Campus & Community

Law students listen to panel about challenges of work, family

3 min read

At Harvard Law School (HLS), where many students are training for careers that will put astonishing demands on their time, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hedrick Smith moderated a discussion Thursday evening (Nov. 29) that focused tightly on the demands of law careers. Smith’s latest public television documentary, “Juggling Work and Family With Hedrick Smith,” devotes a segment to lawyers in Boston.

“When you work at a large law firm, the hour demands are there,” said Donna Evans, mother of three and a partner at the Boston firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo. The economics of large corporate law firms measures success by lawyers’ “billable hours”: the number of hours a lawyer can bill to clients. Pressure to log upwards of 65 billable hours per week stigmatizes part-time work.

That’s created an environment – indeed, an entire career path – that’s particularly unfriendly toward women, said lawyer Nancer Ballard of the Boston Bar Association Work Life Committee. Ballard chaired a Bar Association task force to explore these issues.

“We were interested in … trying to figure out why women had been coming into law firms in significant numbers for 20 years, and why we saw a lot of women at the associate level, but very, very few women at the senior level,” said Ballard. “We were looking at statistics … showing the highest-ever level of career dissatisfaction among both men and women.”

Jeff Jones, managing partner at Boston law firm Palmer & Dodge, brought the employers’ view to the table. While Palmer & Dodge leads Boston firms as having the highest percentage of part-time lawyers, Jones acknowledges that in the cutthroat world of corporate law, that’s not always a selling point. “We wrestle about whether or not we brag about this fact,” he said.

The family-friendly policies that might help recruiting talented new lawyers, he says, could send the wrong message to potential clients. “It’s become a little bit of a dirty phrase to be described as a ‘lifestyle’ firm.”

Panelists Brad Goggins of Boston College’s Center for Corporate Community Relations, and Rosalind Barnett, from the Communities Families and Work Program at Brandeis University, added a public policy perspective to the discussion.

As a nation “we operate on every level as if we have Ozzie and Harriet,” said Barnett, adding that cultural institutions in America have not embraced the two-earner family that has become the norm. “We haven’t had Ozzie and Harriet for 30 years.”

Donna Evans, the law partner and mother, shared her secret with the future lawyers and future parents in the audience. “Litigating a case and winning it in court is a lot of fun,” she said, “but the kids are a lot more fun and by far my greater success in life.”

“Juggling Work and Family With Hedrick Smith” airs on WGBH/Channel 2 in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 9 p.m.

Contact Beth Potier at