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Lawyers want flexibility in work schedules

May 3, 2017

When Merrillville attorney Debra Dubovich began looking for a legal job in 1987, it was not uncommon for her to be passed over in favor of a man. The male partners at the firms she applied to feared that she would put the needs of her family over the needs of her career. They assumed that she would not be willing to put in as much effort in the office as her male counterparts.

dubovich-debra-mug.jpg Dubovich

Today, Dubovich and her daughter are partners at Levy & Dubovich, where three generations of women in their family work together to run their firm. While it’s common for male attorneys to work in multigenerational firms with other male family members, Dubovich said her all-female family situation is rather unique and a testament to the strides women have made toward finding a balance between the demands of a legal career and the responsibilities of raising a family.

Part of that progress is largely attributable to the fact that there are more female attorneys now than ever before, Dubovich said. According to the American Bar Association’s “A Current Glance at Women in the Law – January 2017” report, women make up 36 percent of the legal profession, up from 30.1 percent in 2007 and 29.7 percent in 2001.

“I have to believe that as more and more women get into the profession that the profession will evolve and change,” Dubovich said.

The change Dubovich desires is manifesting itself in multiple ways, but the current trend seems to be offering more flexible work schedules for attorneys who have kids. In 2016, 35.2 percent of U.S. law firms offered full or part-time work-from-home policies for their attorneys, compared to 31.7 percent the previous year, according to the Association of Legal Administrators’ 2016 Compensation and Benefits Survey.

betz-tracy-mug.jpg Betz

While flexible working schedules are often associated with mothers seeking to balance their professional and personal lives, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP partner Tracy Betz said she prefers to think of scheduling issues in terms of the entire family. To that end, Taft announced earlier this month that it is now offering 16 weeks of paid parental leave to any attorney, male or female, who has a new baby at home.

Taft’s new policy comes on the heels of the creation of the firm’s Gender Advancement Committee, which Betz co-chairs. The committee is tasked with identifying the issues that can prevent women from advancing in the law at the same rate as men, with a particular focus on retention and promotion issues, the Taft attorney said.

gender-gap-chart.gifOn average, most private law firms in the U.S. offer eight weeks of parental leave for primary caregivers and four weeks for non-primary caregivers, according to the 2016 ALA Compensation Survey. In the Midwest, non-primary caregivers are given an average of six weeks of leave.

When studying this issue, Betz said the committee realized that most female attorneys who are having children are early in their careers, which means they likely still have goals for advancement. Betz, who has taken two maternity leaves herself, understands how difficult it can be to come back to work and pursue those goals after three months of caring for a newborn baby.

By offering 16 weeks of paid leave to all parents, regardless of gender or caregiver status, Betz said Taft is trying to send a message that the firm wants to be flexible and meet the needs of not only their female employees, but of attorneys’ families as a whole.

Generational differences are also pushing firms to become more flexible, said Shelbie Byers Luna, an associate with Drewry Simmons Vornehm LLP.

In previous generations, women often felt as if they had to choose between the partner track at a large law firm and having a large family at home, Byers Luna said. In fact, Melissa Cohen, a partner with Cohen & Sawochka, said when she began practicing law in 1989, many of her counterparts often chose to forgo having children to get ahead at work.

But as a member of the millennial generation, Byers Luna said she grew up with the notion that you can have it all — a successful career, a loving family and even an active social life. While achieving a balance between those things is certainly difficult, the young attorney said employers, including law firms, can play a role in encouraging women to achieve that balance by dismissing the notion that they have to choose.

“Of course, we’re going to work hard and get the job done and do it really well, but especially with millennials, it’s just a different mindset,” Byers Luna said.

The attorneys say having a network of support can encourage women to speak up and advocate for their needs. Dubovich, Cohen and Byers Luna are each members of the Women Lawyers Association, a northern Indiana group that supports women as they move through the ranks of the legal profession, particularly as they ascend to the bench.

Although the WLA existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it disbanded because women were hesitant to join for fear of being labeled as a feminist troublemaker, Cohen said. But in the late 1990s, a new group of female attorneys, including Cohen and Dubovich, decided to revive the group, this time permanently, in the hopes of giving women a safe place where they could discuss the obstacles they were facing in their careers.

Although the group does not perform advocacy work, its members say giving women the opportunity to discuss their frustrations has given them the courage to speak out on their own behalf at work. Additionally, Dubovich said the WLA offers support for women who don’t pursue the traditional partner track, but instead work part-time or flexible schedules in order to best meet the needs of their families.

Similarly, Betz said Taft’s approach is not that female attorneys must have it all, but that they should have the option to pursue their goals, both professionally and personally.

“It’s not just about flexible schedules and working less and promoting working less, but working better and smarter and helping everybody get to where they want to be,” she said. “There are all types of lawyers and all types of goals.”•

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