Because it’s still hard for women lawyers to be a success in the courtroom and at the conference table and also rear children, Houston lawyer Rachel Smith started a Houston networking and support group for women lawyers with children.

Smith, a partner in Baker & Hostetler in Houston, says in 2011 she decided she needed to do something because she couldn’t shed her workaholic ways — even after she fell asleep behind the wheel while driving home from her firm in the wee hours of the morning three years ago.

“A lot of the women I’ve grown up with in the profession and went to law school with, sometimes we feel like some of the women who came before us sacrificed too much on the family side. For some of them it worked out professionally, and others it didn’t . . .,” Smith says. “That kind of prompted me to think: What can we do about this, how can we make a difference?”

Her goal with Moms-in-Law, which has 132 “likes” on its Facebook page and about 150 women on its activity distribution list, is to build a support network that “really tries to give credence to both of these priorities.”

Smith’s efforts come more than two decades after Felice Schwartz, the founder of Catalyst, wrote a 1989 article in the Harvard Business Review that advocated a career model for women with children that became known as the “mommy track.” More recently, the hiring in July of the pregnant Marissa Mayer as chief executive officer of Yahoo has brought new attention to the logistical challenge working mothers face.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “mommy track” as a “career path that allows a mother flexible or reduced work hours but tends to slow or block advancement.”

Linda Chanow, executive director of the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, says firms in Texas and elsewhere have made institutional changes, such as part-time partnership track schedules, that give women lawyers more opportunity than when Schwartz wrote about the mommy track. However, Chanow says firms, practice areas and partners are not equally accommodating.

“The mommy track is alive and well. I will say, however, we see increased opportunities to either not get on the mommy track or to move from the mommy track to other opportunities. It’s no longer the sort of death knell it used to be, but it goes back to the individual firm, the individual relationship,” Chanow says.

Chanow says she worked on a 2009 study for the Project for Attorney Retention titled “Reduced Hours, Full Success: Part-Time Partners in U.S. Law Firms,” which was based on interviews with 101 lawyers around the country. A key finding, she says, was that 55 percent of the women lawyers who went part-time at their firm made partner while on a reduced or flex-time schedule.

“We found stunning examples of this working within firms,” Chanow says.

Nancy MacKimm, the partner in charge of Jones Day’s Houston office, says firms and lawyers with children need to take a long-term view of a career. She says when her son was young she worked part-time for a couple years when she was an associate.

“I want women coming up behind us to know you can do this. A hiatus of a few years can change the direction of your career, but it doesn’t need to derail it. . . . You may not be able to be the best trial lawyer in Texas and the best mom in Texas, but if you find happiness that you are doing both reasonably well, that’s a really good thing,” she says.

Texas Lawyer’s 2012 Women in Law Survey shows that 17 of the largest firms in Texas have a formal policy allowing lawyers to work a part-time schedule.

Related charts:

• Women Lawyers at Large Firms in Texas
• Maternity, Paternity and Adoption Benefits at Large Firms In Texas
• Texas Companies on the Fortune 1,000 With Women General Counsel
• Part-Time Partners at Large Firms in Texas

That was not the situation in Texas in 1989, when “mommy track” became a buzzword and part-time or flexible work schedules were rare and unlikely to provide women lawyers with a route to partnership.

Tracy Christopher, a justice on the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston, left Vinson & Elkins and joined the firm now known as Susman Godfrey in 1986 after the birth of her second child. As she told Texas Lawyer in a 1989 article about the choices women lawyers with children had to make, Christopher had left V&E because the firm at that time chose not to accommodate her with a part-time schedule. She worked part time at Susman Godfrey but was not on the partnership track due to that schedule.

In a recent interview, Christopher says she never made partner at Susman Godfrey because it was not available then to part-time lawyers. She has been a judge since 1995, first at the 295th District Court in Houston, and later at the 14th Court of Appeals.

Christopher says her move to the bench in 1995 was a good thing — her children were 7, 8 and 10 at the time — because she could work a 40-hour week without having the late nights, travel and weekend work that is part of a litigator’s schedule.

She says she is not sure how much better the opportunities are today for women lawyers with children. “Anecdotally I hear that some women are working that out, but I still heard anecdotally that generally means you are not on partner track, which is reflective ultimately in the fact that statistically women are still making less than men,” she says. However, Christopher adds that the law practice does provide men and women some flexibility in schedule.

Christopher says she recently reflected on her career choices because her oldest daughter, Sarah, is an associate with a Los Angeles firm. “She just recently got married, and we discussed some of these issues, and I don’t have solid advice on it. I really think it’s an individual decision,” she says. “The nice thing about the legal practice is it is giving women more options. When I started working part time, it was unusual.”

Today, Susman Godfrey will accommodate lawyers who want to work part-time, says Stephen Susman, firm founder. Associates working part-time would remain on partnership track, he says, although it may take them a little longer than the typical five years to make partner.

He says Christopher was a special case because the firm typically does not hire associates who have not practiced at other firms.

At V&E, by 1989, the firm already had more than one lawyer working reduced hours because of children, and today the firm has flexible work arrangements for associates and partners.

Nancy Polis — another lawyer interviewed for Texas Lawyer‘s 1989 story — was a new partner in Houston’s Hutcheson & Grundy when her son was born in 1986. She continued to work long full-time hours for a few years after his birth before negotiating a part-time arrangement at the firm. She left the firm in 1990 and worked in various legal jobs, including a 10-year part-time stint as a claims manager on the $3.75 billion federal breast implant settlement.

In the years since her claims manager job ended in 2004, Polis says she has worked in private practice, mostly on a part-time basis. She says that even though her son is now 26, and family responsibilities aren’t keeping her from full-time work, she was “used to having a life” and didn’t want to return to the full-time practice.

She would absolutely choose the same career path again, she says. “It worked out well for me. I would not trade a minute I had with my son for another billable hour.”

According to Texas Lawyer‘s 2012 Women in Law Survey, women comprise 29.3 percent of the lawyers at 21 of the 25 firms with the most lawyers in Texas and 17.9 percent of the partners. On the in-house side, general counsel at 14 of the 105 Texas companies on the 2012 Fortune 1,000 list are women, according to information from Texas Lawyer‘s 2012 Corporate Roster.[See related charts, pages 25-29.]

Chanow says the more women GCs there are, the better it is for women working as outside counsel. “The GCs wield the power, the purchasing power,” she says.

A Wakeup Call

Smith, the lawyer who started Moms-in-Law in November 2011, says she thought the early-morning car accident she had nearly three years ago was a wakeup call, but she came to realize she remained frustrated with her inability to put boundaries between work and her personal life.

It’s a struggle to figure out the juggling act, she says. “You want to be seen as a team player, and then all of a sudden you have children, and you are thinking, ‘I can’t be constantly available in the same way I was before.’ Whether those demands are coming from your law firm or colleagues or they are demands you are putting on yourself . . . it’s really hard to go back in time and change how you are going to operate,” she says.

Smith says she took maternity leave after her daughter, Olivia, was born in 2008 and went back to work full time. She made partner in January and says her leave did not hinder her promotion. She says that while she works in a “pretty understanding environment” at Baker & Hostetler, her job is nevertheless demanding. She may leave the office at 5:15 p.m., but she often works at home in the evenings.

“When I was a young lawyer, I thought that my work was absolutely world-changing. Not to say that it’s not important . . . but being a mom gives me a new perspective on how to prioritize everything,” says Smith, who is expecting a second child in November.

Like Smith, Amy Beckstead, a labor and employment partner in DLA Piper in Austin, started a networking group for women lawyers, MAMAs Austin, in 2010. She says the women lawyers with children use the group to “talk about issues that happen when you are a working mom.” Speakers have talked to the group, which has more than 200 members, about topics such as how to make flextime work, marketing, how to talk to your children about sex and how to maintain a relationship with your husband.

Beckstead, whose children are 5 and 7, says she works a flextime schedule at DLA Piper, but it’s “kind of chaotic” in that some weeks she works long hours and others she doesn’t.

“I made partner last year on a part-time schedule. It hasn’t hurt me in the least; in fact I think it helps me. With a lower billing requirement, I can do a lot in the community that helps you build business,” she says.

Laura Edrington, a partner in Locke Lord in Houston who worked a part-time schedule for about 15 years while her children were young, says she doesn’t consider “mommy track” a derogatory term or concept. “I chose my role as a mom,” she says.

Edrington, a 1988 University of Houston Law Center graduate, had one child while in law school and had a second after she joined the firm now known as Locke Lord as an associate. After having her second child, Edrington says the long hours were taking a toll and she was ready to leave the firm. In December 1993, she had accepted a job with a client, but the firm’s management committee offered her a part-time schedule, so she stayed at the firm.

“It was great, and I don’t regret it. You can never take back those years with your kids. It does set you back a little bit with your career, but for me it was an easy decision,” says Edrington, who had a third child while working part-time as a senior counsel. She says she chose to return to full-time status in January 2008 because her practice was so busy that she had been working full-time hours for a couple of years. Edrington, who has a bond and securitization practice, made partner in late 2007.

What advice would Edrington give to young women lawyers with children?

“I give them very wishy-washy advice. Every person is in a different situation, so they have to evaluate where they are in every aspect of their life, personally, professionally . . .,” she says. “I’d tell them I don’t regret it.”

Debra Bruce, an attorney and president of Lawyer-Coach LLC in Houston, says opportunities for women lawyers to work at a firm and have children have improved over the past two decades, but a part-time work schedule still has a subtle impact on a career.

“Sometimes the career development of people on part time gets diminished because they don’t have the projects that have the most challenge. And, challenge is where we grow,” Bruce says. “I’ve not seen a really demonstrable pattern, however. There are women who are satisfied in their career where they are because they chose to give up going for the brass ring.”

Based on her experience counseling lawyers about their careers, Bruce says Generation X and Millennial lawyers are particularly willing to trade “dollars for time.” However, she says they don’t want to give up prestige.

Notes Bruce, “Going part time, they would be comfortable making less money, and that’s still a lot of money. The issue then becomes: “Am I respected and appreciated for what I bring to my firm?”