How one lawyer plans to get back on the fast track after a few slow years

IMG_0080Careers have peaks and troughs. Many people decide to “park it” for a few years while caring for children or elderly parents, or while dealing with a health issue or a boss who inspires hunkering down. But at some point the situation can change. So how do you show you’re back in the game?

I asked this question on the blog a few weeks ago. I thought one of the responses I got was so thorough that it deserved its own post.

Blog reader Tracie is a lawyer with three young kids. Since having her first, she’s been on a 60% schedule at her law firm (meaning she needs to bill about 60% of the hours that a full time associate would bill). It is wonderful that her firm offers part-time arrangements, and given the three kids thing, it was fine for a few years to sit where she was. “I did good work, but didn’t do any of the ‘extras’ like courting clients, speaking, writing, etc. that are expected of someone who is trying to make partner,” she tells me. Consequently, she didn’t move up any levels as an associate.

However, since her kids are getting older and she’s not anticipating having more, she’s trying to get back on track with a goal of being in contention for partnership when her youngest starts kindergarten. Knowing “it is going to be hard to shake the reputation of being on the ‘mommy track,’” she’s drawn up very specific steps to achieve her goal. For instance, during 2015, she:

  • Visited an important client in another state to reboot that relationship (she hadn’t traveled out of town to visit clients since becoming a mom).
  • Went on a “secondment” in which she was loaned out to a client with its corporate office in her area. “Essentially, it means that I’m working in their offices as though I’m one of their employees. I am getting a lot of valuable face time with them. However, it means that I need to do all of the work for other clients at night and on the weekend. That has been hard, but the month and a half of double shifts has more than made up for the slow start that has normally plagued the years I return from maternity leave.”
  • Greatly exceeded her billable hour target. She could have chosen to increase her target from the get-go in order to get paid more, “but after consulting with a few mentors I decided it would be good to get a year on the books in which I billed a lot more than I was required to bill.” This established her as the kind of person who exceeds expectations.
  • She started expanding her skill set into an area of the law in which her firm doesn’t have enough specialization.

Since she still has three young kids, this ramping up has required a few changes. First, she let go of trying to wholly separate work and home life. “I used to think that I would have more balance with more separation. However, I have started doing the ‘split shift’ that you recommend in IKHSDI, and it’s working really well. I try to get home by 5 or 5:15 (which means leaving work at 4:30). I log back on at 8:15 once the kids are in bed and work for an hour or two.” Her firm gave her a laptop, so she can work remotely. She also hired a nanny instead of using daycare. While the daycare was across the street from her office, “I felt guilty about leaving them there for long hours.” But “Now that they are home with the nanny, I feel less guilty. They are all happier in their own environment in the late afternoon/evening.” The family’s nanny can help get dinner started if she’s running late.

And, of course, the key: “My husband has stepped it up. He has been covering more child tasks (e.g. taking them to doctors appointments and soccer practice) and household tasks (e.g. cooking dinner and grocery shopping).”

She has a plan for 2016 too, to ramp it up more. She will:

  • Raise her hours to 70% and exceed the requirements. “I have basically been working this much this year, but this will mean more pay and a show of greater commitment. In a few years, I’ll bump to 80%, which seems to be the ‘magic’ number if you want to make partner on reduced hours.”
  • Visit two clients who have given her work in her new skill area to solidify those relationships.
  • Attend a major conference for lawyers who practice in her area of law. “The firm does not pay for associates to attend this conference because all of the partners in our group go,” she notes, but she and a few associates are planning to attend and room together and participate in the networking aspects of the conference.
  • Speak at an event in front of potential clients. Her firm gave associates public speaking training, so she’s feeling more confident here.

Ramping up her hours means she’ll earn more, and she’s got a plan for that, too. “With higher pay, I am going to experiment with outsourcing some of the tasks that are less enjoyable to me than spending time with my family (e.g. cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.),” she says.

I thought this sounded pretty smart. Do you know lawyers — or others — who’ve managed to leap off the mommy track?

In other news: I’ll be doing a 7-Day Time Tracking Challenge this coming week (January 11 – 17). I find that the best way to spend time better is to figure out how we’re spending it now! I’ll post time logs on the blog, and be discussing it on Facebook. If you want to get motivational/instructional emails during the week, you can sign up here.

23 thoughts on “How one lawyer plans to get back on the fast track after a few slow years

  1. I did to some extent. I was on a 70% schedule (every Monday off and every other Friday off) for almost 23 years. Now I am full-time, but telecommute from home 1-2 days a week as the office is a long driving distance from home. In hindsight, I wish that I had ramped up to full-time a little sooner. I was part-time when I joined the firm and became a partner 3 years later despite my part-time status. In the years before Iphones and being tethered 24/7, I felt like my “days off” with my kids were truly days away from the office-but once technology ramped up, I was doing work a lot more on my “days off,” with no increase in base compensation.

    1. @BethC – you raise a good point. In billables cases I think the percentage matters more — having a target of 1600 hours vs. 2000 hours does matter in terms of how much you work. But in a lot of jobs it’s unclear what “80%” actually means. How much is everyone else working? Who knows! I definitely saw when I collected time logs from multiple people at certain employers that people’s work hours were all over the map. Someone working FT might be doing 35 and someone else 55 (that’s not an exaggeration — there literally were some 20 hour gaps). Obviously, those numbers correspond with different responsibilities and career trajectories, but “full time” encompasses a host of lifestyle options.

      1. My arrangement was days in the office-i was in the office 7 out of 10 days, so I got 70% of a full base salary (and was eligible for bonus compensation).

  2. Great post! Really good insight from a reader. I have a question for you both: how did you decide how many kids to have? Did it just happen or was it planned? I think about this sometimes as I’m planning my career.

    1. @GirlFriday- now that is definitely a whole different can of worms! But probably worth a post one of these days. I don’t think I ever had a vision for a certain number in my head. But I grew up as one of 3 and my husband grew up as one of 4, so I don’t think either of us ever thought 0 or 1 was the right number.

    2. Honestly? 3 kids just sort of happened. In terms of career impact, I think having 3 babies in a relatively short period of time stalled my career somewhat, but probably not much more than if I had only had 2 or even just 1 kid. If I didn’t have a job that paid enough to cover childcare for 3 kids, it could have had a huge impact on my career, though. I have friends who have quit working after the third because they couldn’t afford childcare for all of them.

      1. @Tracie – now that is a key point. Some careers pay enough that you can cover (good) childcare for lots of kids. Interestingly, many of these are fields that are not immediately thought of as family-friendly. One of my points in I Know How She Does It is that you may be better off considering these high paying fields (particularly if you want a big-ish family) because they allow you to make work and life work in a way that a lower paying field, even if it’s perceived as family friendly, might not. Childcare is expensive.

    3. Having just 2 kind of happened-in hindsight, I would have liked more, but it was a struggle just to keep it going with 2 kids. There are a lot of variables-I lived 2 1/2 hours away from family, my now ex-husband ended up flying the coop when the kids were 3 and 5, and that was really tough with no family support nearby. I was fortunate to meet my current husband when the kids were 5 and 7-but when we married, our jobs were in different states, so my commute increased significantly when we bought our house. Most of the women at my firm with kids opted to stop at 2, although 1 has twins and a third child-don’t know how she does it!

    1. It is really great. I think a fair number of big law firms are moving towards that policy in an effort to retain and promote more women. Working Mother magazine does a good list every year of the best law firms for women, and most of them provide flexible work schedules, reduced hours options, and generous maternity leaves.

  3. I love this post. I run a program that provides internships for women looking to get back to work after taking a break. I shared this with them because I think there’s a lot of advice here that applies to that situation, too.

    There’s a few things I especially love about the story she outlines here: 1. I love that her plan is really strategic — she’s not just putting her head down and working more, she’s thinking about what specific types of work will accelerate her career; 2. She’s making the changes in partnership with her husband; 3. She’s investing in today for a payoff tomorrow — she’s doing this both in her career (paying to go to a conference that her firm won’t fund) and at home (paying for a nanny and other outsourcing of household tasks). The invests in home maintenance and care will payoff big down the road — eventually she won’t need that support but the additional income will just keep growing. Really smart strategy.

    1. @Tami – thanks for sharing the post with your community. I was drawn to Tracie’s response because, as you noted, it was so strategic. It isn’t just about working more. That’s fine and often necessary to get back on the fast track, but there are smart ways to work more and not-so-smart ways and she’s really put some thought into it.

  4. I am impressed with her extremely intentional plan to get back off “the Mommy Track,” but one thing is gnawing at me….should we, as women, be so quick to offer our work for free in hopes of future benefits (which may or may not materialize)? This is a question that is often raised in my field–academia–where women are expected to carry the brunt of non-compensated work, such as committee service and student advising. There has been a recent movement among female academics to carefully avoid such work, since it never helps one’s tenure and promotion cases, nor is it compensated. As an attorney, her billable hours are VERY valuable to that firm’s bottom line, so why shouldn’t she be paid for them? Why do women have to exceed their billable hours to make an impression? Why can’t they just meet the goal and have that be a good enough job?

    I realize that in this particular field, the issue of billable hours is not 100% gender-specific. My husband is an associate at a firm that is notorious for being a “sweatshop” (the expectation is about 2800 billable hours a year), and I know that he is anxious to exceed his target in order to impress the partners. However, I don’t think he expects to go over by 10% or more, as Tracie does.

    I’m just trying to think of what would happen if this scenario were switched (although the cynical part of me says that would never happen–if a male associate took time off to raise his children, his career would tank, though I hope that’s not true!).

    1. @Anne- you raise a valid point, though I think the issue is complicated. There is the “stuff” of a job (how many hours she bills) and then the soft side (managing her brand, how people perceive her, etc.). As I’ve interviewed people about this issue, I’ve found that changing perceptions is incredibly hard. It’s not enough to do good work, because people only see evidence that supports their prevailing thesis. So if you’re known as the person who’s hunkered down, people don’t notice the two times you stayed late, they notice the one time you left early. So you have to call attention to what you’re doing, and one way to do that is to exceed hours in a way that is clearly delivering to the bottom line. Or you can stand in the hallway at 6 p.m. shouting “Hey, look at that, I’m still here!” 🙂

    2. Anne, you have a valid point about “free work” but I think the equivalent at a law firm is all the “non-billable” stuff I do (e.g. mentoring younger associates, recruiting, etc.), which is technically tracked but doesn’t ultimately increase my compensation. Billing more than necessary will both raise my profile and hopefully result in a bigger bonus, so there is more of a payoff. I also don’t feel too cheated considering they paid me through three maternity leaves in which I billed nothing 😉
      Also…OMG 2800 hours? Sweatshop indeed! My firm doesn’t require anything near that. Going 10% over that would be insane.

    3. I wondered about this as well – if she increases her billable hours, DOES she get paid more? Not sure how part-time works @ a law firm and whether it’s directly proportional to hours billed.

      When I worked part-time on salary, it was a % of my salary and roughly equated to that % of a 40 hour week. I was careful not to work more than that because I *wasn’t* getting paid for it. I was lucky enough to work somewhere that I could just send an email and increase my %, though, as I was ready to ramp back up. I went from 50% – 75% (20 hours to 30 hours) over 4 years, slowly. (And then quit, but that’s another story.)

      Now, as a contract employee my paycheck *is* the number of hours I bill so if I want to work more, it’s way more flexible. However, I’m not on a career track with this kind of work (at least not a traditional ladder).

      If I wanted to get back to that, I’d have to take an actual full time (40 hour+) employee position. But so far the work has been interesting and fun so I’m sticking with the freelancing.

      1. Typically, the answer for non-partners is no, you do not get paid more per “extra’ billable hour. However, some firms will look at how much you bill and factor it in to your bonus or raise. It will also increase your odds of becoming a partner.

  5. So great to hear a story of someone who’s hustling to get back on track! It’s such an important reminder – it’s never too late. Also love how she’s strategic about achieving her goal!

  6. I know you’re looking for a topic for your next book, this is actually a topic I’m super interested in- the strategies & tactics necessary to “get back up to speed”.

    1. Yes! I was just talking about this last night with two of my friends who have been SAHMs for about 6.5 years. The idea of going back is so daunting, and gets worse the longer you’re out – these friends are two super smart women who had great jobs in finance and marketing and were both doubting their abilities to get back into the game. I think it would be super helpful to have some kind of guide for this situation too!

  7. I agree with Ingrid–this is THE book many women are looking for, particularly since there has been a resurgence in staying home with kids, at least temporarily, in the past decade or so.

    I work in tech, where skill sets can become obsolete in six months. In retrospect, I was very lucky–I had the opportunity to work remotely very part time (7-10 hrs/wk) and could concentrate on monitoring systems, which didn’t require any new skills on my part. When I went back, I was just thrown into the mix (which included a major meltdown my first day back). Since then, I’ve looked for and in some cases created niches for myself that make me a valuable employee but don’t require the 24/7 availability of your typical sys admin.

    I think it cannot be stressed enough that women who stay home need to keep one foot in the door however they can manage. Many of my fellow middle-school moms are faced with low-paying admin jobs as their best option now, if they are an option at all.

  8. I am also a lawyer and a mother. I am glad that Tracie is negotiating this difficult path. All law firms are different and I have a very different perspective as I work at a small firm. I did not go part time after my son was born, although I certainly did not bill as much as I used to the first year of his life, I had gotten back to “normal” shortly thereafter. He is now 3 and I am an equity partner. I think, for me, becoming partner had less to do with the number of hours I billed but rather the level of expertise I had. This is a benefit of a small firm atmosphere, where billable hours are not the end-all be-all of lawyering. I don’t know how people, parent or otherwise, cope with the nonsense that large firms are famous for!

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