing in law firm cultures. One Morgan Lewis partner referred to the new program as necessary but very expensive. Another member of the firm described the program as “a reflection of the trust between the associates and the firm.”

We should take this as good news — very good news — and we should give the prescient leadership of these law firms the credit they deserve. We also can hope that other law firms will follow, and that what we are seeing is a law profession that is coming of age and throwing off the shackles of the past that are not only confining in a modern world but also are destructive.

As I wrote in a Corporate Counsel article “Is Work-Life Balance for Lawyers a Hopeless Goal in the Legal Profession?”:

“The only thing standing between the current workaholic culture of law firms and this brighter future for lawyers is greed. It was the greed of Wall Street that brought on the Great Recession in 2008, and that experience should serve as a harbinger to law firm leadership. Greed and pursuit of high profits at the expense of the well-being of lawyers and their families will lead to no good.”

Let’s call it what it is and make all efforts to do better.

Susan Smith Blakely is a lawyer, author, speaker and career coach. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and Georgetown University Law Center. She is the founder of LegalPerspectivesLLC, and her Best Friends at the Bar Book series addresses the low retention and advancement rates for women lawyers. She can be reached through her website, www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.

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Investment Help For Young Women Lawyers — You NEED It!

Investment advisor!  The title alone makes most of us shutter, and typically the individual advisor evokes a similar response.  Not that they are bad people, but it is often a bad subject for us.  So, the advisor gets associated with the advice.  And, when the news is bad, it can be very bad.  Something and someone you do not want to think about.

As women, we sometimes shy away from this kind of “boring” financial dialogue on subjects like saving, prioritizing and budgeting.  After all, we like to keep things moving and exciting …… not get bogged down so that we have plenty of time to spend, spend, spend!  Those new fuschia-colored sandals for spring, the antique server that is ideal for the entrance hall, the trip to the tropics, and wheels to make you the envy of the young attorney in-crowd. Why would you want to have a discussion that might put a damper on all those fun things?

No, I am not dissing you, I am dissing US.  Women love beautiful and expensive things, and … well … it can get out of control.  And soon you are plummeting downhill faster than you ever imagined possible.  Then you are looking at the bankruptcy court — and you cannot discharge your student loan debt there.  Sorry.

Enter the investment advisor.  He or she could become your new BFF if you let it happen.  The guy described in the article below understands your life as a law firm associate — because he is one —- and he blogs by night on a “mission to prevent young lawyers from falling prey to their own lousy money management.”  Goodwin Procter seems to be good with that as long as he does not neglect his day job.

His name is Joshua Holt, and, until recently, he ran The Biglaw Investor website anonymously.  There is investment advice and newsletters on the site to provide tips to Big Law associates, who lack an understanding of how to manage the big bucks they are earning.

However, Joshua wants to be an equal opportunity website, so he also offers advice to young lawyers on the low end of the pay scale, like those public service lawyers, who are not making the big bucks.  He seems to understand that most law students did not have a lot of money to handle during those three years preceding the downpour of any bucks at all, and that making a salary of any kind can be daunting.

The bottom line is that we all need financial advice — unless we have a lifetime supply of green eye shades.  Young lawyers with massive student loan debt REALLY need it.  In fact, in a rush of humility, Joshua identifies himself on the website as starting his career with $200,000 in student debt and with “zero understanding of how to manage a $160,000 salary and enough anxiety to immobilize a small horse.”  Does that sound familiar?

If, so, check out the website below.  This is not an endorsement of Joshua Holt and/or his advice.  I do not know Joshua or what kind of advice he dispenses.  He may not be for you.  But, chances are someone like Joshua is.  Be sure you find that person — PRONTO — to save yourself a lot of unnecessary grief.



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Working from Home: Some Great News for Women Lawyers

Working from home — what a life-saving concept.  Telecommuting has become popular in many industries since the advent of technology that makes presence in the office less necessary and the high costs of brick and mortar offices less desirable.   The cost of physical space for offices has become prohibitive in large cities in the US, and reducing the need for all of that physical space is very appealing to business managers. 

We all know people who telecommute, and most of them are happy to have the option of working at home as an alternative to getting in a car to fight the morning and afternoon rush traffic every day.  This kind of flexibility is especially appealing to women lawyers, who often have to work around children’s school schedules and other family issues.  It is a part of the total flexibility picture for them, which also consists of flex time, generous parental leave and reduced hours.  However, until recently, there has not been much movement on the issues of flexibility in the law profession.

Tradition is often the mantra in law firms, and working from home is hardly traditional.  However, as pointed out in a recent article, big law firms were starting to experiment more with flexible schedules prior to the economic downturn in 2008.   However, according to Joan Williams of UC Hastings College of Law and director of the Center for WorkLife Law there, once the recession hit employers no longer felt the pressure to offer flexibility.  Presumably, law firm managers had more pressing matters on their minds like trying to keep the doors open for business.

So, last week’s announcement by Morgan Lewis of a new policy allowing associates with at least two years experience at the firm to work from home up to two days a week was huge.  The concept, which was tested out in the firm’s LA office, turned out to be well received by everyone.  The concerns that working from home would negatively affect availability to clients and productivity were not experienced and opposite results were demonstrated.

Morgan Lewis is not the only firm that has been experimenting with flexibility for its attorneys in recent years.  Examples of modified parental leave policies, alternative work schedules and job sharing by other big law firms are also cited in the article.  Although the approaches at law firms differ, one thing seems to be consistent — the realization that the law labor market is tightening and law firms need to be competitive to attract the best talent.  In the case of Morgan Lewis, the work from home program comes with a full hardware set up in attorneys’ home offices, including dual monitors, docking stations and headsets.  It is expensive for the law firm, but, as noted by one partner, “We’re trying to put our money where our mouth is.”  Another senior lawyer described the program as “a reflection of the trust between the associates and the firm.”

Bravo for these forward-thinking law firms!  I hope examples of this kind of flexibility and recognition of “the trust factor” in retaining talent will start popping up all across the industry.

If your firm does not have a program like this, maybe it should.  And maybe you are the one to make the case for it.  Time spent in traffic five days a week is not time well spent.

Speaking of time, it is about time that law firm managers and leaders start understanding that improving the cultures of law firms benefits everyone.  Morgan Lewis is demonstrating that in a big way.





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In Defense of Equal Pay for Women — Including Women Lawyers

You know that I support equal pay for women.  I have written on it in this blog before, and I published a comprehensive article on it recently.  You also might have noticed that I don’t typically get into politics in my work, for a lot of good reasons, but I consider equal pay to be a very important policy decision.  So, here is an update on gender pay equality — an opinion that likely is held by more than just this one political operative.  Heed it as a warning.

In a letter criticizing a bill that addresses the pay gap in the workforce in Utah, a Republican operative, James Green, said that men have traditionally earned more than women and, citing “simple economics,” argued that things should stay that way.

Green’s comments were directed at Utah Senate Bill 210, which proposes changes to laws related to employee pay. The bill would commission a study on whether there’s a pay gap between male and female workers in the state and would require certain employers to adopt a uniform criteria to determine whether an employee should get a raise based on performance.  It also would create a pay index that establishes the average pay range for each occupation based on years of experience.

Mr. Green said in his letter to the editor, published last week in several Utah newspapers, that men make more than women because they’re “the primary breadwinners” of their families, and paying women equally would somehow ruin the makeup of a traditional family where “the Mother” remains at home raising children.

He continued, “If businesses are forced to pay women the same as male earnings, that means they will have to reduce the pay for the men they employ.  If that happens, then men will have an even more difficult time earning enough to support their families, which will mean more Mothers will be forced to leave the home (where they may prefer to be) to join the workforce to make up the difference.”

He concluded by saying that equal pay is “bad for families and thus for all of society,” calling it “a vicious cycle” that would create competition for jobs, “even men’s jobs.”

Yes, in 2017, those views are held.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you do not have to worry about things like equal pay and women controlling their own lives because it is the 21st Century.

Don’t become complacent.  Keep your radar up.  Take your place at the table to correct the wrongs that limit opportunities and choice.

The time to get active is NOW.



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Why Young Women Lawyers Would Have LOVED Mary Richards

OK.  Many of you are too young to know much about Mary Tyler Moore and the characters she played on TV sitcoms.  So, I am here to tell you about her and what generations of women before you learned from her.

Mary Tyler Moore became a household word in the 1960’s when she starred as Laura Petrie, the wife of Dick Van Dyke on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  She played the typical housewife/stay-at-home mom who was popular in the day.  She was quirky and smart and got herself into trouble about as often as Lucy Ricardo on the I Love Lucy show.  She was beautiful, smiley, looked great in capri pants, could dance up a storm — AND all while she cooked dinner and waited on her man.  We loved her, and she entertained us, but she did not necessarily inspire us.  It was her next role that took women’s admiration for Mary Tyler Moore to the next level.

In her role as Mary Richards, TV news producer on the 1970’s Mary Tyler Moore Show, she created a vision of the new independent woman we all wanted to emulate.  She was single, in her thirties, confident, and she wanted a career — and she knew she was entitled to one.  In fact, she wanted a career over everything else.  She saw no reason why she could not compete on an equal footing with men, which she did with grace, charm and humor.  She was seen and she was heard on issues that were hardly talked about in those days, like equal pay and birth control.  More than fifty years ago, she helped shape the thinking of young women today in terms of their ambitions, their capabilities and their sense of personal and professional value.

We all owe Mary Tyler Moore a great debt of gratitude for her pivotal roles in our coming of age as young women in America, and that is why there were so many public tributes to her when, sadly, she died earlier this month.  Her death left holes in the hearts of many who loved her and admired her.  I am one of those, and I still get a thrill from watching footage of the opening scenes of each episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show where she throws her girlish beret up in the air in downtown Minneapolis with great gusto that said it all:  This is my town, and I will succeed.

We all need a role model like that — especially young women lawyers who continue to buck the odds at each turn as they are challenged with survival in what is still a man’s world.  Women lawyers, as smart and accomplished as they are, still represent fewer than 20% of the law partners in America, and, according to a recent survey, women partners make considerably less than male partners for performing the same work.  Women lawyers are still passively excluded from many of the important client development events in their firms, and flexibility to meet the work-life demands so many women experience is still far from a given.

More than anyone who ever has graced a TV set, Mary Richards was your “gal,” as women were referred to in her day.  More than the female TV lawyers, who often are too dramatic and too unrealistic, Mary Richards was the real deal.

She always kept her eye on the prize, and so should you.


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