Legal careers, feminine preferences

Kimberly Leach Johnson (JD 81) had just given birth, but that didn’t stop her.

The Naples attorney shuffled down the hospital maternity ward hallway to another new mother’s room and officiated the signing of adoption paperwork.

“I waddled down, got the mother to sign the papers and waddled back to my room,” she said.

In October, Johnson was named chair of Quarles & Brady, a 450-lawyer, Milwaukee-based firm with national reach. But back in 1984 when she became a mom, she was working at a small Naples attorney’s office that didn’t offer post-natal support.

Keeping up with her caseload then meant working from home, and even from the hospital. During her two-week maternity leave, Johnson accepted work that her secretary dropped off at the house. Without cooperation from her workplace, new motherhood was difficult, but Johnson said she understood the way the legal profession worked at the time and expected the sacrifice.

“This was going to be my career, my life,” Johnson said. “If they weren’t going to help me, then I was going to take care of my people — my clients.”

About 50 percent of law students are women, but only one-third of practicing lawyers are women. (American Bar Association)

Women in the law have long applied creative solutions to balance professional advancement with childrearing and household responsibilities, which historically tend to fall more heavily on women.

Women comprise roughly one-third of the legal profession, and even fewer hold partnership positions within law firms. That gap could be closing. A study by the National Association for Law Placement noted that the number of female partners rose about one percentage point, from 19.2 to 20.2 percent, between 2009 and 2013. During the same period, the study showed the number of female associates at law firms decreased about one percentage point, from 45.7 to 44.8 percent. Meanwhile, only four percent of the heads of the nation’s top 200 law firms are female. Johnson is a rarity in the field.

Some attribute the gap to the division of child rearing and household responsibilities. Strict office schedules and limited or nonexistent maternity leave curtailed the upward mobility of female professionals in the past. Some chose to leave the profession or to abandon the fast track because they were essentially forced to choose between work and family.

But that’s changing. As the climate of the legal community shifts to embrace alternatives to rigid workday desk jobs, women are using alternate work schedules and other creative ways to make a thriving law career work for them.

Alexa Sherr Hartley

Alexa Sherr Hartley (JD 02), president of Premier Leadership Coaching, plays with her daughter Delia at their West Palm Beach home. Throughout her legal and consulting career, she has used a combination of schedule arrangements to accommodate her work and family. (Photo by Kelly Logan 2JM)

Alexa Sherr Hartley (JD 02), who spent years in private practice and now is president of Premier Leadership Coaching, an executive and organizational coaching firm, said several increasingly popular options are doing just that. Sherr Hartley suggested four main ways practicing female lawyers customize their working lives:

  • Reduced-hours schedule lets women coming back after maternity take, say, 80 percent workload for 80 percent pay. This arrangement allows people to stay on track for partner though it takes longer to get there, Sherr Hartley said.
  • Flex hours allow an attorney to work the same amount of time per week but gives the employee leeway in how she arranges those hours.
  • Telecommuting, or working from home, lets attorneys stay in touch with the office and clients via Internet video chat, email and phone conferences.
  • Employees using job share work together to meet a quota of hours, and they coordinate with each other to arrange their schedules.

About 22 percent of lawyers were self employed in 2012. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Melissa Duncan (JD 04), who has been working for the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County since she graduated, uses a job share option. Her job involves managing a case load and appearing in court on behalf of the Juvenile Advocacy project, which represents children and teenagers in delinquency and dependency issues.

Mellisa Duncan

Melissa Duncan (JD 04) with her daughter Chloe at their West Palm Beach home. (Photo by Kelly Logan 2JM)

When her first child, Zachary, was born five years ago, she started looking for a better way to arrange her schedule than the typical 9-to-5. She recalled that some employees at the society had previously used a job-share arrangement, so she asked around and found a sort of working-lawyer doppelganger. She was someone with similar skills and interests who could handle similar clients: in other words, a “match” to share a schedule with.

“We both are committed to public interest, have similar interests, similar values, similar attempts to balance work and family,” Duncan said.

The pair have separate caseloads but share an office. Together, their schedules add up to 45 hours per week. Duncan works 25, and her partner works 20. During the summer, they trade off working full time so they can spend extended periods with their kids. The arrangement gives Duncan the flexibility to do things like picking her children up from school and even biking her daughter, Chloe, to preschool on some mornings.

Sherr Hartley combined many of the same progressive options for a period while she was raising her family. She came back from maternity leave with her first child and cut back to 80 percent work time, which meant she only worked four days per week. On one of those four days, she worked from home. It gave her the flexibility to care for her child while still moving forward with her career.

42 percent of female lawyers leave the legal profession at some point in their careers. (2007 Working Mother magazine)

Jeanne M. Singer (JD 77), chief assistant state attorney in the 8th Judicial Circuit, was practicing law before the Family Leave Act allowed for extra time off before giving birth. Like Johnson, she knows what it was like to have to choose between priorities: a demanding, inflexible law job or a demanding role as a highly involved parent. She eventually chose to decelerate her law career for a while.

“After I realized I had to sacrifice a lot of my own physical well-being as well as that bonding time with my child, I realized that priority has to be family first,” she said.

Now, she tells other women with families that they shouldn’t feel pressured to choose one thing. “Find the type of job — the type of professional experience — that’s going to allow you to be able to get the most out of interaction and contact and relationship with your children,” she said.

Lee Stapleton

Lee Stapleton (JD 82) sits for a portrait at her downtown Miami law office Baker & McKenzie where she is a partner. Stapleton broke into the legal profession in the 1980s and has since seen cultural norms shift in favor of women in the law. (Photo by Kelly Logan 2JM)

Lee Stapleton (JD 82) took a different path that had different considerations as she focused on her career.

A journalist-turned-lawyer who had lived in three states and three countries by the time she was 18, Stapleton has always had a penchant for adventure. She worked in Miami fresh out of law school because she viewed the city as an untamed frontier. Large-scale illicit drug cartels, rampant crime and recklessness were threatening the utopia she came to call home.

She broke into the law in the 1980s when relatively few women had joined the legal profession, and she spent years working to turn the tide as a federal prosecutor.

Stapleton was hired by then-U.S. attorney Stanley Marcus as one of two women in the criminal prosecution division. In the three decades since, cultural norms have shifted in the courtroom.

“It’s not unique to see a woman attorney anymore. Clients don’t find it unique. Judges don’t find it unique,” she said. “We’re out there in numbers. When I go to the courthouse now and teach at the law school, it is very gratifying to me at how many young women have chosen to go into trial work.”

But Stapleton said the breakneck pace of the profession can take its toll, and it’s especially grueling with responsibilities outside of work thrown in the mix.

“I think the practice of law can be a fierce business for both women and men,” she said. “It may be exhausting for some to stay.”

Fifteen percent of women deviate from partnership-track positions by moving into staff attorney or of counsel positions; 9 percent of men make that choice. (2007 MIT Workplace Center study)

Among the models touted nationally for promoting work-life balance is the Mother’s Circle program developed at Jenner & Block in Chicago. Attorney Reena R. Bajowala, 34, founded the program after her second child was born.

“It seemed to me that a ready group of people should be available to access and get advice, ask for tips, ask about policies,” she said.

The Mother’s Circle meets quarterly with speakers to talk about benefits and resources available to mothers, informally for lunch and through an email Listserv. Bajowala said letting women know they have a support network waiting for them back in the office can make the decision to take an extended maternity leave easier. It gives them assurance that “there’s no penalty or stigma for taking your full maternity leave,” said Bajowala, who took a six-month maternity leave when her daughter was born. “It says, ‘Hey, we understand you need time to figure things out, and we’ll be here when you get back.’”

Firms stand to lose when employees leave due to parenting and work conflicts. In those cases, firms offering generous maternity leave policies help someone transition into new parenthood and encourage them to stay.

Female lawyers and judges earn 82 percent of the wages men do. (Claudia Goldin via The New York Times)

For Carrie Levine (JD 02), in-house childcare at her workplace encouraged her to stay after she gave birth to her son Zachary. As in-house counsel for Royal Caribbean at the Miami port, Levine said working from home wasn’t an option because her “clients” are her co-workers and the job requires a physical presence in the office.

It’s rare for law firms to have on-site childcare. Usually only lawyers who work as in-house counsel for firms such as Royal Caribbean can take advantage of the service. Levine said her workplace is in a complex on the Port of Miami, which is driving distance from other amenities in the city. To compensate, Royal Caribbean’s complex is large and offers a variety of services on site.

The on-site care option lets Levine drop Zachary off each morning at the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daycare in the building next to her office. At lunch time, she walks over to play with him. Getting to see him during the day and knowing he is nearby influenced her decision to stay at Royal Caribbean after maternity leave.

“From that perspective, it really made it easier,” she said. “I didn’t have to make more difficult choices.”

As women fill nearly half the places in America’s law schools, they increasingly pursue successful legal careers on their own terms by carving out space for family in their working lives.

Consultant Sherr Hartley said some women may worry about being stigmatized for backing away from an aggressive partnership track or choosing to work from home part-time. Some may worry about losing their competitive edge in the workplace, and she acknowledges the legitimacy of that concern. But she said strong work performance will ameliorate the potential downside.

“If you exceed expectations on whatever you have arranged, then in most instances, your employer will value your contribution and work with you to the extent it is financially feasible,” she said.

“The most important thing is to be the very best lawyer you can be, regardless of your work schedule.”

The next generation

Endowed scholarships are gifts that keep on giving for UF Law students.

Several women’s groups across the state are organizing scholarships to boost the advancement of female law students at UF.

“Endowed scholarships are an important tool to ensure that students meeting criteria have the opportunity to pursue quality legal education,” explained Lindsey Farah, UF Law’s associate director of development. “They are also a way for donors to make a lasting impact on the future generations.”

The Central Florida Women’s Scholarship is a $2,000 award bestowed each year on a woman attending UF Law. Criteria include being a student member of the Florida Association for Women’s Lawyers or the Law Association for Women. Recipients must also be from Central Florida as defined by the following counties: Marion, Sumter, Lake, Seminole, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Hardee or Highlands, or have family from those counties.

The scholarship founders are Lauren Detzel (JD xx), Marjorie Bekaert Thomas (JD xx) and former Florida Bar President Mayanne Downs (JD 87). The goal of the scholarship, she said, is to “focus on two important issues. One is to reward leadership by women, and the second is to provide mentorship to those young women from those of us who have been in this profession for a long time and who have been fortunate enough to be involved in leadership.”

Following that model, the Tampa Bay Women’s Leadership Scholarship is being launched for women attending UF Law who are part of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers. One of the organizers is former Florida Bar president Gwynne Young (JD 74). Young, a shareholder with Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Tampa, said the scholarship is in the beginning stages of fundraising, and criteria are still being drawn up. The organizers hope to raise about $100,000 for the fund’s endowment by next year.

“I think it is important to continue to encourage women to pursue a legal education,” Young said. “Sometimes I think the ability to have financial aid to assist young people broadens the range of women we can bring to the law school.”

A similar scholarship for women at UF Law is being organized in the Miami area by Marcia Madorsky (JD 75) and Leslie Lott (JD 74). Madorsky, a shareholder with Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Miami, said they are planning to launch it next year. Although details such as criteria are still being put in place, Madorsky said it will probably be based on grade-point average and activities.

“We feel the university has done so much for us that we want to give back,” Madorsky said.

For information about scholarship deadlines and cycles, interested students should contact Rachel Inman, associate dean of students, in the Student Affairs Office at

Interested donors can contact Lindsey Farah, associate director of development, in the Development and Alumni Affairs Office at