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Cynthia Calvert: Practicing for Lawyers

Posted Sep 25, 2009 2:56 PM CDT
By Rachel M. Zahorsky

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Cynthia Calvert

Cynthia Calvert stood in her office in January 2008, the file for her last client sitting on her cherrywood desk. She wondered whether she had made a mistake. “It was very hard to do,” she says of closing her employment discrimination practice. She had managed it full time since 2000 from her home in Ellicott City, Md., near Baltimore. “I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped around being a practicing lawyer.”

But Calvert knew she had to make a choice: She could no longer balance the demands of her practice and her position as co-director of the Project for Attorney Retention, an initiative of the San Francisco-based Center for WorkLife Law. In addition to her practice, Calvert devoted nearly 40 hours a week to PAR, studying law firms’ retention and advancement of female attorneys, as well as work-life issues in legal employment. And she and her husband were raising two teenage girls.

Today she still has little time for reflection. Together with Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, Calvert, 49, is a pioneer and national leader in the study and elimination of family responsibility discrimination.

“She has always been very committed to making sure PAR works with not just the women lawyers, but with law firms, stakeholders and general counsel’s offices on all ends of the issues to develop business-based solutions,” says Linda Bray Chanow, assistant director of PAR. “That’s fairly unique. We are not just out there screaming about a problem and insisting that people change.”

One model for reduced hours incorporates a law firm’s financial needs, business needs and client requirements into a flex-time model that benefits both sides, yet avoids the traditional part-time position.

“Because it is a business initiative and not an accommodation, stigma is eliminated,” Calvert says. “Bias against people who work reduced hours is so strong at most law firms that lawyers would rather leave than cut back hours.”

Watch Calvert describe why it's in the interest of firms to promote work/life balance:

In addition to her research, Calvert gives frequent presentations for legal agencies, including the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and holds training seminars for law firms and lawyers about bias.

Calvert’s knowledge of work-life needs is both extensive and personal. She spent 14 years at what was then Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, a Washington, D.C., litigation boutique, six of those as a partner. She left in 2000 to open her own practice from her home.

“Everyone said it was a mistake,” Calvert says, because clients would think she took a big step down if they knew she had a home office. But she got so many clients she had to turn them away.

Today, Calvert’s living room resembles her former colleagues’ private law firm digs: Stacks of paper are piled in all corners, magazine articles are turned upside down and books on end. There’s a half-filled coffee cup sitting on her desk, which is strewn with drafts of her current report. Two computers quietly hum in the background, one attached to a 24-inch screen that allows her to view many documents at once.

Calvert still considers herself a practicing lawyer, she says, just in a different way.

“I’m helping law firms become stronger in the long haul, but I also speak with one or two lawyers a day about their own personal situations. That gives a strong sense of satisfaction.”

Although Calvert loves her work, her long-term goal is the end of the institution she has worked nearly 20 years to build.

“My true hope is we would have made so much progress in eliminating family responsibility discrimination and advancing women in law firms that I’ll be obsolete,” Calvert says. “I’d love to be in a position where we’ve made so much progress that there isn’t anything left to be done.”

Click the link to see the latest PAR study: "Reduced Hours, Full Success: Part-Time Partners in U.S. Law Firms" (PDF).

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