Podcast: Making partner with kids in tow

Sarah and I know (from listener emails) that a lot of Best of Both Worlds listeners work at law, accounting, or consulting firms. Often, the career paths in major firms involve working several years as an associate before making partner. This generally means having an ownership stake in the firm, but is also a signal of having been successful. You have more autonomy and often start earning a lot more too (since you get a share of the profits beyond your base salary).

Today’s guest, Kathleen Burns, found out she had made partner at law firm Nixon Peabody while she was pregnant with her fourth child. In fact, when her colleague called to tell her the good news, she announced that she had some news too!

Some highlights from today’s interview:

Reputation is not always reality. Some fields get a reputation as being bad for people who want to have a life outside of work. Law is definitely one of these; Burns worked as a paralegal for a year after college and was warned by people not to go to law school and into law. But she really likes it! Some of this reputation is about the billable hour. Lawyers (often) bill by the hour and so pressure exists to work more hours. But firms vary. Fields vary. Some firms are experimenting with different billing models. At Nixon Peabody, Burns was able to go to a 75 percent schedule and yet stay on the partner track. She’s expected to bring in about 75 percent of the business, work about 75 percent of the hours, and make that proportion of what she would otherwise make.

Law firms often have good maternity leaves. Many of the big firms now offer well over the US standard of 3 months (Burns took four 6-month maternity leaves). This is great! However…

It’s not just about maternity leave. The reality of leaving your client service job for 6 months is that someone else is going to be developing close relationships with your clients. Some of your clients might move and then you don’t know their replacements. You can find new ones and rekindle old relationships, but this “soft stuff” can be hard to pull off with a newborn (sure! Let’s chat business over a 3 hour steak dinner! I just need to slip out to the bathroom to pump in the middle, OK?) To help solve this problem, Nixon Peabody has a ramp-up policy of letting people returning from leave get credit for their full billable schedule for a few months, while working about 80 percent of the schedule. This gives people breathing room.

Think 168 hours, not 24. Especially in billable hour fields, it can be helpful to look at the whole week, rather than any single day. Burns generally works very long days on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get her concentrated work done. She works at home on Wednesdays, and focuses on shorter/lower-intensity tasks (like returning emails) so she can do some of the kid things like drop-offs. She is mostly off on Fridays.

Trade off. Burns says that she and her husband are both rarely home on weekday evenings. This allows each of them to put in the hours they need to while giving the kids a lot of parental time.

There is no perfect time. Burns — who is the oldest of six kids, and who wanted a bigger family — never considered holding off on having kids so she could accomplish any particular work goal. She just decided she could make it work. Other people who might have a desire for a smaller family might decide to wait to have a kid until after making partner. You really just have to do what works for you.

Find a mentor/sponsor. When people really believe in you, they can really help you make life work, both by showing what is possible and by advocating for you.

Becoming a mom changes you, but does not inevitably reduce your ambition. Since our guest is a total expert at maternity leaves, we decided to have her tackle our listener question this week! We heard from a soon-to-be-first-time mom about her trepidations about maternity leave. How should she prepare so her team could cover? And — the biggest part — would she still be herself after? She likes her ambitious, professional self. Will this disappear?

Burns talked about being very deliberate in transitioning her team for her absences each time. She would bring in people early, cc-ing them well before she planned to go out. In the last few weeks, she’d step back and take more of an observational role. This helped everyone feel that a solid plan was in place.

As for being a different person? Burns agreed with us that yes, becoming a parent changes people, particularly in the sense of putting time constraints in place that might not have been there before. This can make us more efficient! On the other hand, if you love your job, and feel called to your life’s work, you probably will feel the same after having children too. You’ll just be a person who loves her job…who also has a kid.

In other news: We had a bit of a sound blooper in the intro. Please just laugh along at our instruction to splice a particular part out. 🙂

6 thoughts on “Podcast: Making partner with kids in tow

  1. Kudos to Nixon Peabody for being so family friendly! My husband and I were just talking about women making partner at Big Law firms last night. As the wife of a big law partner I would say this is not the norm (maybe some cities or regions are better too, we are in NYC). In fact my husband almost spit his coffee across the bathroom when I announced that I was listening to an interview with someone who had made partner while working part time.

    I really enjoyed the guest’s attitude about having kids and climbing the ranks simultaneously. I had 3/4 children while completing my medical training. It is great to hear someone else supporting the choice to have kids BEFORE the big career milestone.

    1. @Gillian – it is good to hear about law firms and lawyers who are making it work! As for timing kids, there are just practical matters if you want a bigger family. If you want four kids (or more!) best to start early. If you want one, you might have some time to play around with after leaping through a career hoop.

  2. That was so interesting. Academia is very different but I absolutely agree on having kids when you want to have them rather than when your career seems ready for it. You never know what might happen in life.

    The suggestion of the long days for focused work gave me lots of food for thought. I’m on a compressed schedule giving me Tuesdays off with my toddler but am struggling to keep up with everything and a long day might be just the ticket. ‘

    1. @Cb – I think a long day is a great idea. You can be fully in work mode and take care of a lot of little tasks without the feeling of a hard stop time hanging over you.

  3. Fantastic to hear this story of how Kathleen Burns successfully grapples with a high-powered career, raising four young children and taking care of herself and her own interests. This interview raised a question that I frequently wonder about when listening to the podcast: how do working parents (I’m in academia) of young children / babies who don’t sleep through the night (and, I mean, are up 2-4 times…!) manage to find the energy for a consistent exercise routine. The stories of regular running on the programme are so inspiring, and I’d like to return to my pre-pregnancy fitness level (which involved daily aerobics, yoga and weight lifting). Keeping a timelog and an exercise log has helped a bit with inspiring me to do this, but it still seems very difficult to keep up the discipline and motivation to exercise regularly when I am so exhausted.

    1. @JM – if your kids aren’t sleeping well, I don’t think you should expect too much of yourself. But they will get older. Unless they have medical conditions/special needs they will eventually sleep or at least be able to entertain themselves if they don’t. In the meantime, just remember that something is better than nothing. Tell yourself you only have to run a mile. Usually the first mile is the hardest and I feel much more energetic after that. Or just a 20-minute walk at lunch. Something is better than nothing and over time something will become more intense.

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