Practicing Moms’ Take on Work-Life Balance

Attorneys strive to find work-life balance amidst the demanding day-to-day practice of law. For practicing moms, achieving that balance presents additional distinct challenges.

Four practicing moms recently shared their perspective and advice on maintaining a work-life balance with the WBAI. While they are at different stages of their careers and motherhood, one common thread among them is that finding flexibility in their schedule and a solid support system is key.

The WBAI works to provide a level of support to practicing moms through its Legally Moms committee. Legally Moms hosts regular events and meet ups to highlight issues unique to mothers in the WBAI membership.

Erica C. Minchella, President, Minchella & Associates, Ltd

Ms. Minchella has practiced law for 36 years. Her three-attorney real estate firm focuses on transactions (residential and small commercial, including short sales) and litigation (foreclosure defense, division of property, quiet title, disputes over property disclosures, etc.). After beginning her career as a bankruptcy attorney, she transitioned to real estate, which provided more flexibility in scheduling.

She measures her years as a practicing mom from the time her eldest child was born, six years after she began practicing law, to the time her youngest started to drive 19 years later. She has been fortunate to share office space with her husband, who works in a different industry. Today, her son works for her husband, while her daughter works as her docket clerk.

Q.  What has helped you achieve a work-life balance?

A. Being a sole practitioner allowed me to set my own (insane) hours, so that my children could be my priority. I would get up at 5:00 a.m. and work before the needs of my children or demands of my practice took over my day.

I worked part-time for nine years, when my children were in their pre-teens, so that I could be their part-time chauffeur. That often meant driving to their events with cases or briefs to read and mark up or phone calls to make. Being with them during their impressionable teen years brought us closer and made them want to stay as a part of my life once they started their own working lives.

Q.  What advice would you give to new moms practicing law?

A. My experience may have been unique in that I was not with a firm when my children were born, so I made all of my own choices. I was not focused on developing my career as much as I was on balancing my career with raising my children. Developing my career resumed when my children were older.

We were fortunate to have found a nanny who was with us for 12 years and literally became a part of our family. I don’t know if my choices would have been as simple, were it not for having a “third” parent I could trust so completely or if I had been part of a firm that had expectations of me. I had a supportive husband and was able to make choices that worked for our family. So the advice would be – make sure you have a good support system. 

Q.  What efforts can firms make to foster their practicing moms’ work-life balance?

A. This is a particularly hard question for me to answer since I have two young women working as my associates. As a small firm, I have absolutely no idea how I will deal with either one having children. They are both critical to my practice, not easily replaced. Their having children will likely mean that I will have to increase my own hours or encourage them to cut back their hours and share their position. Every situation is unique. 

Law is not life – it’s a calling, a career, a job. You only get one chance to raise your child and there are an incredible number of outside influences to overcome to assure your child has your values and knows you value them over your career. If law firms understand this, they will work to find the flexibility necessary to hold on to good talent and assure that there is a balance of the job with the obligations parents have to raise their children.

Amy J. Hansen, Partner, Lynch Thompson LLP

Ms. Hansen is a partner at Lynch Thompson LLP, where her practice focuses on commercial litigation. She began her legal career as an associate with a predecessor firm in 2008. Her entire practice has been as a mom, as her sons, now 11 and 13, were born while she was in law school.

Q.  What has helped you achieve a work-life balance?

A. My firm has always permitted me flexibility regarding where and when I work, as needed. For example, I have often left the office in the afternoon to attend a function for my children or come in later in the day, and then worked a couple of hours in the evening.

Additionally, for the most part, I have the flexibility to work from home when needed. Having a dedicated space at home to work and setting boundaries has been key to my ability to so. Finally, I have been fortunate to have family support to help when my work obligations have precluded me from being at home or getting the kids where they need to me.

Q.  What advice would you give to new moms practicing law? 

A.  There are going to be times when you are not going to be able to do it all and do everything perfectly, and that is okay. Prioritize. Ask for help when you need it. Say no when you need to. And don’t feel guilty when you feel like you are not a super-mom and a super-lawyer every moment of every day.

Q.  What efforts can firms make to foster their practicing moms’ work-life balance?

A.  Flexible scheduling and the ability to work from home seem to be two of the key efforts that are helpful for many practicing moms. However, firm culture needs to be such that work at home days or times are respected as such, rather than a favor by the firm or pseudo-vacation time.

Moreover, ideally, both moms and dads should be encouraged to foster a work/life balance. Doing so would help send the message that these efforts are not a special benefit for moms and that balancing work with family should not be a task borne by moms alone.

Emily Wessel Farr, Founder and Principal, Ardent Law

Ms. Wessel Farr started her firm, which focuses on management-side employment and business litigation, in Chicago in 2015 after practicing for five years at litigation firms in North Carolina. At the time, her eldest, Calvin, was 11 months old and still breastfeeding. Her daughter, Holland, was born just prior to celebrating the firm’s one-year anniversary.

Q.  What has helped you achieve a work-life balance?

A. People say it takes a village, and that you need a great partner. I agree, and feel lucky to have a husband, extended family, daycare providers, babysitters, and friends who take responsibilities from me when I am stretched thin. However, I believe that the KEY to work/life balance is committing to it.

I decided as a rising 2L to skip on-campus interviews and find a small firm where I could practice law while (as I told the career counselor) being home by dinner. Balance was always a priority for me. 

I am a full, happy person because of my career, as well as: volunteering, working out, traveling to see family and friends, seeing my children on nights and weekends, cooking, writing, reading, and sleeping (a little). To feel balanced, you must believe in balance. If you think it’s a source of shame, you might have drank the Kool-aid.

Q.  What advice would you give to new moms practicing law?

A.  Be authentic, and ask for what you want. Many new moms feel that they aren’t made for the law anymore, but it’s just the opposite. The law firm model wasn’t made for moms, and it’s still not made for moms.

However, the law is a wonderful profession, and it is a privilege to practice. It is particularly rewarding for empathetic individuals, and well-suited for expert multi-taskers. Therefore, the mom is an ideal lawyer. Don’t forget it!

Q.  What efforts can firms make to foster their practicing moms’ work-life balance?  

A. Firms can provide moms with the support system they need after maternity leave. While the leave itself is necessary and always appreciated, any mom will note how difficult the entire first year of motherhood can be. Firms should strive to accommodate moms when they request flexible arrangements, and provide the same flexibility for dads.

I talk a lot about culture with my clients. It’s powerful stuff. If a law firm can communicate and live by values that promote trust as well as a full life outside of work, it will find respected associates who grow to be partners, rather than disgruntled associates who leave. People join a company, but they leave a boss, and the quickest way for that to happen is to dismiss a mother’s commitments to her children.

Jennifer Donahue, Manager of State Legislation & Regulation for Division of Government & Public Affairs, American Dental Association (ADA)

New mom Ms. Donahue has been at the ADA for four years and advises its members and stakeholders across the country on legal, legislative and public policy trends that impact the practice of dentistry. Her daughter, Haley, recently turned one.

Q.  What has helped you achieve a work-life balance?

A. Two things: (1) Being realistic; and (2) Truly believing that it is possible to have a successful career as well as a happy, fulfilling personal/family life. It’s almost like having to develop a whole new skill set – challenging at first, and sometimes overwhelming, but not impossible. It’s still a work in progress for me, but I’ve been able to ease into a schedule that allows me to do my job and still spend meaningful time with my daughter.

I’m motivated by the desire to show her that she can do anything in life and be anything she wants – without having to sacrifice having a family. The motivation to be a good role model and to make my daughter proud has definitely helped me achieve that balance.

Q.  What advice would you give to new moms practicing law?

A. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other women or mothers, and do your best to ignore any unsolicited comparisons. Comparison is the ultimate confidence killer. And the moment someone attempts to make you feel guilty about having a career while raising children, immediately tune out that noise and continue on the journey you’ve chosen for your life.

Finally, whenever you find yourself with an extra 20 minutes at night and feel compelled to check your phone or respond to work e-mails, pick up and hold your little one instead. You’ll be happy you took advantage of those little moments later on … and your work e-mail will still be there when you get back.

Q.  What efforts can firms make to foster their practicing moms’ work-life balance?

A. Recognize that happier employees are more productive employees. Find ways to update internal policies and procedures to enhance the work/life benefits that are offered to employees, especially in terms of parental or family leave or being able to work remotely.

Hayley Graham Slefo is an attorney at Anesi, Ozmon, Rodin, Novak & Kohen, Ltd., where her practice focuses on representing injured workers in workers’ compensation and Social Security disability claims.