As published in Diversity & The Bar, May/June 2016

Can boutique law firms help keep working mothers in the legal profession?

There is an enormous resource of talented, high-end lawyers who left lucrative positions at the best firms in the United States to raise children. Over the years, there has been much debate about the trajectory of a woman’s career in law as it relates to having a family. Traditionally—as unfair and outdated as it is—the questions female attorneys considering motherhood ask themselves have been: Should I have children now? Should I wait until becoming a partner? Will children hurt my career opportunities?

Popular culture, for all its generalizations and inaccuracies, has accurately documented, if not supported, this dilemma. After all, Miranda Hobbs, a prominent corporate attorney in New York on HBO’s series “Sex in the City,” ultimately had to quit her partnership to raise her son. Or consider “How to Get Away with Murder’s” Analise Keaton, who, because of her private criminal defense practice, could never make time to have children. If art imitates life, then one thing is certain: historically, motherhood and the law don’t go together.


Numbers Tell the Story

According to statistics released by the American Bar Association in 2014, while women earned more than 47 percent of law degrees, they made up just 34 percent of the legal workforce. This begs the question: Where are they going? It’s probably fair to assume at least some of them are leaving practice to start families, perhaps because they’ve been conditioned to think they can’t be both parent and partner simultaneously and successfully.

What’s even more distressing is what happens when a woman returns to the workforce after having children. The evidence suggests that often their clients have been disbursed to other attorneys, the scope of their work drastically changed and their workload dramatically reduced. In fact, in 2013, research organization OnePoll found that roughly 30 percent of returning mothers felt they no longer “fit in” with their peers and colleagues, and another 40 percent felt little to no support upon returning.

It’s now 2015, and while we have not corrected all of the outdated stereotypes and unnecessary limitations on working mothers, our field is in a unique position to change the reality for working mothers while at the same time positively impact client service.


Technology Helps Law Firms Proactively Provide for their Clients and Staff

Thanks to technology that makes virtual workspaces, online collaborative environments and the all-encompassing cloud possible, law firms are proactively figuring out how to provide their clients with the best value. They have the opportunity to bring back into the workforce organized, driven and incredibly talented stay-at-home working mothers (on their own terms).

Often, these women started at the best law firms in the United States, worked their tails off (as did all lawyers in the best firms) and left practice to start a family. As their kids head off to school, they are now both available and desirous of getting back into the workforce, though not necessarily on a full-time basis or in a brick-and-mortar firm.


What Do Working Mothers Want?

To effectively engage working mothers, it’s important to understand what they want (and what they don’t want) from their law careers. And while it would be a gross misstep to presume the wishes of all working mothers are the same, in my experience employing this demographic exclusively, this is what I’ve found.

Working mothers want the ability to pick their son up from day care or see their daughter’s Little League game without consequence. They want complex and sophisticated work, albeit not on a 75-hour-per-week work schedule. They want challenging client-facing opportunities, but perhaps not during the back-to-school week or over Thanksgiving. They may want their firm to invest in their growth and development, but on their terms. They want, in a word, flexibility.

That kind of flexibility isn’t easy to find in this business. Big law certainly has a ways to go regarding fostering the flexibility necessary to engage—and re-engage—working mothers. But there is one legal operating model that is leaps and bounds ahead of the curve in terms of flexibility.

Enter the high-end boutique law firm. Corporate, litigation, intellectual property, labor. It doesn’t matter. These firms have realized that current technology and software tools allow them to operate at a fraction of the overhead of traditional firms. The documents, experience and other institutional information that used to be unique and held in confidence within a firm’s walls is now readily available either online for free or through excellent information service providers like Westlaw or Practical Law for a reasonable monthly fee.

That takes care of the technology and infrastructure. But what about the talent? That’s where working moms can shine. Not to generalize, but in many cases these women prefer to work 10–30 hours per week and in most cases from home. No problem. Technology makes that easy. Women have the pedigree they earned from their years at big law. Through Skype and other advanced communications, they can collaborate easily. They can be paid by the hour and, because the overhead is low, the lawyers and boutique firms can do well. The firms avoid the overhead of a full-time employee, and they can expand and contract their professional staff to meet workload demands.

Boutiques are efficient in a way that is measurable from both the clients’ and employees’ perspectives. Often, they operate by strategically employing, on a part-time basis, a deep bench of experienced lawyers whose specialties match current (and changing) client needs. This gives firms access to the experience they need and clients the results they demand.

Flexibility is inherent in the boutique model. It’s what makes boutique firms thrive. It’s why we see headlines like “Boutiques Are In” (Corporate Counsel, 2015) and “Five Reasons Large Companies Are Turning to Boutiques” (Law360, 2014).

Oh, and clients love this model! They are getting highly experienced legal talent at a fraction of the price that big law is required to charge. The same price at big law would get them young, inexperienced associates or, alternatively, the “C” team.

Big law, as opposed to boutique firms, is challenged by high overhead and general inefficiencies. Consider this: The full-time employment of a $150,000-per-year junior partner means, right off the bat, she must bill $150,000 just to break even. This does not account for her 200-square-foot office space in the heart of downtown or the electricity required to power the office. Those expenses not only translate into higher rates for the client, but it’s easy to see how the big law model almost begets a dog-eat-dog environment. Everyone is expected to pull not only her weight but the weight of the three associates working on her team. Adding a family into the mix can seem almost impossible.

So what do working mothers not want? In my experience, they’re not interested in some of the traditional big law obligations such as business development responsibilities. They’re often put off by the mere thought of office politics or partnership-track duties. Their depth of experience signals they are likely to have put in their time working on projects they’re not excited about over long hours they can live without. They want more.


Boutique Law Firms May Be a Fit

Boutique law firms are poised to give them more. This model not only supports ever important diversity initiatives, which vendors may like and clients may demand, but it also makes these firms more competitive and more representative of their client base. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2014, the majority of women between the ages of 15 and 50 are mothers, so why shouldn’t the legal workforce mirror this reality?

Hiring part-time working mothers also makes financial sense for the owners and operators of boutique firms. In many cases, these women don’t require health insurance or other benefits such as paid vacation, meaning the law firm can reduce the cost to the client even further. And, thanks to the increasing reliability and capability of technology, firms can be just as effective (if not more so) working remotely as they are in those expensive downtown corner offices.

While not a new idea by any stretch, this concept is starting to gain traction in a way it hadn’t before. Sites like Bliss Lawyers, a Web-based organization offering access to 10,000 lawyers across the nation, are attracting the attention of law firms that are drawn to the flexibility of part-time or contract legal assistance. And this is only the beginning.

Our world has never been more connected, and our workforce has never been more portable. If law firms don’t start stepping up and adequately engaging—and re-engaging—working mothers, it will be their loss.