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Breaking Away from Law Firms: Women seeking balance find a solution by setting up their own shops

Chicago Tribune
August 13, 2003
by Connie Lauerman

In her climb up the legal ladder, Rosaire Nottage did it the hard way. She held a full-time job handling grants and contracts while she went to Loyola University Law School at night, then got a job as an associate at a large law firm. She married and had her first child the year she made partner. Two years later she had a second child. Then, with 15 years under her belt at the firm, she left in 1988 to start a small law firm with lawyer Eunice Ward, specializing in divorce.

"One of the reasons I left to start a small firm was to have flexibility," Nottage, 54, said.

"For example, when we've been on trial, I always took the train home and had dinner with my family every night, and then I would drive back here and work until midnight or 1 o'clock. That was the flexibility. The reason it was flexible was I didn't have to hide it.

"It wasn't a barrier to success, so I didn't have to ... feel bad about it."

Most women in law believe expressing concerns about work-life balance is a barrier in conventional large law firms. A 2001 Catalyst survey of 1,400 male and female working lawyers who graduated from top law schools found that only 22 percent of women at law firms believe they can use flexible work arrangements, if they're available, without affecting advancement.

Nottage and Ward was one of the pioneering women-owned law firms in Chicago. In the past decade, more female lawyers have been following its lead. Like Nottage, they say it's a way of staying in law without shortchanging their families.

"I don't have a lot of friends who are high up in law firms," said Susan Fortino-Brown, a Chicago immigration lawyer who started her own small law firm after working at a larger one.
"And I would assume it's because most of them will get married, get pregnant and have to leave. That's kind of the way it goes.

"I hid my pregnancy from my bigger clients until about a month before [my daughter was born] and then I took only a three-week maternity leave, just because clients get scared. People said to me: `Are you going to work after you have a baby?'"

Fortino-Brown, 44, married at 40 and had a baby late last year. She started her firm in 1991, leaving "a male-dominated firm" where she said she was asked by one of the partners to take dictation on her first day and eventually considered suing for gender discrimination. She didn't, she said, because the Chicago legal community is a small one. Referrals from other lawyers might dry up.

At Fortino-Brown's firm, her two associates and paralegal are women; the receptionist-secretary is male.

A man also answers the phone at Corri Fetman's Chicago Women at Law Ltd., a matrimonial law firm she started in 1995, after practicing law at several firms. She left the last one, she said, because she experienced sexual harassment, salary inequities and what she described as a demeaning environment.

Fetman said she did not sue over sex discrimination or harassment because she was "afraid" of being "blackballed." She said the harassment involved unwanted attention from a supervising attorney.

Good working environment
In contrast, she said she tries to create a comfortable environment for her two female associates and two male paralegal/secretarial workers.

"When one of my associates had only been here a couple of months and she went in and did a trial. I said `OK, you're on your own.' I helped her along with it. She got such an incredible result that I sent her flowers. I buy lunch; I do things to nurture them." That, she said, promotes loyalty and hard work.

She also offered flextime when a previous associate had a baby, but the woman quit after she had a second child.

Her firm's clients are 70 percent male.

"I think men seek out women lawyers because they think it makes them look better in court, that they're on fair ground," Fetman said. "I hate to say this, but they think hell hath no fury ... Seriously, that is what I have gotten from my male clients."

Starting a law firm, however, is not a cakewalk. It involves managing a business and bringing in clients as well as practicing law. Eunice Ward, of Nottage and Ward, said, "You may get flexibility but you're not going to get mobility, meaning moving up the ranks, higher profile clients, higher profile cases." Still, many women may not be deeply motivated by status. Women seem to gravitate to certain specialties: family law, divorce, immigration and employment, for example. These specialties do not necessarily lead to the big time.
"It's compassion-based," said immigration lawyer Fortino-Brown of her specialty. "You're dealing with individuals. It's not the highest-paying field compared to a litigation firm, but it's certainly more interesting."

Joy Feinberg, of Feinberg & Barry, a divorce firm, noted that flexibility also allows for choosing all levels of practice.

"You can handle things at a high level or you can handle things as `part-time,'" she said. The latter "is very hard to do but people do it. You can try to handle uncontested cases. You can handle middle-income, lower-income types of cases so that there are not a lot of assets to deal with. You can do it in a way where you can still take care of your children."

For the most part, the legal profession has not been responsive to women's concerns about balance, even though men also share those concerns. In the Catalyst study, both women (68 percent) and men (66 percent) said they found it difficult to balance the demands of work and life.

A Herculean task
"Women are faced with an either-or decision," said Anne Weisberg, a lawyer who directed the Catalyst study. "It is physically impossible for all but the most Herculean of women to have a baby and bill 2,500 hours a year, the current requirement to make partner in many large firms."

The profession needs to make changes for both men and women, Ward said. "But the changes are never going to be made if they're thought of as being made for women."
Men, echoed lawyer Vicki Lafer Abrahamson, "don't feel they have to do anything about [the balance problem] because they have someone to do things for them. The culture would change if men took a stand and said to themselves or said to the people they work with, `We can all do this; it doesn't matter.'"

When Abrahamson, a mother of three, left a large law firm to start her own practice, she was on the lookout for another woman lawyer who had the same interests — "to provide good service to our clients but at the same time be able to balance our life. Work hard when we had to and if we didn't have to work, we could do other things."

Abrahamson eventually found two partners: Darlene Vorachek, who had left a law firm and was seeking part-time work, and Mary Mikva, whom Abrahamson met while searching for a parent to share carpool duty at her children's school. All three specialize in employment law, representing plaintiffs.

"We see clients when we see clients and with the exception of a judge's schedule where they require us to be some place at a particular time, we're completely flexible," Abrahamson said.

"We know it can work. We have a good reputation and we have lots of clients. Clients come to see us because they want us, and they don't care if I might be talking to them from my cell phone while I'm attending to matters outside the office."

Minority women leave law firms
Women of color are conspicuously absent from the ranks of partners at large law firms and the all-female law firms.

According to the National Association of Law Placement, minority women have a high attrition rate.

NALP data shows that on a cumulative basis, 100 percent of minority women hired as entry-level attorneys at law firms left within eight years. Precisely why they leave is not documented.

Vanessa L. Smith, an African-American lawyer who specializes in employment law, left a large Chicago law firm after seven years to start a consulting firm, Vantage Solutions. It blends law with human resources by helping employers minimize lawsuits and maximize employee production, she said.

"I left because I have always had the desire to be a business owner," she said. "I didn't like getting involved in the large cases that come with the territory in a large law firm."
Smith said she has observed that many lawyers leave to work in the law departments in corporations. "I know a lot of people who got out early and went to government positions," she added.

Andrea M. Buford worked for a medium-size law firm for 10 years. After it dissolved she formed another with three men from that firm. When that one didn't work out, she started Buford Law Office. She works with three other lawyers; one of them is female.

Outside of a smattering of African-American women in solo practices, Buford, who is a past president of the Cook County Bar Association, said she does not know of any other sizable firms owned by African-American women.

"African-American firms [in general] are almost non-existent," she said. "There are fewer than 10 real African-American firms."

Echoing Smith, she said the women she knows go in-house to corporations when they leave firms, often because of family issues.

For minority lawyers, in general, Buford, whose firm specializes in tort, employment and commercial litigation, said it's difficult to get corporate and government clients. As a member of the county bar association's committee on commercial law, she said she has met with the mayor, the president of the Cook County Board and the Illinois Attorney General in an effort to "shake some of the business loose for us. So far it's not working."

Copyright 2003 Chicago Tribune

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