Globe and Mail

What's good for parents is good for business

A law firm has established innovative policies to help keep its female lawyers

ALANNA MITCHELL
The Globe and Mail
Friday, October 15, 1999

Calgary -- Talking about her law firm's family policies feels a little like letting out valuable trade secrets, but Chrysten Perry is doing it anyway.

At Macleod Dixon, it is possible to be a full partner and yet work part-time, which is unusual all on its own in the rigid world of the top international commercial-law firms. Even more unusual, though, is that a handful of lawyers are allowed to work part-time and still be on track to get a powerful partner's job.

Some of the firm's lawyers even share full-time jobs between them.

"There's a serious commitment to innovation," said Ms. Perry, 38, who lives with her husband, Chris, 38, son, Brendan, 8, and twins, Matthew and Tara, 6, in the Chinook Park area of Calgary.

She has been a full-time, full partner at Macleod Dixon for nearly two years, and is one of the people in this southwest Calgary neighbourhood who is participating in The Globe and Mail's yearlong look at the family.

The reason Ms. Perry feels slightly wary of talking about all this is that her firm's family policies provide a strategic advantage. It's a scary truth: Taking more family needs into account, especially through the critical few years of having very young children, has become a savvy business plus.

"What's very important for women is that the culture has to be there," Ms. Perry said.

This renewed interest in family matters has been prompted by a growing awareness across Canada of the enormous distress among parents as they struggle to do right by their children. It also has become clear that the angst has a business cost.

Both the Canadian Auto Workers union and some of the country's major car makers recently agreed to ease some of the financial stress of having families. As part of that, agreements with DaimlerChrysler Canada Inc. and Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd. give employees a $10-a-day daycare subsidy for non-profit, licenced care.

The federal government itself is clearly concerned about the tremendous anxiety in Canadian society over the balance between work and family. In its Speech from the Throne, delivered on Tuesday, it pledged to make its own workplaces, as well as those governed by federally regulated employers, more pro-family, and to increase paid maternity and parental leave.

At Macleod Dixon, weaving family policies into the firm's culture came about after a committee of three or four men and a chairwoman looked at how market forces affected its supply of labour. It came down to numbers. And it came down to women.

The partners looked at the fact that roughly half of the new graduates from law school are women. Then they looked at how women have fared in the traditional law firm, which is famously inimical to any kind of personal life, not to mention one involving small children.

The clear pattern to emerge was that if women feel pressured to spend too little time with their families, they will quit the firm, the profession or both rather than suffer in silence.

Ms. Perry, who is among the most successful professional women in Canada, wears it as a badge of honour at work that she is the mother of three. "If the sentiment here was that it was something I shouldn't be proud of, I couldn't work here," she says.

Ms. Perry knows that this represents a sea change from the typical top law firm.

Even 10 years ago, many Calgary firms had no women partners at all, much less a willingness to take their family needs in stride.

Today, there is still a remarkably small percentage of women at most Calgary firms. At Macleod Dixon, just six of the 77 partners in Calgary -- or 8 per cent -- are women, although the firm expects many more over time.

Some lawyers in the big firms still break into a cold sweat at the prospect of admitting to colleagues that they are pregnant.

Still, it is not as if Macleod Dixon is a soft touch. It is a firm driven by intense, time-gobbling deals that demand unquestioned efforts from all involved.

Of the 146 lawyers and students in the Calgary branch of the firm -- it also has offices in Toronto, Moscow, Caracas and Almaty, Kazakstan -- only about seven of the 41 women are in alternative work arrangements. In fact, so far, no men have applied for part-time work, although theoretically they could.

Ms. Perry has thought about that. She is part of the generation of women convinced that they had an important role to play -- even a duty -- in breaking down gender barriers in the workplace. They have done that.

But still, for many families across Canada, the job sacrifices when it comes to raising children still fall to the women, just as they historically have.

"It is unfortunate that women have all these different pressures they have to find solutions to," Ms. Perry said over a dish of grilled salmon at an Italian restaurant in Calgary's Eau Claire market near her office. "But it is what it is. You can't change the underlying fact structure."

In fact, she, too, made adjustments earlier in her career to accommodate her children.

After her first son was born, she left private practice and became an in-house lawyer at Canadian Airlines.

When her twins were born in 1993, she looked for something that did not involve so much travel and found it at Norcen Energy Resources, one of Calgary's senior oil and gas producers. (It has since been taken over by a Texas-based firm.)

She leaped into the job and began to specialize in oil and gas because she could work a "nice, finite job" that did not often require the insane hours lawyers are famed for. She figured she could still see her children.

Six months later, everything changed when new management took over and began slashing costs and laying off staff. She found herself in a much smaller legal department working very tough hours.

Nearly three years ago, she landed at Macleod Dixon. A year later, they asked her to be a partner.

Ms. Perry said she has made it all work because has a top-notch live-in nanny who can be flexible to the family's needs and because her husband, who is also a lawyer, is committed to spending time with the children.

"If he was more of an absentee father or pursued his own activities, we couldn't function like this," she said. "I couldn't leave the kids."

Her husband has a steadier flow to his work than she does. He can go in at 7:30 a.m. and reliably be walking out by 5:30 p.m. That means supper, sports and bedtimes with the children.

Her work, on the other hand, tends to come in intense bursts. It is not unusual for her to put in a string of 20-hour days when a deal is imminent. But she tries to balance that out by having breakfast with her children and driving them to school most weekdays.

When she has to work on the weekends, she tends to get up at 5:30 a.m. so she can polish it off by the time the children are out of their pajamas at 10:30 or so.

It feels as if it works.

Still, when Ms. Perry looks a decade into the future, she is not sure what her career will look like, or how her children will have turned out.

She can point to thousands of senior male lawyers who are partners in big firms, and see how they have managed their lives. But there are very, very few women in that position today who also had children.

"There are no role models," she said. "There is no path."

Sometimes even she wonders whether the commandment to break down barriers between the sexes was done with enough thought.

"If this just turns out to be one colossal mistake," she said, "who's going to have the last laugh?"

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