Sharing the Balance

Life is a delicate balance. “They” constantly inundate us with dos and don’ts, and it seems impossible to make the right decisions to maintain the balance: Eat healthy, but red wine and dark chocolate are OK; get plenty of exercise, but don’t overdo it; a good night’s sleep is good for you, but too much is linked to diabetes and heart disease. Keeping the proverbial balls in the air is an acquired skill, and one that increases in difficulty as we take on more in life.

Perhaps nobody understands the challenges of maintaining balance better than the working mother. And before you roll your eyes and flip the page, no, this column isn’t going to be a Helen Reddy-I-am-woman-hear-me-roar anthem to the working mother. I can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan as good as the next girl, but God knows I couldn’t do it alone. I know there are plenty of sleep- deprived, devoted working fathers out there, and I am blessed to be married to one of the best of them. And I know it’s not just dads either. There are grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and lots of loving, kind people who step up every day to care for children.

But the working mother’s journey is different and special, quite simply because we are women. And despite the amazing advances we’ve made in just a generation, traditional, societal precepts still consider the child-rearing duties to fall on the mom. This is the ultimately “either/or” choice for us: Be a mother, but have a career. Every working mother has felt the tug.

So when I hear about women finding a way to keep the work-home balance in check, I’m intrigued. And when I hear about their employer making the right choices to help them keep that balance, I’m impressed.

Maureen Byrne and Tricia Koenig are both Deputy District Attorneys in the Family Protection Unit of the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, and they are job-share partners. Job- sharing isn’t a new concept, and I have heard about successful job-sharing arrangements before in other professions. Lots of teachers job-share, and so do many other technical, administrative and clerical positions. But I had never before heard of a job-sharing arrangement between lawyers, and I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that it would have been with two prosecutors. (Ed. Note: Laurel McWaters and Julia Snyder also job-share in the District Attorney’s Office).

It wasn’t the practice of law that brought Maureen and Tricia together as job-share partners. It was motherhood. Both were working as prosecutors in the office of then- District Attorney Michael Bradbury, and both were mothers of young twins. They felt a need to work less so they could be at home with their children more. So, like other good lawyers, they did their research, investigated, and came up with a proposal that was approved by the office. That was more than 10 years ago, and Maureen and Tricia have been successful job-share partners ever since. They have paved the way for other women lawyers in the office who also job share and have part time arrangements.

They work exclusively in the Domestic Violence court, and handle a busy calendar that includes arraignments, violations of probation, sentencings and other duties that relate to felony and misdemeanor charges of domestic violence and child abuse. They currently split their week, one working Mondays, Tuesdays and every other Friday, while the other picks up Wednesdays, Thursdays and the alternate Fridays. Their individual hours together constitutes one full-time Deputy District Attorney position, and all elements of their employment are split right down the middle.

Obviously, the biggest benefit that both women gain from their job-share arrangement is more time at home with their families. They are acutely aware of how fast time goes by, and appreciate the additional time they have with their growing children. That’s no surprise to hear, and as any working parent can tell you, we have all had moments when we want to be at home more than we want to be in the office. But it was a surprise to hear that the children of these working mothers also appreciate the additional time mom has at home. Maureen and Tricia have each had experiences over the years when they could have returned to a full-time position. But when faced with that prospect, they both told me that their children (two 13-year-olds and an 11 year old for Maureen and two 15-year-olds for Tricia) were against the idea, and wanted mom to keep the part-time work. Very impressive, particularly for middle school aged children, who will typically go to great lengths to avoid being seen with their parents, let alone express a desire to spend time with them.

But the benefits of their job-sharing arrangement go beyond the obvious. Less work means less stress. Less stress leads to less burnout and more longevity in the position. This is particularly true for Maureen and Tricia, who are assigned to a hectic courtroom, in which they regularly see the worst of humanity. Burnout is a real issue for many lawyers, particularly among district attorneys and public defenders in these kinds of assignments. After being away from the courtroom for several days, Maureen and Tricia can approach it feeling renewed and refreshed, and both told me that it has kept them in the position longer than they naturally would have, had they been doing it full-time.

They both have a very high level of job satisfaction, more than a lot of attorneys I know who have been practicing as long. Their part-time schedule forces them to be efficient with their days, and they are both very appreciative of the support they have received for their arrangement over the years. Their position – which renews every two years under a written contract they have with the office – has been supported over the years not only by Mr. Bradbury’s successor, Gregory Totten, but also by their managers and supervisors over the years. They both are also grateful for the support they get from Judge Colleen Toy White, the presiding judge in Department 37. Judge White is “very, very supportive” of the job-sharing arrangement that Maureen and Tricia have. As a single mother, Judge White knows the challenges they face. She recalls the difficulties presented with juggling work and home – even getting out of the door in the morning can be a challenge, let alone tackling a demanding job. In her court, Judge White will schedule hearings for each individual on days she knows will be a “Tricia” day, or a “Maureen” day, and is willing to lend support to help them succeed in their arrangement. But such assistance has never really been necessary, and it only makes sense, Judge White says, to support an arrangement that will help keep two bright, talented prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office.

Judge White told me that she definitely believes that the part-time schedule has allowed Maureen and Tricia to keep their passion for the job. From the standpoint of the District Attorney’s Office and the court, Judge White says that Maureen and Tricia each give far more than their 50 percent to the job. She sees their job efficiency and believes that their success is due in large part to their part-time positions. She was also quick to mention that they are both excellent lawyers, which certainly has helped them make the case for continuing their job-sharing arrangement.

But, like any balance in life, the good comes with some bad, and both women recognize that there are definite drawbacks to the arrangement. Less work comes with less pay, and not everybody would be able to make the arrangement work for them financially. Both Maureen and Tricia are married – both to lawyers, in fact. A dual income household can get by with the arrangement, but a single parent household would have a much harder time making it work. And along with the reduced pay comes less retirement contribution. Tricia shared with me that she has been with the District Attorney’s Office 24 years, but only has 15 years accrued toward retirement. As their children get older, both women expect to return to full-time work anyway, but as they approach retirement increased hours will be a must in order to accrue the 20 years of service required for full retirement credit.

There are career drawbacks as well. Both women believe the job-sharing arrangement can work well in many different areas of the law, particularly for government lawyers. But it is very difficult to make it work well in a trial assignment, so the calendar assignment in Department 37 was a deliberate choice. Both women say they would love to be doing trials, and that the lack of trial work has impeded their career advancement. But it’s a trade-off that was well worth it, and both said that it was one they would make again.

I support Maureen and Tricia for making their choice, and I salute the County of Ventura for supporting this flexible work schedule. I give many thanks to Maureen Byrne and Tricia Koenig for sharing a little bit of their life with me, and to Judge Colleen Toy White for talking to me about this article.

President’s Post-Script: Thanks to a technical error, my teaser in last month’s column – designed to get you to support VLSP – failed to print. But not to fear! Participate in the fun by going to vcba.org and clicking “President’s Trivia.”

About Bar