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Overheard at the Ms. JD, Lateral Link, and Haynes Boone Mid-Level Associates Forum in Dallas, Texas

Last Friday, Ms. JD and Lateral Link hosted a Mid-Level Associates Forum in Dallas, Texas.  The event, which was sponsored by Ms. JD Law Firm Sponsor, Haynes and Boone, was an incredible success.  I was lucky enough to attend and get to hear the incredible advice offered by panelists Marilyn Moore Basso, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of Celanese Corporation, Anne Johnson, Partner at Haynes and Boone, and Christina Marshall, Associate at Haynes and Boone.  Mardy Sackley, Managing Director at Lateral Link moderated the panel and offered her own perspective from her time as a big law partner.  Below, I offer quotes from the women on work-life balance and making it in big law.  Enjoy!

On Flexibility:

Figure out your priorities and then protect them.  For me, that's 6-9.  I try my best not to schedule any calls or work between six and nine so that I can have dinner and see my kids.

There's been many iterations of what "flexibility" means to me throughout my career.  You have to be aware of those changes in yourself and adjust your priorities accordingly.

It's harder to go part time because you have to have the personality to be able to say, "It's 4:00 and I have to go" no matter what comes up. 

Sometimes I think we forget that there's a work part to work life balance.  Who's your back up?  It's just as if you're on another matter and you need someone to back you up on a case.  Do your clients know who to contact if you're not available?  

As a client, I don't think we need to know what the reason is that you need to leave at 6:00.  Just let me know how to get a hold of you (or who to get a hold of) in an emergency.

On How To Plan/Think About Flexibility:

Establish yourself first.  Flexibility is earned.  When I left for pregnancy, my partners told me "You've made my life easier, now I will make your life easier." 

BUT don't leave before you leave.  Sheryl Sandberg is right about that. 

Women are planners and that's why we fall into the trap that Sanberg talks about.  Let me break the plan down for you: the plan should be to get really really good at your job.  Know how to prioritize, learn time management, develop your substantive skills.  Quite frankly, for the first three years, you should not have flexibility in your vocabulary. 

Many women think in-house is the solution for work-life balance.  I don't necessarily agree.  You need to do what you love.  You go in-house because you want to be closer to the client and more focused on their particular issues.  You need to look for the right culture/people.  Some people want to go in-house because they don't want to have to develop business and don't want to cultivate relationships.  If you don't like cultivating relationships, don't assume in-house is your solution.  You still have to cultivate relationships. 

On "Perfect" Practice Areas: 

I think we all agree that some law firms are better than others.  We all know which ones they are and which ones they aren't.  You need to choose a practice area because you love it.  Everything has it's positive and negative sides.  Find what you love because you'll need that to feed you. 

Are things getting better for women?

The good news is, the answer to this question was a resounding YES. 

I think the challenge is different than it used to be and in many ways we are our own worst enemies.  We don't have to be so secret about our obligations.  I was recently in a meeting with a bunch of partners.  We were almost done and the conversation drifted to baseball.  I had to go pick up my kids that evening so I knew I needed to leave at 5:15.  We were basically done with the agenda, so I let the conversation go on for a few minutes and then said, "Hey, look guys, can we finish up whatever you need me for because I need to leave to pick up my kids at 5:15?"  The meeting was done three minutes later and I got out to go get my kids.  The funny thing is, I know there were men who also had to get out of there and were relieved that I was the one who stood up and said I needed to go.  Now, you have to think about timing.  That wouldn't be appropriate if we were in the middle of heavy negotiations but the meeting was almost over and they were just catching up so I could do what I did.

The hard part for me was figuring out what I wanted.  I drafted up a part time plan, submitted it to the management committee, got it approved and then decided not to go part time after doing a lot of soul-searching.  I realized that I would probably still work full time and so going part time didn't make sense.  What I needed was more flexibility in my hours and the freedom to do them at home.  I needed to be able to walk out at 5:00 pm and I thought part time would give me permission to do that.  The reality was, I wanted to go part time not because I couldn't make the hours but because I was fighting with my own guilt about leaving the office that early. 

I also think there's a big tension right now between the traditional law firm practice that requires face time and slogging it out in your office versus technological advances that mean we don't have to do that anymore.  It's changing but its slow in part because many people in leadership still expect the face time and slogging it out in the office.  Younger generations just do not see the need for that.  

We have to be careful about technology though.  It can be a blessing and a curse.  You have to try to figure out a way that you can connect and not be on a leash at the same time.

On Anne-Marie Slaughter's Article: (Click here if you haven't read it.)

Look, she tries to say that it's impossible to find a balance based on her experience.  But her experience was just impossible.  She took a job in the WHITE HOUSE, while her family was in Boston, she was living in DC.  There's just no way that was going to work out well. 

I have a lot of guilt related to my work and its impact on my family.  I appreciated Anne-Marie Slaughter's article because she made it OK for me to feel guilty.  She validated those feelings. 

I don't particularly like the article but I do like the fact that we're talking about it. 

I also think it's important to note that the younger males, the ones who are coming up now, want more work life balance as well.  I think that factor, more than anything, is going to have a major effect on legal practice because it helps to make this a practice issue rather than a women's issue. 

The other thing that's changing is that the really senior people now have daughters.  They're seeing them come through college and graduate school and thinking "I don't want to pay for all of that only to have her leave."  I think seeing that in their daughters is having a big effect. 

On Why Women Leave:

1. She leave to stay home.

2. She leaves to go in-house.

3. She leaves because she perceived the firm as being inflexible.

I think a big part of this issue is that women have a hard time asking for what they need.  The key is that we PERCEIVE the firm as being inflexible.  I was saying this to the women at my table before the panel, but it's important for you to know that you have more power than you think you do!  Law firms are really serious about retaining women because clients are really serious about retaining women. 

You need to decide how you want your flexibility to look, you need to ask for it, and then you need to protect it.  If you don't, law firms and companies will walk all over you. 

Then you have to figure out how to deal with your own personal guilt.  Like I said, my protected time is 6-9.  There are times that I'm walking out of the building at 5:30 to head home and I feel like I'm walking through Rome burning down.  There's three unsolvable problems that have come up in the last 30 minutes and I feel like I'm leaving them all behind.  But you know what, I get home at 6:00 and one associate has already responded to the client and solved one problem.  Another has sent me two options to discuss to solve the second, and we're working on the third.  Rome is almost never on fire the way we feel like it is. 

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I was excited by this panel because it's the kind of conversation that Ms. JD tries to inspire.  If you're interested in hearing more of these kinds of conversations, look for future events co-hosted by Ms. JD and Lateral Link in other cities later this year.  Do you have a great idea for an event that you'd like Ms. JD to help put together/sponsor?  Send us a note at director at ms-jd.org  Also for opportunities to build your own leadership skills, attend Ms. JD: She Leads October 5th in Washington, DC!

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