Most firms (with a few notable exceptions) will tell you that they will offer you flexibility. It's easy, if you really want this job (and its salary!), to take this lip service as gospel. But there are some real, concrete things to look for while interviewing that will help you determine whether the firm is actually walking the walk. While it is not ideal to ask questions about working from home, maternity leave or school pickups during your first interview, there are cues to read—and questions to ask—that will give you a lot of insight and information.
Look carefully at the partnership AND the existing associates. Where did the partners and associates come from and was that firm known for taking its pound of flesh? Find out why they made the move to their current practice. Or have they been at the firm for their whole career? Ask how it has changed during their career – likely this will trigger a mention of increased flexibility (and an offer of examples). Check to see how gender-balanced the partnership and senior associate ranks are – this can be a very telling bit of evidence. Ask about life outside of work. If you get to meet associates, ask them when the last time was that they worked from home. If you get a blank stare, that's probably your answer.
Walk through the office. Are associates at their desks? Are there family photos on the desks of associates, not just partners? How are people dressed? Is every door closed or are people working collaboratively? All of this will give you a good sense of the office vibe. It’s not to say that just because someone is in jeans means they don't work hard—there's no link there. But the firms that have retained a proper East Coast dress code in their San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices are quite likely to also look down upon flexibility or at the very least not be its champions.
Read the press. Many of our clients tout their work in retaining female senior associates and also being listed as best places to work for everyone or for parents, specifically. Pay attention! While some of these accolades are fluff, many are hard earned. One of our clients has a commission on retaining female talent, staffed by outsiders hired by the firm to do an audit. That shows real dedication. The culture in the Bay Area has shifted dramatically over the last 15 years, from a bit more lax to a harsher "work hard, play hard" ethos, but not every firm is willing to roll with this tide. Pay attention to the ones that are fighting against it—and are justifiably proud of doing so.
Lean on your recruiter. If you have a recruiter worth his or her salt, s/he will know whether firms are all talk when it comes to accommodating those who are working parents, those caring for elderly relatives or those with other outside extracurricular obligations. A recruiter will also be able to guide you in how to discover the answers to the questions you have and to obtain the information you seek. They have experience working with the firms in the area. Use your recruiter as a resource and let him or her help you find a new firm with true balance.
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Kate Reder Sheikh is a Managing Director in the Associate Practice Group at Major, Lindsey & Africa, covering San Francisco and Silicon Valley.