Don't Leave When You Leave

07/29/2015 01:18 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2016

Another great article by Claire Cain Miller documents that younger professional women are more likely than their elders to plan on taking a career break when they have kids. For them, Sheryl Sandberg's famous advice -- Don't Leave Before You Leave -- can now be supplemented with new advice: Don't Leave When You Leave.

New businesses have emerged that enable women lawyers taking a career pause to keep their skills sharp and their LinkedIn contacts robust, by doing legal work from home 10 to 20 hours a week. Stay-at-home moms can do this by working with law companies with new business models, documented in my recent report (co-authored with Aaron Platt and Jessica Lee). (All quotes are from the report.)

Five companies offer law firms curated networks of lawyers, available to work on a part time and/or temporary basis, thereby allowing firms to accordion up to meet unexpected work demands without hiring new employees. There are five of these law firm accordion companies: Counsel On Call, Custom Counsel, Cadence Counsel, Montage Legal, and Intermix Legal Group.

Counsel on Call is by far the largest. It's a $50 million company with a network of 900 attorneys. The others generally have networks of around 100 lawyers. Most are nationwide, although some focus on specific states: Montage's lawyers are concentrated in California, New York, and D.C.; Cadence Counsel operates only in California and Ohio. Counsel on Call, Intermix, and Custom Counsel have nationwide networks. The first two also work with attorneys overseas, notably with military spouses.

Most of these companies were founded with the express purpose of providing work for stay-at-home mom lawyers. Said Counsel on Call founder Jane Allen, "Many of my lawyers are moms, so they are with their kids all day. And then, the kids go to bed and they can write a motion at night when the kids go to sleep." The company works with attorneys who "for whatever reason at that point in their life decided, 'I just need to take a step off the fast track but I don't want to be off completely,'" she said. The founder of Custom Counsel Nicole Bradick agreed: "I saw a significant untapped labor pool of ex-Big Law lawyers who have turned stay-at-home moms" -- attorneys who want to keep their hand in but don't want to work anywhere close to full time. All the companies allow attorneys to turn down work at any time, which is perfect when a mom takes over the school auction or loses a babysitter.

The moms are joined by other attorneys who don't want full time work for a wide variety of reasons. Cadence Counsel is emphatically not for mothers only: founder Danielle Lackey was careful to stress that their applicant pool is 50/50. Their attorneys often work full time but intermittently: "we might have seven months' worth of work for someone in a row," while at other times, "it might be a few months between projects." At Counsel on Call, headquartered in Nashville, lawyer-moms are joined by musicians looking for a day gig to support their music habit, by others who "want to coach their little league or their soccer or their dance," and by people who love to travel or garden. One attorney competes internationally at Iron Man meets. "You name it," said founder Jane Allen.

At Cadence Counsel, fees are structured so that an attorney working 40 hours a week would make a "couple hundred thousand a year," said Lackey. Most other companies pay lawyers considerably less than law firm rates, in addition to the fact that attorneys work fewer hours. This is not a model that works for breadwinners whose families are relying solely on this job. But then again that's not who takes these jobs.

Some companies were founded by Big Law refugees for Big Law refugees, and insist on prestige credentials. Intermix's attorneys come from schools like Stanford, Harvard, and University of Chicago, and typically came from Big Law. Montage lists lawyers from Harvard, Georgetown, and Columbia. Cadence Counsel said that its lawyers come from "top firms" or "top government jobs" and "good law schools." Many of the companies report being flooded with resumes. Potential law firm clients may be dubious at first, but when they go through the resumes, said Allen, "the eyes would just get wider and wider because it's, 'Man, these people may be better lawyers than me.'"

Erin Clary Giglia, who co-founded Montage Legal Group, gave some examples of the kind of work her lawyers do. The typical engagement, she said, might be "five to twenty hours a week for the next three weeks." Her attorneys might draft pleadings, or second chair a trial, or come in a train associates to build up a practice area in a small firm, or help with a discrete project on a tight turnaround. When a small firm bids for a large piece of business, they may use Montage Legal as part of their pitch.

Not only do law firm accordion companies help attorneys keep a hand in. They also help women re-enter the profession after a career break. Allen spoke of "a brilliant lawyer and an amazing researcher and writer" who worked with Counsel on Call until her son went to college, after which she returned to the full time practice of law. The lawyer "said it was amazing how easy it was to go back in because" of her work with Counsel on Call. She now runs a practice group at her law firm.

Law firm accordion companies have emerged as the alternative that gives lawyers part time schedules that actually deliver. As someone who (with Cynthia Thomas Calvert) helped invent the modern part time schedule in law firms, I'm the first to admit their limitations. Many part time lawyers encounter the both flexibility stigma -- which leads to poor quality work--and watch their schedules creep back up towards full time (for part time pay). Reports are widespread that older women advise younger women not to go part time. Many younger women prefer to leave their firms instead.

Work-family researchers, including Leslie Perlow, Erin Kelly, and myself, have concluded that slapping an alternative work schedules policy onto organizations designed around overwork does not work. The answer is to build work-life balance into new business models. That's precisely what law firm accordion companies do. They are designed around part time schedules, and structured to facilitate them.

"We had some clients who really wanted to work with our lawyers, but the whole idea of somebody only working twenty hours a week -- they really had a hard time being able to manage that," said Allen. So Counsel on Call does it for them. This replaces the situation where the exhausted new mom fifth-year associate tries to insist that her supervising attorney respect her part time schedule -- which doesn't work -- instead delegating this role to the accordion company. "Is it a deadline that all of a sudden a judge just popped on you on Wednesday?" asked Allen. "If so, that's called litigation." On the other hand, if a last-minute crisis is due to a client's failure to plan, the company will intervene to make sure this doesn't become a habit. This replaces the far-too-common scenario where a pregnant fourth-year associate tries to persuade her supervising partner to respect her schedule. "Because we're the interface," said Lackey of Cadence Counsel, "It's a lot easier to say, 'Hey, this project is supposed to be three weeks during which I'm giving all my time and all the time they need. But it's starting to morph into something way beyond what I want to give."

Pamela Stone's work documents that only 16% of professional women who leave their careers always intended to do so. The other 84% were forced out of their careers by inflexible all-or-nothing schedules. Now there's an alternative.

So if both you and your husband have voracious jobs and things just aren't working, leave your job but don't leave the law. Sign up with an accordion company, work 10 hours a week from home, and preserve your career options after your kids grow up.