Women's Leadership InitiativeQ&A with Rachel Burke

Rachel practices in Porter Wright’s Labor and Employment Department, providing advice and counseling to employers in a wide array of human resources matters and defending employers in employment litigation.

What advice would you give to women just starting out at a law firm? What are some important first steps they can take to lay the groundwork for a successful career?

Be a sponge. Law school teaches the fundamental concepts, but it doesn’t teach the practical aspects of how to be a lawyer. It doesn’t teach the law of most specialty areas, and it doesn’t teach students how to interact with government agencies, opposing counsel and clients. Treat every research assignment as an opportunity to broaden your knowledge in your practice area. Observe colleagues and how they manage relationships, comparing and contrasting different approaches and evaluating how those approaches might work for you. The first five years or so of your career will likely dictate the areas of law in which you specialize, the approach you develop in dealing with opposing clients and counsel, and your reputation within your law firm. Take full advantage of the learning opportunities that those years present.

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self, just starting out in the legal field?

Don’t worry so much about the business decisions that clients make. You are responsible for the advice you give, but you cannot take personal responsibility for the risks that clients choose to take despite that advice.

What are the biggest issues women lawyers face?

Balancing the demands of my family versus the demands of my clients and colleagues is certainly the biggest issue that I have faced in my legal career. In the 20 years that I have been practicing law, I have seen law firms evolve in their willingness to accommodate the needs of attorneys, both male and female, who have young families. There is a greater recognition in the legal community that the issues women lawyers face are issues of importance to the entire profession, and there is an acceptance of alternatives to the more typical associate-to-partner career path. Balancing work and family is easier today than it was 20 years ago, and I suspect that it will be easier 20 years from now than it is today.

Complete the sentence: “If I wasn’t an attorney, I would be a…”

When I was growing up, it was drilled into me that I would continue my schooling beyond college and earn a graduate degree. If I had not headed off to law school, I would have attended business school (my undergraduate degree is in finance). Just as I never expected to be an employment lawyer (banking or corporate law initially seemed to be a better fit), the trajectory that my career would have taken after I earned an MBA is difficult to imagine.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

You know that saying, “it takes a village…”? I have a village made up of trusted neighbors, and we live near my parents, who were my son’s daycare provider when he was an infant, and now that he is 11, pick him up from school every day. My husband and I have employers that allow us to have flexible schedules. I am able to take my son to school every morning, and my husband can pick him up from my parents’ house in the evening. Having flexibility in our schedules ensures that we are able to be present when we are at work and home, and that we do not take undue advantage of my parents’ willingness to be such a huge part of our son’s life. Our neighborhood is full of similarly-aged children and parents in similar circumstances, and we carpool with them to sports and other activities. I’m thankful to know that I can count on this “village” to take care of my son if we find ourselves in a pinch, just as I would do for them.