'FLEX' ABILITY

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Lady Justice isn’t the only woman in the legal world with a balancing act. Were Justitia a working mom, she might exchange her scales and sword for a laptop and cellphone in one hand, and toys and bake sale cupcakes in the other.

Sara Kruse knows that balancing act well. A partner and member of the Corporate Practice Group at Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss in Southfield, she is grateful the firm recognizes the challenges facing attorneys with young families.

Kruse, a Jaffe attorney for almost 16 years, took a three-month maternity leave in 1999 with the birth of her first child. When Emma was 2, Kruse suggested the idea of a flexible schedule to her bosses. 

“I needed more time for family, and to find a better work-life balance,” she says. “One thing that originally attracted me to Jaffe was that they were a progressive firm that I thought would be open to the idea of supporting a working mom. The firm worked with me — and continues to work with me — based on the years of trust we’ve built up.”

The flexible schedule has allowed Jaffe to attract and retain talented women attorneys, she says, with several women following in her footsteps.

“We talk to each other about the challenges,” Kruse says. “We work as a  team, and are supportive of our co-workers.” 

Kruse normally spends four days in the office and Fridays at home, available for clients when necessary. With her children older — 12, 9, and 8 — she is often in the office five days, but still has the flexibility of the modified schedule.

“What’s helpful is the firm’s respect for life outside of work,” she says.

“People say, ‘Don’t miss something important — a school concert, a vacation — you don’t want to look back later and feel you missed out.’ You should be able to make it work, and the people here respect that. If there are things I need to do with the family, I can find other hours in the day.”

Technology has made a huge difference, Kruse says.

“There were times when the kids were young, I would go home from work, make dinner, put the kids to bed, and race back to the office. Now I can work from home, and from the client’s perspective, it’s as if I were in my office.”

Kruse has heard flexible schedules have sometimes met with mixed results at other firms.

“What they found was that people left after a period of time,” she says. “It can be challenging to make it work. And I know women at some firms who were told they’d never make partner if they wanted flex time. But it’s in the interest of law firms to make things work, or they could lose valuable attorneys after they make an investment in training and mentoring them.

“It’s great that I can have this type of career at this level and not be sidelined,” Kruse says. “I’ve been given great work and experience, and still been able to be there for my family — without being held back because of my choices.”

For Erin Toomey, senior counsel with Foley & Lardner in Detroit and a member of the Government & Public Policy Practice, flexibility in her work scheduleis the key to succeeding as a working mother.  She is one of five attorneys in the Detroit office — and about 50 nationwide — using Foley’s flextime policy, launched in the mid 1990s.

Toomey, who joined Foley in 2004 after working there as a summer associate, was attracted by its emphasis on a good work-life balance.

“If one of my children is sick or my husband is traveling on business, I can work from home or work a shorter day in the office and then, if necessary, work additional hours after my children go to sleep or before they wake up,”

Toomey says. “If Foley did not offer a flexible schedule with reduced hours, it would be extremely difficult to balance it all and maintain my sanity.”

Toomey works 80 percent flextime, which requires her to hit 80 percent of her billable and non-billable hour requirements to receive 80 percent of her full-time salary. For every 75 hours she bills above her billable hour target, she receives an additional 4 percent of her full-time salary; if she bills at a 100 percent schedule, she will ultimately receive 100 percent of her full-time salary.

Toomey arranges her schedule to accommodate client needs, but generally works 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, before picking up her 2- and 4-year-old sons from daycare. On Fridays, she runs errands, takes care of laundry, grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments and more, and responds to client e-mails or calls.

“By the time I pick up my children from daycare, there’s food in the fridge, dinner is prepared, clean clothes are in drawers, and I can spend quality time with my family over the weekend,” she says.

“There are times when I have my children with me when I need to take a call and I often tell the client they may hear my children in the background. My clients are often so appreciative that I’m available to answer their questions when I’m out of the office that they don’t mind the background noise.”

Without Foley’s flexible schedule, Toomey would miss out on quality time with her children in the evenings and on weekends.

“Also, when my children are sick or have a snow day and I need to miss a day of work, if I was full-time my only option would be to make up the time on the weekends, which would then take away from the limited family time I have,” Toomey says.

Kim Berger, an associate with Miller Canfield in Detroit who specializes in trademark prosecution and litigation, has 2- and 5-year-old daughters and works a reduced schedule of 60 percent amounting to roughly 3 to 3-1/2 days per week.

Berger, who has worked this schedule since returning from her first maternity leave, plans to bump up to 80 percent next year when her older daughter starts kindergarten, and to return full-time as her children get older.

“The reduced schedule allows me to continue advancing my career while allowing me to spend time with my daughters while they’re still young, as opposed to having to hire a nanny or take a few years off to raise my kids and then return to my career,” Berger says. 

The schedule lets her participate in her children’s activities, schedule doctor appointments, stay home with sick kids, and whatever else is needed on the family front, without feeling stressed about not being at work.

“It also allows me to have a flexible schedule so that I can work a relatively normal day and then go home and spend time with my kids.  If necessary, I can do additional work at home after my kids go to bed at night or on the weekends,” she says.

“I wasn’t even aware of the flexible schedule option at Miller Canfield when I started, which was several years before my husband and I decided to start a family, so it wasn’t one of the things that attracted me to Miller Canfield,” Berger admits. “But I think it’s a great option that does work beneficially both for firms and their attorneys.”

Collins Einhorn in Southfield offers flexible schedules beginning at 7:30 a.m. Additionally, staff members can “flex” their start or end time up to three hours, three times per month. Employees can come in late or leave early to accommodate doctor appointments for their children, sporting events/recitals, parent-teacher conferences or personal appointments rather
than having to use all of their sick, vacation and personal time. 

“Our flex policy is just one of the ways we help our staff enjoy a work-life balance,” says the firm’s Legal Administrator Cynthia Whitcomb.

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This is a reprint of a article that ran in the Spring 2012 edition of MOTION.