When it comes to juggling motherhood and practicing law, Natalie Harris, a partner at Baron Harris Healey, candidly admits that it’s no easy task.
“It was totally horrible,” she said about transitioning back to work after becoming a mom 11 years ago.
At the time, she was an attorney at a boutique law firm and roughly 10 years out of law school, the typical time frame for rising to partner status. The firm had few full-time, female partners and no one before her returned to work at the firm after having a child.
As her family’s primary breadwinner, Harris couldn’t afford to take a few years off. While she was able to negotiate a “generous” amount of time for maternity leave, she said she didn’t receive any accommodations, such as daycare assistance, to help her ease back into her role. The firm also reduced her annual billable hour goal and salary — for the next few years.
“It was as if I came back from vacation,” she recalled. “Hope you had fun. Now, let’s get back to work.”
She eventually made partner after having her second child, but she thinks motherhood “absolutely” delayed her promotion.
Does Being a Mother Impede Career Prospects as a Lawyer?
It’s no secret that the legal industry is struggling to retain female attorneys. While roughly 50% of law students are female, legal news service Law360 found that women represent less than 40% of attorneys in law firms and just over 20% of equity partners.
Becoming a parent certainly seems to factor into the diminishing numbers. A 2019 study from the American Bar Association reported that nearly 60% of female lawyers cite caretaking commitments as an “important influence” on their decision to leave their firms. More than half said arranging child care is their full responsibility, compared with 1% of male lawyers.
As a solo practitioner specializing in international law, Sandra Chiarlone agreed that it was “very difficult” to manage her practice and a new baby in 2017. While she was able to find a babysitter whenever she had in-person client meetings, she often depended on others to visit the various entities with which she communicates, such as the Illinois Secretary of State office and Consulate General of Italy. Her quarterly trips to Italy also stopped.
“When you’re lawyering in your early 20s, no one asks you, ‘What kind of lifestyle do you want?’” Harris said. “Do you like being in the office all the time? Or do you like having control of your schedule?”
Family law attorney Michelle Sinkovits Ferguson decided not to wait for others to ask. Instead of continuing her career at an established firm in 2012, she chose to start her own practice, Greenberg & Sinkovits, LLC, with fellow attorney Stephanie Greenberg. She knew that working for herself would eventually provide more flexibility when she wanted to have children. But a firm with two women at the helm also poses unique challenges.
“I think my first maternity leave … was a learning experience for both of us … how to handle things when the other one is on leave for an extended period,” Greenberg said.
Now, Greenberg and Sinkovits Ferguson are both moms and split their time between their at-home and in-person offices. While many other attorneys find challenges with working from home, they relish the ability to see their children the moment they stop working.
Legal Support Services Help Lawyers Who Are Mothers Excel
According to the 2019 American Bar Association study, levels of stress at work and work-life balance are top reasons that women leave their law firms. Luckily, the COVID-19 pandemic has stirred change in the legal industry. A hybrid setup — renting a few offices that attorneys can share during their periodic downtown trips — or working completely remote is no longer frowned upon. If more female attorneys feel empowered to find a work setup that suits them, it could improve overall retention.
Chiarlone, Greenberg and Sinkovits Ferguson have learned to adjust their schedules so they could devote necessary time to their children and practices, and they credit Amata Law Office Suites (Chicago’s first legal community of more than 700 attorneys and six Class-A downtown offices) with helping them reach their law practice and parenting goals. In addition to physical office space, teleworking services and virtual office programs, Amata offers them premier legal support, such as live legal receptionists who perform client intake and an experienced legal support team. Not to mention the potential to network with fellow lawyer moms and other attorney parents.
Greenberg and Sinkovits Ferguson decided to move their office to Amata last summer when their previous lease ended. For now, they prefer the virtual office approach rather than a hybrid or completely on-site option. They use Amata’s reservable day-offices and meeting room space for client meetings and have taken advantage of the live reception services. Sinkovits Ferguson said the arrangement is working “really well.”
Chiarlone appreciates the location of her downtown office, as it’s very convenient for clients to visit. But what she loves most about Amata is the empathy that she found in the personnel.
“On a scale of one to 10, they’re more than 10,” she said. They do what you need in a very precise and kind manner.”
After 15 years with her previous firm, Harris also made the move to Amata in 2019 when starting her partner practice with former colleagues. The goal was to live a more fulfilling life. She said Amata has helped them keep overhead “extraordinarily low,” earn more revenue and be more selective with their work. Most importantly, she has more time to spend with her kids.
“We enjoy our time together so much more,” she said.
There’s more work to be done to empower lawyer moms. Call us or visit our website and take an online or in-person tour of one of our six Class-A law firm office spaces and consider joining the Amata community. Or keep the conversation going by contacting us at email@example.com.