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Shari Solomon was going on her fourth year as an associate in the commercial real estate department of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen in 1995, when she had her third child. While she was already accustomed to juggling life as a mother and a lawyer, her newborn required extra medical attention -- so much so that she couldn't imagine working again any time soon.

But 10 years later, with all of her children in good health, Solomon was ready to return. The problem was, she didn't know if the law firm world was ready to take her back.

"I did not presume that I would be returning to my practice after that many years out," she says. "It's not that I didn't consider it. But I couldn't imagine that after that many years out, it would be an option."

She was wrong about that. When she started searching for a job, Solomon invited a WolfBlock partner she had remained friendly with to lunch. The meeting resulted in an offer to take up where she had left off a decade before, as an associate in the Philadelphia office of the firm.

But it's not as easy for everyone to come back as it was for Solomon.

While most law firms offer some form of maternity leave, it's the rare firm that guarantees jobs for more than one year. The New York City Bar Association's Committee on Women in the Profession recently surveyed 43 legal employers on parental leave and found that almost all grant some form of maternity leave, with the majority of surveyed law firms providing 12 weeks' paid leave. Many firms also offered additional unpaid time off.

By and large, however, women who want to take off more than one year often sacrifice whatever job security they have to do so. When they want to return, they face a host of formidable challenges, say industry observers.

The most significant is simply convincing a law firm to hire them even though they veered off the conventional linear law firm up-or-out path. In addition, many who left before the technological revolution worry about their computer skills. Further, re-entering lawyers also must come to grips with psycho-social factors, most significantly the fact that they're older than their fellow associates while their contemporaries are their bosses.

The ranks of women seeking to re-enter the practice of law have grown large enough that law schools and other groups are now addressing the issue. Pace Law School and University of California, Hastings College of the Law, have started programs aimed at helping attorneys return to practice after lengthy absences. Additionally, the New York City Bar recently kicked off a re-entry initiative aimed at assisting people who left the profession and are considering returning.

For firms looking to increase the ranks of women partners, reaching out to former employees is seen as one way of potentially recruiting experienced female lawyers. Some law firms have been mulling programs aimed at connecting with ex-employees since at least 2005, when a Harvard Business Review article about women in the workplace suggested that companies should maintain ties with off-ramped employees through alumni programs.

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom recently started a program, Sidebar, which allows attorneys to temporarily leave the firm for three years. During that time, they're still welcome at continuing legal education classes and other firm-sponsored events on the premises.


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