A Family-Friendly Law Firm: Reality or Rhetoric?

When I went through the on-campus interview process to become a law firm summer associate, my partner and I were already trying for a baby. The family-friendliness of the firms I interviewed with was, therefore, a top priority for me—although I wasn’t willing to sacrifice being in a place that would challenge, push and train me in order to have that. What I’ve found as a summer associate at Debevoise is that it is completely possible to have both. This process has also given me a profound respect for and tremendous gratitude to the parents who have broken down barriers over the last few decades. Their journeys have made my positive experience possible.

One of the fun law school activities that I participate in is the Yale Law Women’s Family-Friendly Firm Survey (“YLW”). Every year for the last twelve years, YLW has surveyed alumni to find out what makes a law firm “family-friendly” and then surveyed all firms in the Vault 100 to evaluate how they stack up against the most important family-friendly criteria. If you look back over the years, shifts in expectations and available benefits are noticeable. Parental leave durations have gotten longer and have moved towards a gender neutral classification (the focus being on primary and secondary caregiver status, rather than maternity and paternity status). Part-time options have also expanded. There is more discussion of the importance of not just having good policies, but also of attorneys feeling that they can use the policies without penalty. There is also increased attention to the experiences of fathers, both for their own benefit and for ensuring that women aren’t penalized for using accommodations that men do not.

Helping edit and promote the survey for the last two years gave me a very good sense of what factors to consider when it came time to choose my own firm. Can men take primary caregiver leave? Do men, as well as women, take the full leave offered? Have parents who have been on part-time status for part of their career been promoted to partner? Is it important to be seen at your desk working at 9 pm, or is working from home fully supported if you don’t actually need to be in the office? Are bonuses tied only to billable hours?

I chose Debevoise for its intellectual rigor, the answers to these family-friendly questions and my gut sense that everyone I spoke to meant what they said about work and family. Still, when I found out I would be six months pregnant when I started as a summer associate, I was a little nervous about whether the reality would live up to the rhetoric.

My summer at Debevoise started off on a super family-friendly note—of the seven promoted partners who had just been announced the week before I started, two were on parental leave when the announcement was made. As a matter of policy, but also thanks to the recruiting staff’s commitment to family-friendliness, the summer program has been accommodating in ways large and small. I work from home on the days that I have prenatal appointments; no one has said a word about the flip-flops that I sport to all but the most important events for the sake of my swollen feet; and everyone asks about my well-being without ever assuming that I can’t keep up with the work. In some ways it has been the subtle cultural cues that have mattered most to me—the partner who told me about his wife’s struggle to get leave with their first child and the efforts he has made ever since to support his female colleagues; the multiple people who’ve taken me to lunch or coffee and shared their tips for how they integrate work and children; the counsel who has pictures by and of his kids all over his office and doesn’t hesitate to say he’s working from home around a daughter’s doctor appointment; the associate who asks about my health with a genuineness that is unexpected coming from someone who is clearly not yet at that life stage.

Of course, these things stand out because I already know that Debevoise has family-friendly policies that respect my value in the workplace. These policies include, for example, lockstep salary and bonus, so that I won’t feel like I’m being penalized if I have to work fewer hours in the weeks when pregnancy is physically hardest or the baby is sick; flexible scheduling options if my partner and I need to coordinate our work hours around childcare; and eighteen weeks of primary caregiver leave if we decide to have another child. These policies inform the culture and vice versa, and it’s clear that a firm needs both to create a truly family-friendly workplace.

To be sure, it hasn’t been without its challenges and its hard days. What I love about being a summer associate is the intellectual challenge and the real work we get to do. Of course, that means that there is real work to be done, and some nights, I’ve gotten less sleep than the baby books recommend. I fell off of a curb one evening when I was hurrying to catch a train (no worries, both baby and I are fine). This scare forced me to accept that if I stayed in the office those few extra minutes to double check my work before I headed out the door, then I was taking the next train—no rushing allowed. When the heat and humidity rise, I get exponentially hotter, and even the building air condition doesn’t feel cool enough. I’ve had to bow out of most of the summer evening events, which has meant missing some fun experiences and not getting to know all of my summer colleagues as well as I would like. Being pregnant is a lot of work, being a summer associate is a lot of work, and being both together has definitely kept me busy. That being said, I’ve gotten even more than I expected out of my summer experience. I wanted a place that would accommodate my family-to-be without depriving me of any of the learning and challenges I need to grow as a lawyer, and I truly feel like I found that this summer.

As I end my time as a summer associate (and expect to have our baby about a month after that), I have found myself thinking a lot about the women and men who have worked so hard to make it easier to be a working parent at a law firm. While I will still face plenty of trade-offs, challenges and days where I feel like a juggler on a tightrope, I also know how much harder it was, especially for women, thirty or twenty or even twelve years ago. I am so grateful to everyone who asked for more, set a precedent, or supported a colleague. I’m also thinking about how to pay it forward to my classmates, colleagues and the broader community of working parents. In addition to a few suggestions for next year’s YLW survey, I’ve made an offer to everyone at my school to answer questions about family-friendliness and on-campus interviews and about being a summer associate while pregnant. I submitted testimony to Connecticut’s state legislature in support of all working parents getting paid family leave. I appreciate the Debevoise Women’s Review for giving me space to share my experience and hopefully encourage a few others who are weighing whether to take on the challenge of being a pregnant summer associate or who hope to start a family after they join a firm as an associate. I look forward to joining the ranks of the women and men who have helped make it so much less daunting to integrate work and family.