Spotlight on Flex – Nerissa Coyle McGinn

The Spotlight on Flex showcases professionals from member organizations who exemplify personal and professional success while working a flexible schedule. Their stories illustrate the long-term benefits that flexible schedules offer to both individuals and organizations.

This month, we are pleased to share insights from Nerissa Coyle McGinn, Chief Diversity Partner, in the Chicago, IL Office of Loeb & Loeb.

Nerissa Coyle McGinnDiversity & Flexibility Alliance: How have you made flexibility a priority and a success through your career?

Nerissa Coyle McGinn:  When I was a sixth year associate, four partners left my law firm and started Loeb & Loeb’s Chicago office. They brought me with them as the only associate. At the time, I was in my early 30’s, married, and I knew I wanted to start a family very soon. The partners also knew this, and I asked for immediate vesting with my benefits to be eligible for Loeb’s maternity leave (now our parental leave policy).

Looking back, it’s amazing how supportive the firm has always been. Even from my first request regarding the vesting of my child care benefits, the partners who brought me to Loeb negotiated on my behalf, and the firm agreed to my vesting request. They worked with me to create a reduced hours schedule even before the firm had a reduced hours policy. I had my first child just after my one year anniversary with Loeb & Loeb in 2005. I returned from that leave at a 60 percent, reduced hours schedule, and I’ve been on this schedule ever since. Over the years, how my 60 percent looks has changed as my family’s needs and the firm’s expectations of me have changed. At first, I was in the office Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. I wanted to have two back-to-back days in the office for more consistency rather than work every other day and feel like I was always playing “catch up.” As my kids got older, I started coming into the office every day but working shorter hours. I made partner five years ago, and because I work shorter days, I’m also able to telecommute part of the workday. This arrangement has worked for as long as it has because the firm is flexible with me, and I’m flexible with the firm.

Before I started working flex, I was practicing general commercial litigation and then focused on IP litigation. I knew this area of law was not going to work with my needs, or more importantly, my family’s needs. So I reinvented myself – I looked at the non-litigation aspects of my practice and focused on IP and advertising counseling instead. My husband has a demanding job and often travels for work. Loeb gave me the flexibility to figure out what would work for my family and the firm.

DFA: How have clients contributed to your flex success?

NCM: My schedule isn’t something I announce to clients when I first start working with them, and I’m not sure if they all know I work flexibly. My office phone automatically forwards calls to my cell phone, so I’m always available. I may take a client call at 6 pm during family time, and even though that’s not ideal, it’s a small sacrifice for the amount of flexibility I have overall. No matter where you are in your career, but especially as a partner, you still want to be responsive to your clients. Part time or reduced hours doesn’t work when you’re rigid with your schedule. You have to be as flexible with your schedule as the firm has been supportive of you.

DFA: How has flexibility contributed to your business development and sustainability of working at a large firm?

NCM: I don’t have the pressure to bill as many hours. Instead, I have the choice of what to do with my 40 percent, non-billable hours, and I view those hours as time for my family and business development. When I first switched to reduced hours and had two small kids at home, I used one of my off days to teach at a law school. I also did more public speaking and attended conferences – all things to build my name in the Chicago legal community and in my overall practice area.

I also serve as the firm’s Chief Diversity Partner, and this is something I couldn’t do if I was working full time. I feel very strongly about this role, and I took it on because of the challenges I was seeing within the firm, especially as a flex attorney. For my first maternity leave, I asked for six months of leave (instead of the standard three) and to come back reduced hours; I ended up receiving eight months because we weren’t able to finalize the terms of my part-time schedule. We didn’t have a part time policy in place yet, and my negotiating power was that I wasn’t there. I told the firm I wouldn’t come back as a full time associate just to hammer out the details of what my reduced hours schedule would look like. I know not everyone can do this. I’m lucky that my family was in a financial position that I could stay out of work for an extra two months, and this added to my negotiating power. But this is why advocating on behalf of others who are grappling with career decisions during life changes is so important to me. I want other attorneys to have the same opportunities I did.

DFA: Looking back, what would you tell your first year associate self?

NCM: Two things. First, focus on becoming an expert in a particular area. If you have an area of expertise, that becomes invaluable to the firm and your career. Second, build relationships and start networking early in your career. Don’t wait until it’s time to make partner.

DFA: How do you pay it forward, and how do you recharge your batteries?

NCM: I exercise every day, and I try to mediate every day as well. A lot of my happiness and joy comes from being with my kids; it’s like the Peace Corps slogan, “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Seeing their joy of being together makes me happy and helps me recharge. Three years ago, I decided to start running “mom camp” where the kids and I do a summer adventure together instead of sending them to a traditional overnight camp. We’ve done a Revolutionary War trip and visited Monticello, the DC monuments, Philadelphia, and Boston’s Freedom Trail; we drove Route 66; and we’ve traveled to New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Memphis to see the Civil Rights Museum. I want to spend as much time with my kids while I can because I only have this time with them once. I want to take advantage of every moment. When I die, they aren’t going to put “Partner at Loeb & Loeb” on my tombstone – it’s hopefully going to say “Mother” and “Wife.” I’ll have time to focus on other things during different points in my life, but right now, the most important things to me are raising my kids and enjoying my family.

As for paying it forward, there was a time when I debated whether or not to keep working. I realized, however, that by continuing to work, I not only was helping other women at the firm, but women and men outside of the firm. The research supports that by continuing to work, I am making it more likely that my husband will hire and promote more women at his company.

It also reaches to the next generation. My daughter, my son, and their friends will have different views on what they can do and what women can do. Being able to influence the next generation is one of the reasons why I wanted to take on the role of Chief Diversity Partner – it’s been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my job. With the Alliance’s help, we recently updated the firm’s parental leave policy. Once it was approved, I called one of our female attorneys on leave and told her she was going to have extra paid time off through the new policy. She was so thankful that she started crying. I would go through all the hard work and time it took to update the policy again for that reaction and the satisfaction of knowing that we made a difference.

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If you are a professional working a flexible schedule and would like to share your story in an upcoming Spotlight on Flex, contact Eliza Musallam.