Virginia Seitz looks more like a room parent than a high-powered attorney. In truth, she’s both. But unlike many other corporate lawyer moms, who seem to be channeling Nancy Pelosi, Seitz really does appear to be more suited to the next PTA meeting.
Seitz, 50, defies the stereotypes in other ways, too. She’s a star who bills at a 60 percent rate, a Sidley Austin partner who is out of the office by midafternoon every day.
Quite the deal, yes? But don’t start sending Sidley your r�sum� just yet. Although Seitz defines herself as part time, this is the reality: She’s in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office every day at 6 a.m. and leaves by 2:55 p.m. to pick up her children, 12-year-old Roy and 15-year-old Miranda, from school.
That’s a nine-hour day and a 45-hour week. Only a big law firm would call that “part time.” A bus driver would be racking up the overtime with that schedule.
And keep in mind that she got that deal with some dazzling credentials. She was a Rhodes scholar in college and afterward clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. and Judge Harry Edwards of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Seitz also hails from judicial royalty: Her father, then-Delaware Chancellor Collins Seitz, wrote the 1952 decision in Gebhart v. Belton, a ruling that paved the way for Brown v. Board of Education.
Despite these asterisks, Seitz is the firm’s Exhibit No. 1, proof to the world that women can work part time and still make partner. In fact, D.C. managing partner Carter Phillips brought Seitz to Sidley Austin in 1998 in part because he wanted more women and, in particular, women who were balancing motherhood and the law at the firm, Seitz says.
Today, Seitz reports directly to Phillips as part of the firm’s federal appellate practice. She’s the first Sidley woman to argue before the Supreme Court. She has also argued cases in the D.C., 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 9th and 11th circuits. She represents such clients as the Major League Baseball Players Association. And she wrote the widely cited amicus brief on behalf of retired military officers in the Supreme Court case of Grutter v. Bollinger.
‘I FEEL RESPONSIBLE’
Although many mothers engage in some kind of multidimensional juggling act, Seitz seems to bring a particularly heavy burden of love, anxiety and vocation to the task of motherhood. “I couldn’t make any choice that would have a long-term impact on a child’s happiness,” she says. “I brought them into the world. I feel responsible.”
Before she leaves the house in the still-dark morning, she makes sure her children’s lunches are packed and the table is set for breakfast. She helps with school ticket sales, car pools and teacher appreciation lunches. She bakes cookies. She sits in the bleachers at baseball games (albeit sometimes while taking a conference call). And although she does work from home some afternoons, she has dinner with her family every single night.
Her regular nine-hour day serves in part as a cushion against the times she has to deal with a child home sick from school or a parent-teacher conference or the other sundry issues that eat away at any mother’s day. In other words, not every day adds up to nine hours of face time.
What do her children think of this level of what some might call sacrifice? They don’t think about it, Seitz figures. “They expect and believe that I build my life around them,” she says. And it’s true, she adds. “My feeling is that they should take me completely for granted — in a polite way.”
In part, her philosophy of child rearing comes from her mother, a college professor who left work when her children were born and who was “never not there.” Seitz’s husband, Roy McLeese, who is chief of the appellate division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, also helps to make the system work. Seitz admits that she could never pull it off without McLeese, who took paternity leave after the births of both children.
There’s an obvious question here: Why didn’t Seitz opt out of the work force for a few years? The answer is that Seitz, like so many other women lawyers, loves what she’s doing.
Seitz had initially assumed that she would blithely head back to full-time work after she had children. “I was completely ignorant of what my own reaction would be,” she says. “Literally, as soon as I had the baby [daughter Miranda], I felt a physical inability to separate.” The intensity of her reaction took her breath away, and she knew her life had permanently changed.
For a while she juggled baby and work with the help of a nanny. But after son Roy was born, she went to a part-time schedule. The nanny lasted for another five years but for only three days a week.
Seitz admits that much of what drives her is her sense of duty. She is painfully aware that her intense mothering is based in many ways on her own psychological needs. “I say you’re only an expert in your own life. I would never say that anybody can do this.” (In fact, one of her biggest worries is looking smug. Her approach to the world at large is unfailingly polite.)
She doesn’t necessarily recommend her choice of time-consuming career and all-encompassing motherhood for everyone. What are her goals for her children? “I want them to love to think about things, to have an intellectual life that is rich and fun,” she says. Instead of duty, “it’s better to be driven by other things.”
THE MAJOR LEAGUES
Consider, for instance, the weeks leading up to her April 17 Supreme Court argument, in which she represented the state of Florida against a group of nudists who were seeking attorney fees after a fight over a (naked) protest against the Iraq War. While she was immersing herself in research, she fretted because she was being pulled away from her family. “Wasn’t that OK?” her husband later asked her. Apparently not. “It’s important for me that every day I be a good mother. I wasn’t happy,” she sighs. “It’s a clear flaw.” (For the record, Seitz won the argument for her client in a unanimous decision.)
Although Seitz agonizes, her particular practice area fits reasonably well with family life. Appellate litigation tends to be heavier on researching and writing than on rainmaking and working the room. There is less urgency to woo prospective clients at conferences or cocktail parties. Seitz squirms at the idea of self-promotion and admits that she doesn’t much care for the “beauty contests” in which lawyers make a pitch for potential clients. “What I really like is to wrestle with the legal problems,” she says.
It’s an approach that might not work for others. How many lawyers rise through the ranks on a part-time schedule? Sidley does support part-time partners, says Phillips. Overall, roughly 35 to 40 partners work part time, he says. The firm defines part time as anything less than 100 percent of a partner’s approximately 1,900 billable hours a year. In other words, you can be part time and still work yourself to the bone, especially if you’re setting the breakfast table at 4:30 a.m.
Phillips says that although he does try to schedule client meetings for the mornings, when he can be sure Seitz is available, clients don’t seem too concerned about her office hours. “In my experience, clients don’t care, as long as you’re worrying about their problems. How it gets done doesn’t seem to make much difference.”
In many ways, Seitz hates being the firm’s part-time poster girl. In fact, she’d rather modestly play down most of her achievements. Except one. “If I had wanted an A-plus career, I wouldn’t do what I did,” she admits. “I’m an A-minus attorney. But I’m an A mother.”