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Despite success, women lawyers face difficult balancing act; Many of the toughest career challenges come when many women consider starting families

On a typical day, Mindy Mora arrives at her law office about 8 a.m. and leaves 12 hours later. She will drive home, eat dinner and put in a few more hours of work, even taking client calls late at night. "Being a partner at a law firm is not a 9 to 5 job," she says.

The grueling lifestyle, even with the cache of a partner title and a six-figure salary, is one Mora, a bankruptcy attorney at Bilzin Sumberg, knows young female law associates increasingly are shunning.

"They want to be able to have a family and enjoy their family," she says.

In the competitive legal industry, pressure to meet quotas for billable hours, bring in business and service clients who want instant responses is creating demands on lawyers that are all encompassing. That pressure has led more women to forge their own paths -- even to hang their own shingles -- rather than navigate the politics of big law firms.

The excruciating requirements of a big firm partnership are one reason that Eleanor Barnett left Mora's firm to practice at Heller Waldman in Coconut Grove, Fla., a commercial litigation boutique with seven attorneys. Barnett, a mother of two, is a partner at the firm and says while the client demands might be the same, she doesn't have the internal meetings and politicking that can be time-consuming at a larger firm.

"That can make a big difference for women who are trying to balance motherhood and a busy litigation practice," Barnett says.

To be sure, the big firms with the top legal work and fat paychecks continue to attract aspiring female attorneys. But the attraction may be cooling. New survey data shows that for the first time in a decade, the ranks of female attorneys are thinning, even at entry positions. And worse, women are not reaching the top.

Women lawyers have yet to make significant inroads in the power structure and profit sharing at firms. Many women face an inability to ascend higher than non-equity partner status, where lawyers hold the partner title but without the power, prestige, influence and compensation of true ownership.

A recent National Association of Women Lawyers survey showed that just 16 percent of women were equity partners in American Lawyer top 200 firms. That percentage hasn't budged much for the last 20 years.

This ceiling is especially troubling given that women lawyers already leave big-firm practices at a greater pace than their male counterparts. "Now, a newly reported narrowing of the pipeline at the entry level only further decreases the pool of women available for promotion," says Heather Giordanella, president of the National Association of Women Lawyers.

The trend has some managing partners concerned enough that they are ramping up efforts to advance their rising stars to partner and tackle the higher female attrition rates. Large firms such as Holland & Knight, Carlton Fields and Hunton & Williams have active women's initiatives in Florida.

Tammy Knight, a partner at Holland & Knight in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., heads the firm's national Women's Initiative, recognized as one of the most effective in the country. More than 300 female Holland & Knight lawyers participate.

At Knight's firm, much like others, women occupy about a third of non-equity partner positions. But they are represented in much smaller numbers as equity partners. Knight says that leap requires lawyers to bring in large dollar volumes of new business.

"Historically, a differentiating factor for women is that they have a more difficult time originating business," she explains.

Knight says myriad dynamics factor in: "Timing is a big one." When women have the opportunity to become equity partner, it's usually right in the middle of their child-bearing years, when networking at night and attending lunch functions are difficult to fit around the demands of the workday and family life, she says.

Another contributor is corporate culture. Companies tend to shy away from giving young women their business.

"It is uncommon in our field to find many women in their 30s serving as lead outside attorneys for big corporate clients," Knight says.

To mentor, Knight says she and other partners take female associates along on pitches, "to see what it looks like and what it takes." But at the end of the day, she says, "It's still about the client taking that leap."

Clearly, the numbers bear this out: Fifty-six percent of female law partners were considered relatively "bookless" compared to 38 percent of male partners, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers survey of the nation's 200 largest law firms.

Women who venture out on their own say it's a struggle, too. But the payoff can come sooner than if they stay at big firms, and they have more control over their schedules.

Yolanda Cash Jackson, a partner at Becker & Poliakoff in Fort Lauderdale, already sees female lawyers of color redefining success. They're foregoing law firms and becoming legal counsel for businesses or governments.

"In those jobs, they're judged on merit. They don't have to schmooze and bring in business," she says.

Jackson is one of the rare breed of black women law partners at large Florida law firms and is one of two women on her well-entrenched firm's eight-member management committee. According to a Catalyst study, women of color were more likely than any other group to experience exclusion, become stymied in advancement, and consider leaving law firms. Even more, 80 percent of law firms have only two, one or no women on their governing committees, which average about 10 members.

Jackson says she reached the top because she found ways to bring in business, by attracting clients such as black colleges and companies that emphasize diversity.

"There are artificial barriers that you encounter with [networking]," she says. For example, men might not want to invite a single woman to attend a golf weekend. "We [women] have to have our own network," says Jackson, who founded a networking group for black women professionals.

Jackson says she feels a great responsibility to ensure she has female successors in firm management, in part because it's more profitable for Becker & Poliakoff to be representative of the community. She is hopeful other women in management at their firms are doing the same thing.

"I'm looking at women in the pipeline, coming up in the ranks, asking myself as a member of the management committee, 'Are these women getting a fair shake? Are we preparing them, and what can I do to make sure that I'm not the last one?' "