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Erica Leatham, 33, tells a story that sums up the gap in perceptions between many older and younger women lawyers: Working as an associate at Holland & Knight a few years ago, she was expecting her first baby. The firm expressed general support for her maternity leave. But she remembers feeling pressure from some older women at the firm to take off as little time as possible. They gave their advice quietly, unofficially. But the message was clear: “I was told to come back quickly,” says Leatham, still a bit bothered. “Don’t expect for everyone to wait.” Many women lawyers in their middle years will hear that advice and see the wisdom earned through sometimes bitter experience. Many younger women hear the same advice and think those unwritten rules don’t apply anymore. The path that some legal pioneers so painstakingly carved out of the hard earth? We’ll take a different route, they say. A BRIEF AND A BABY Even 20 years ago, few women managed to combine family and success at a big firm. But these middle-aged lawyers pushed to make it happen. They worked nonstop; they stayed up half the night with a brief in one hand and a crying baby in the other; and they succeeded, damn it. Carol Honigberg, 52, a partner at Reed Smith, is a good example. She made partner at her previous firm 22 years ago while she was home on maternity leave. The firm, Thomas & Fiske, had no maternity leave policy at the time, so she persuaded the firm to write one and then took six months off. She says she suspects that making her a partner was the firm’s way of ensuring she would come back. That kind of reasoning made sense to her. “Once you’ve established your value to the firm,” she says, you can create some flexibility in your work arrangement. Thanks for all that forging, say the younger women. But we intend to do it a different way. Take Leatham, who started her own firm after nearly eight years in the Bethesda, Md., office of Holland & Knight. She was miserable there, she says, because of the way big law firms are set up. She felt she was being forced to buy into a set of rules about succeeding that had been created by a generation that had no other choice. The older women’s thinking, she says, is that you pay some heavy dues first, and they buy you the leverage to do other things, to have a life. But Leatham — with some prodding from her husband, who saw how unhappy she was — realized she didn’t want to follow that path. “I thought we need to be shifting the paradigm. You don’t need to work, work, work, and then have a family.” So Leatham, a zoning and land use attorney, left Holland & Knight and, with some colleagues and friends, formed her own firm, Stark, Meyers, Eisler & Leatham, based in Rockville. Ironically, she says, she puts in more hours now than she did at Holland & Knight. “But I can control it in a way I didn’t before. It’s just empowering,” she says. And, most importantly, says Leatham, she’s infinitely happier now. She has a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old, and if she wants to take the afternoon off to run errands, nobody blinks. “The beauty of it is, I’m in control of my own schedule,” she says. TIPPING POINT Ellen Sharpe, a real estate lawyer with Odin, Feldman & Pittleman in Fairfax, Va., offers a similar tale. She won’t name the big firm she fled because she doesn’t want to blame one firm in particular: “It’s a great firm, and it’s trying — like all the big firms are.” But for Sharpe, the experience of having a second child became a tipping point for her in terms of demands on her time, so she started looking elsewhere. Sharpe found a firm that doesn’t buy into the old system of setting billable-hour requirements. If she makes a little less money over the year, that’s OK, she says, because the trade-off is flexibility. Sharpe, 39, feels that her generation “doesn’t want to be told that it has to be one or the other — that you can’t be a mom and a successful lawyer. Our generation has said, �No, we can do both. We just need some help with balancing.’” Perhaps the difference is that the older women felt they still needed to prove themselves not just as lawyers but as women lawyers. To get accommodation for family demands, they had to make it impossible to suggest they weren’t pulling their weight. And they take pride in having proved the naysayers wrong. Many of the younger women don’t buy into that struggle. If big firms don’t support their needs, they’re less likely to plunge into the fray and more likely to leave. They don’t believe this is a battle that anybody has to fight. What struck Sharpe about the life of a big-firm lawyer was the sense that a lawyer’s main contribution was measured in hours. “I think a lot of people in our generation are a little intimidated by this work ethic from the ’90s that if you don’t work 60 hours a week, you’re not doing it,” she says. That’s no disrespect to the women who came before her. “I think we couldn’t have done this if they hadn’t broken the mold,” Sharpe says. Leatham agrees: “They worked hard to make this even an option,” she says. “I don’t think anyone takes that for granted.” But maybe the bar is too high. “I’m awed and inspired by them — but they .�.�. work .�.�. too .�.�. hard,” Sharpe says, slowing down and emphasizing each word. BEFORE 10 P.M. If these younger women have a battle of their own, it’s trying to make a distinction between the trappings of hard work and the effective use of time. Leatham, for instance, says she often reads of lawyers who work from home at 10 p.m., after their children have been tucked into bed. What that means, of course, is that they’re still fitting their lives into slots that are convenient for their employer but maybe not for the women struggling to keep it all together. “You should be able to work from home whenever you want,” not just late at night, she says. But large law firms still operate on a different model. Not only do associates need to “bill a million hours a year,” says Leatham, but they also need to do it in the office, so that firm managers can keep track of the work being done. Leatham’s former firm, Holland & Knight, has been responding to the concerns that women are raising, says executive partner La Fonte Nesbitt. But at the same time, he admits that large law firm life is not for everyone. “It could be because of the size [of the firm], the work they’re getting, or that they want something else,” he says. “Or because they want a different kind of lifestyle, which is harder to obtain in a major law firm.” For Leatham, breaking away from the big firm was “basically the hardest decision of my life. There was this sense of leaving the security of what you know, of having a lifeboat around you,” she says. But she’s glad she decided to “sink and swim on my own. I’ve made it — I have a successful career by anyone’s definition.” And for the baby boomers who got there first, they’re probably watching these thirty-somethings with a wistful eye, knowing full well that no young woman would be able to swim quite so easily without the buoys set by an earlier generation.
Balancing Act is a monthly column that explores the lives of women in the law. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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