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Be Careful What You Wish For
Going in-house wasn't always Elizabeth Levy's plan. The Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics lawyer actually started out as a mechanical engineer who hopped from a specialty chemicals company to a firm that made semiconductor manufacturing equipment to one that made incandescent lamps, before deciding to go to law school at night in her late twenties. She graduated with a J.D. with honors in 1993, and made partner at Lappin & Kusmer, a boutique IP firm in Boston, in 1998. Then she moved over to McDermott Will & Emery, where she met her husband-to-bea fellow McDermott partner, who had a young son.
They decided that two firm partners would not a family life make, especially if they wanted to have another child. Levy's husband ended up leaving McDermott to start a solo practice, and she sought out an in-house position. In fall 2001 she settled on one in Medfield, Massachusetts, in Bayer Corporation's diagnostics divisionan arm of the company that later moved to nearby Norwood, and was then acquired by Siemens in 2006.
Eleven years later, Levy is proud of how close her family is, and she is the most satisfied she's ever been with her in-house career. But it's been a journey with trade-offs. She's had more flexibility with her time, which helped her build a relationship with her stepson. But at points she has also felt isolated and stagnant in her job, and unclear about her career path. "It was a good move for our family," she says now. "I wasn't sure for quite a long time whether it had been the right move for me."
Early on, she often felt isolated as the lawyer for a business division in which management came and went, and could be "indifferent, somewhat hostile" toward legal. "Being an outsider and feeling excludedthat was a disappointment for me," she says. It's also taken a while for the quality and variety of work to reach a level she's happy with.
In the last two years, a new manager on the business side has boosted her engagement with the team and made her feel more valued. Another huge help has been her involvement in two women's groupsat Siemens, she leads a women's professional development group, and last year she chaired the organizing committee for the General Counsel Institute of the National Association of Women Lawyers, a networking and legal education event for senior in-house counsel. "The big thing that still comes upit's always work/life balance," Levy says. "And the next thing is: How do you advance?"
Levy is trying to figure out her own next steps; she doesn't believe she's cracked the code yet. "Is there something more I should be striving for, and if so, what, and what is the cost to get it?" she wonders. "I think it's very murky."
Many women lawyers find themselves asking similar questions. Often, a search for the answer leads them in-house, where it's commonly thought that they'll hit the trifecta: finding satisfying, challenging work for a business, while escaping the tyranny of the billable hour and the dismal advancement rates within law firms for women. That the percentage of women general counsel in the Fortune 500 (20 percent) edges out the percentage of women equity partners in The Am Law 200 (15 percent) helps support the rosier view.
But if going in-house offers many draws, it's no guarantee of work/life balance or a clear path to the top. The rules of the road vary widely among law departments. They're subject to a company's corporate culture, and they range greatly in sizewhich can limit opportunities for promotion. Then there are the things that experts say affect women in corporate life across the board, such as gender bias, failing to speak up about their career goals, and neglecting to network effectively.
Not to mention the extent to which personal and family demands factor into their lives, as illustrated, pointedly, by the swirl of reactions to Anne-Marie Slaughter's controversial essay in the June/July issue of The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," followed by the news that a pregnant Marissa Mayer was taking the helm of Yahoo! Inc.
Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, has been studying these issues for more than a decade. "It's really two separate issues when it comes to the advancement of women," she says. Work/life balance is the "threshold issue," she says. "Because if you don't get that right, you're not going to have a proportionate number of women." The second, she says, "is how is it different navigating these careers as a woman than it is as a man?and the research shows it's quite different."
Is work/life balance actually better for in-house lawyers? The Project for Attorney Retention, which is dedicated to lowering unwanted attrition among lawyers, released a report called "Still Better on Balance? Work Life Balance In-House." That research revealed a number of tensions in law departments. "The norm in in-house is more conducive to work/life balance than the norm in law firms," says Williams, who cofounded PAR. But, she continues, "people shouldn't assume that going in-house is a magic bullet."
Certainly, the promise of a better schedule lured many respondents to their first in-house position. Nearly all of the 429 in-house attorney respondents had worked at a law firm previously, and 70 percent of the respondents were women. PAR found that while more than half were drawn to the type of work (59 percent) and wanted to be more involved in business matters (56 percent), many also cited time factors: 57 percent said they wanted to get away from billable hours requirements, and 45 percent said they wanted more control over their work hours.
Most liked what they foundat least compared to a law firm. The authors describe the prevailing work schedule among in-house attorneys as "the dominant model": 50-hour workweeks that generally allowed them to get home for dinner. And they can take an uninterrupted vacation. Seventy-eight percent of respondents agreed that, yes, work/life balance is better in-house than at law firms.
For Ann Steines, deputy general counsel of Macy's Inc., that's not even a question. She says she's more in control of her time than she would ever be at a firm. While outside counsel face pressures to engage in client-development activities, like speaking on panels, writing articles, and entertaining, "when you're in-house, you don't have to do that," Steines says. Yes, she works a lot. But, she adds, "I can better dictate which of those nights I'm working late."
Steines and her boss, general counsel Dennis Broderick, strive to send the right signals to the department, too. That means demonstrating to their lawyers that scheduling vacation is encouraged, and that it's okay to take advantage of the company's summer hours policy. Rarely will they ask an in-house counsel to hop on a phone call on a Sunday evening. "Dennis and I try very hard to set really good examples," Steines says. "Actions speak louder than words."
Not every law department has the same approach. Working in some legal departments can be as stressful as working in a firm, according to PAR. And, unlike in law firms, in-house attorneys are subject to the culture of the larger corporation. In fact, in-house departments actually lag behind firms in terms of work/life policies and programs, according to PAR's study. "About one-third of respondents indicated their in-house departments offer no policies to support work/life balance, while nearly all law firms do provide for such policies," PAR reported. But respondents who lacked work/life policies in their departments said that a number of such policies would be helpful to them, including: ad hoc telecommuting (54 percent), compressed workweek (48 percent), formal telecommuting (46 percent), and flexible start/stop times (44 percent). The survey also found that attorneys with access to employer-provided work/life policies were more likely to disclose their nonwork commitments to clients and colleagues (32 percent), compared to attorneys without access (22 percent).
Then there's what PAR refers to as the flexibility stigma. For example, nearly half of in-house attorneys surveyed said a compressed workweek would be helpful to them, but only 8 percent of counsel who had access to work/life policies actually compressed their workweeks. This gap between interest and usage, say the authors, indicates a belief that using such policies will be frowned upon. Likewise, the authors asked respondents directly about their own perceptions. "Part-time work, job sharing, and results-only work environments were seen as likely to trigger career detriments," according to the survey.
The overall corporate culture can determine the law department's environment, too. One reason Wilma Wallace chose Gap Inc.'s legal department was that she thought the company made a good fit for her overall. In retail, she operates in a female-dominated industry, and the legal department is also predominantly women. She's always reported to female GCs, and the company considers itself to be progressive. "There's a lot in the dynamic, or DNA, of Gap Inc. that supports my work/life balance," says Wallace, who's been with the company since 1993 and has three children. "And I have a partner who's incredibly supportive. And without those two ingredients, it's a challenge."
Another way in which law firms have an advantage over law departments: clearer paths for advancement. In a legal department, it's not so much about "climbing the corporate ladder" to the top, says Dorian Denburg, general attorney at AT&T Services Inc., in Atlanta, who helped establish NAWL's GC Institute seven years ago. "In a corporation, I say it's more like a jungle gym."
Denburg draws a sharp distinction between the career track at legal departments and at law firms. In-house, "you do not have the steps. They're not written like they are in law firms," she says. "In-house is completely different. You need to know business, as well as legal. It's very much different in every corporation. If you go from one corporation to another corporation, it's completely different from going from one law firm to another law firm."
Many lawyers don't account for the differences between straightforward law firm advancement tracks and less-clear in-house advancement paths, says Eli Wald, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Wald has been writing about diversity and equality at large law firms for the past five years. Over time, he grew astounded by the prevalent belief among firm attorneys that the grass was always greener on the in-house side. "It's not that these beliefs are baseless," says Wald, who authored the article "In-House Myths" in the Wisconsin Law Review. "It's that they are significantly exaggerated."
Only once inside do women lawyers begin to encounter some of these barriers, like finding that they can't move up because of low turnover in the positions above them. "Unless you're in a very large department, sometimes people in-house feel that the job mobility is limited," says Williams. Even in a large department, in-house lawyers might have to leave legal and take a job on the business side in order to accrue skills such as management experience.
In-house counsel may also learn that they need to move to a new city in order to get a promotionwhich can take a toll on families. "There are a lot of reasons why some families can't move," says Denburg, who recalls how challenging it was for her to move her special needs son from Florida to Georgia years ago. Denburg also has a colleague in California whose same-sex marriage would not be recognized in a different state. Caring for elderly or ill parents is another reason some have to stick close to home. "It's not just a 'mommy' issue," Denburg adds.
Then there's the matter of how time is structured, or perhaps isn't structured, within a legal department, Wald says. While in-house counsel may have a clear sense of what constitutes "official" work hours, they may not have as firm a grasp on the time needed to meet unofficial expectations, such as getting to know the business, and changing the perception that in-house lawyers aren't merely cost centers, but also creators of value. So in-house counsel might make it home in time for dinner (almost) every night, but possibly at the expense of their own advancement. "One has to uncover the meaning of 'soft' hours that are so important for one's career and success in-house," Wald writes.
"Soft hours" are the kind of thing that can have a disproportionate impact on women trying to balance work time against family obligations, and also looking to circumvent the boys' network. And the lack of clarity around how time is best spent can be compounded by a lack of established promotion tracks in-house. "You have to network effectively and look like a team player, and that opens the door to the same 'good ole' problems," says Wald.
Which is why many experts and top in-house counsel are telling women to do just that: network.
The GC Institute, says Denburg, provides women with a unique opportunity to learn from women "who have reached the pinnacle of the profession," as well as to build relationships with other in-house lawyers across the country and across industries. The gathering provides critical insights into how to get aheadincluding conversations that often don't occur openly in a law department. "Some of these are the hard discussions about needing to move, needing to go on the operations side," Denburg says.
Gaining access to more ideas about career planning is what drew Nicole Harris to the Hastings Leadership Academy for Women. The combination of a formal curriculum and networking with both her peers and with women who had advanced beyond her own level struck her as a rare opportunity. "I think it would be difficult to sit down one day and plan your career in isolation," says Harris, who joined the Pacific Gas and Electric Company law department in 2002. But attending the Hastings academy gave her access to information about how other women have moved up the ladder.
One of the women Harris met there was Wallace of Gap Inc. Wallace can't emphasize enough the importance of networking for women when it comes to identifying the people with access to the jobs, mentors, and sponsors they want. She says it's one thing to develop an "effective network," but the next step is "how to deploy it and use it."
NAWL made a critical difference in Elizabeth Levy's life. Over the years, the GC Institute has allowed her to learn from women in different industries, and at different stages of their career. It's been a welcoming and energizing environment. Not only that, but heading up the planning committee for the GC Institute gave her a vital opportunity to hone her leadership skills, and, at the same time, instilled a new measure of self-confidence for having pulled it off. "I don't care how accomplished you are," she says. "There are times when you need a boost in that area, and it's good to feel you can interact with people and accomplish great things with them."
These days, she's beginning to figure out her next steps. One Friday morning in July, she sat in the lobby restaurant of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, eating a yogurt parfait and having a glass of grapefruit juice. The day before, she had attended NAWL's summer event here, a day of classes and an awards luncheon. This morning she had another item on her agenda: a job interview.
It was an internal position as a division compliance officer in Tarrytown, New York, she explains. She spotted the opening at the end of June, talked it over with her husband, and told her boss she wanted to go for it. She was excited about the possibility. "This is where business meets legal meets regulatory," she says.
Yes, it would come with some trade-offs. If she got the job, she'd probably have to find a small apartment nearby, live there during the week, and go home to her husband in Massachusetts on weekends. But right now, those are changes she's ready and willing to make. "I want it for advancement," she says. "I want to be in a general counsel position one day if possible. This is a right move to take."