Jodi Taylor, Baker Donelson, Atlanta. John Disney/ALM

It seems like a sad commentary on modern life that a business would need to point out that life matters outside the office.

In Big Law, it’s a sign of progress.

Just a generation ago, it was rare for women to make partner at a large firm—and those that did often sacrificed having a family.

In a sign that things have changed, albeit more slowly than many would like, Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz offers the Work-Life Warrior Award, a unique firmwide recognition to honor women who balance serving clients with the demands of their personal lives.

This year’s winner, Jodi Taylor, who practices construction and employment law in the firm’s Atlanta office, weathered a particularly challenging year, even by Big Law standards.

Taylor, 36, was up for shareholder last year when she gave birth to her second child in August. Her daughter was born with cataracts, which has required several eye surgeries over the past year. And then in March, her house caught on fire from a serviceman installing new internet cable.

The smoke and water damage was bad enough that Taylor, her husband and their two young daughters had to move into a rental house for three months while the house was being repaired.

“It’s been a heck of a year,” Taylor said, adding that the Work-Life Warrior Award “recognizes that we’re human.” She thinks the award was for her resilience “bobbing and weaving to come back from these curve balls—and still putting clients first.”

Despite all the upheaval, Taylor made shareholder in May. Her daughter is doing great and sees very well, she said, and on Mother’s Day weekend her family moved back into their home.

Lawyering, like any client-service job, is “always going to be demanding, but we also have lives,” she said. “This year I had a lot of life. I’m fortunate that I was able to keep pushing ahead with my work life.”

Taylor added that even though her year was out of the ordinary, she’s got plenty of colleagues who are juggling just as many plates. “There are a lot of people balancing a lot of things. [The award] has meant a lot to me for that reason.”

Taylor said Baker Donelson’s support allowed her to “continue doing my best work for clients and build my practice while dealing with other things.”

Even though she was up for shareholder, Taylor said, she was able to take her full 16-week maternity leave, which Baker Donelson increased four years ago from 12 weeks. The firm doesn’t count parental leave time against shareholder candidates when assessing their performance, she explained.

A strong women’s network and a supportive atmosphere also helped, she said. “On the days when you are maybe having a harder time, people will step in, take you to lunch, bring you coffee.”

Outside of the office, Taylor said she gets a lot of help caring for her 4-year-old and 11-month-old daughters from her husband, her parents, who live nearby, and a nanny.

Taylor said Baker Donelson’s flexibility about face-time also helps. She gets to the office by 8:30 or 9:00, and she and her husband alternate leaving early to get home to relieve the nanny around 5:00 or 5:30. He also has a demanding job at Darden & Co., a construction management company that is representing the owners for the Mercedes-Benz stadium build.

“We try to do family dinner at least once or twice a week,” she said, “We put the kids to bed and then get back online. … That’s how we can do it—by having a shortened workday in the office so we have time with the kids, and then work when they’re asleep.”

A Role Model

“Jodi exemplifies what a Work-Life Warrior is,” said Christy Tosh Crider, who chairs the firm’s Women’s Initiative. “The number of nominations we got for her was astounding. She’s inspired a lot of people.”

Recipients since Baker Donelson launched the award two years ago all have been women in their 30s and 40s with young families—an age when many women drop out of law. Crider said some men have been nominated, but not in the same numbers.

The award was the brainchild of the Women’s Initiative, which wanted to recognize role models at the firm. “We wanted to celebrate some of those women in the thick of that attrition period who have so eloquently navigated it,” Crider said.

“Women do have different issues. We’re the ones who have the babies,” Taylor noted.

According to an April ALM Intelligence survey, women make up 45 percent of the first-year associate class at large law firms, but that drops to only 25 percent for partners.

Baker Donelson’s demographics track with that: Associates are 45 percent women, but that decreases to 23 percent for shareholders, according to an annual National Law Journal survey, which ranked Baker Donelson at No. 61 on its list of the 100 best firms for women in Big Law. Overall, 35 percent of the firm’s lawyers are women.

There is no one age at which women exit large firms, according to the ALM Intelligence data—instead it’s a “slow leakage.”

Lower compensation and fewer opportunities for good work are often cited as reasons, as well as the demands of raising a family, which can clash with the demands of a career in Big Law.

Unintended Messages?

Greater flexibility at big firms has helped more women balance careers with families, but there’s a long way to go, said Lauren Stiller Rikleen, a former law firm equity partner who now runs the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership.

“The legal profession still has issues with measuring commitment by physical presence and measuring value by number of hours,” Rikleen said. “Those two factors make it difficult to make tremendous progress in creating stronger institutional support for work-life integration.”

Baker Donelson’s Work-Life Warrior award could be a sign that more firms are paying attention to work-life balance—but such well-intentioned efforts can also send “unintended messages,” Rikleen cautioned.

“You want to make sure that you’re not creating a standard that other people see as unattainable,” she said. “Those kinds of standards tend to drive the attrition of people you might want to retain, but who are saying, ‘I can’t live up to that.’”

Susan Smith Blakely, author of “Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know About a Career in the Law,” sees it differently.

When her law firm in 1983 tapped her as its first women partner, Blakely recounted, she had to turn it down, because she had a young child and a husband who traveled frequently for work. She asked for a more flexible schedule, but in 1983 that was not on the table.

“We’ve come a long way,” Blakely said. These days, women do make partner while also raising families, and it’s a positive sign that firms like Baker Donelson are promoting that, she said.

“I think this is a step in the right direction,” Blakely said. “Almost every woman in practice in that [30s and 40s] age group is dealing with having young children,” and some also have aging parents or family with special needs, she added.

“They are working their tails off to manage all of this,” Blakely said. “Firms are realizing that it’s not wise to lose this talent.”