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American Magazine

 

Alumni

Home Office

Networking at the playground, working after bedtime: two WCL alumnae are redefining working motherhood

By Mike Unger

Collage of different office icons that spells home office

Even for Rebecca Geller, today’s a crazy busy one. It started eye-rubbing early. When her husband left the house at 5:30, she already was up. Five-year-old Noah, the middle of their three children, has strep throat, and because she’s scheduled to give a speech, she had to arrange special child care for him, while getting seven-year-old Sam to the bus stop, before dropping two-year-old Emily at day care.

During her drive from their home in Fairfax Station, Virginia, to a talk she delivered on basic legal needs to a gathering of real estate agents in nearby Arlington, she interviewed a paralegal that her Geller Law Group is considering hiring. After her presentation she sat in her Toyota Sienna minivan and quickly scrolled through the 112 emails she’d received during the hour-long event, then drove to the Fairfax office the firm rents on an as-needed basis.

“This afternoon I have a couple of calls to do consultations with clients,” she says from an 11th floor conference room with a beautiful view of mountains in the distance. “I’ll probably stop working by 4:30 because my kids go to different child cares, and it’s a long circuit to pick everyone up. Baseball games are around 5:30, then dinner and bed, then I’ll sign back on to the computer and work for a few more hours.”

It’s exhausting just listening to Geller, SPA/BA’02, WCL/JD ’07, for whom every day is a carefully choreographed dance of familial and professional obligations in her roles as mother and wife, boss and attorney.

She wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I wanted to create a business model that made sense to working [mothers],” says Geller, who launched the firm in 2012. “You don’t have to put in 90 hours a week and never see your kids in order to be a successful lawyer. We encourage our employees to work from home, and they build their schedules around the lives of their families as well as the clients. If you hire an employee to do work that you trust them to do, why would you not trust them with their schedule? I believe that just as much business can be done at a playgroup as it can at a golf course. I didn’t think it was revolutionary.”

Actually, it was.

In 2011 Geller was working at a 500-attorney firm, doing what lawyers at such outfits do: logging endless face time at the office.

“One of the things that frustrated me is if a client project came in on a Friday at 5:00 and I spent 30 hours on it over the weekend, on Monday morning I’m still expected to be there for my normal hours—even if there’s not a lot to do on Monday morning because I worked 30 hours over the weekend,” she says. “That just doesn’t work for families or people who have other interests in their lives.”

So Geller struck out on her own, determined to craft a nontraditional work environment that “wasn’t defined by men.” She began accumulating clients, added a paralegal, and in 2013 got an email from a Washington College of Law classmate. Maria Simon, WCL/JD ’07, was a new mother in a state of professional transition and looking for a fresh opportunity. The two hit it off, and Simon came on board full time. Today, she’s a senior partner.

“We are the opposite sides of the coin,” says Simon, who has a strong background in litigation. “I supervise our legal work, and Rebecca is a phenom at business development. I have some clients that I’ve brought in, but for the most part this is the way we operate.”

“She jokes that I’m the Don Draper without all the alcohol,” says Geller, who describes herself as more of a business attorney. “I regularly take my 2-year-old to a music class, and we have a wonderful time. Interestingly, I have met a number of families there who have become clients. Networking while the kids are playing happens more than you can believe. I’ve gotten a number of clients from Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties. I keep business cards in my diaper bag.”

Simon, whose son, Jack, is five, splits her time working from her home in Washington’s Crestwood neighborhood and the firm’s main office space in Fairfax. If she needs to, she can meet with clients at any of the 12 office spaces the firm has access to around the area. From 5 to 8 p.m. she tries to avoid her phone and focus on family. Court is closed, and for the most part, work can wait until Jack’s in bed.

“Even though we might be working from home, there’s still designated child care,” Simon says. “I think that’s a misnomer of working from home. Even though I only have one child I’m not as productive if he’s sitting right next to me. I can’t do anything. Of course it’s as soon as I get on the conference call that he needs my full attention.”

Communication among the six (all female) attorneys in the firm, which specializes in wills and trusts, family law, trademark contracts, and providing general counsel to small businesses, is key. Geller and Simon cc each other on every email they send, so that if they’re unable to deal with a work situation because they’re handling a family one at home, the other will be able to pick up the slack.

Rebecca Geller and her children in the playground

Geller says she’s more productive and efficient now than when she was a classic 9-to-5er (more like a 9-to-7er). If one of the attorneys has a dentist appointment or has to take a sick kid to the doctor or sick dog to the vet, they do it. As long as the quality or timeliness of their work doesn’t suffer, Geller doesn’t care when or where her attorneys do it. It’s not a setup in which everyone automatically thrives; they’ve had attorneys leave to work in a more traditional office setting.

Still, their business model has caused people to take note. The New York Times ran a story highlighting the women and the firm on the front page of its business section in May 2015. The piece positioned Geller as a leader in the work-life balance space, and she has spoken about 50 times around the country. The firm has been named a top telework company by Forbes, received buyout offers from larger firms, and routinely gets unsolicited résumés (mostly from women). It even attracted pitches from several reality television producers and the TV show Shark Tank. 

Geller and Simon have politely declined all the offers. They’re focused on their ever-expanding roster of nearly 1,400 clients, one of whom is Denise Stern. The president and CEO of Let Mommy Sleep, a company that provides overnight care to newborns, Stern’s thoughts are typical of many of Geller’s clients.

“Rebecca is so clearly qualified and dedicated that I trust the team to work however they are most comfortable,” she says.

In fact, most of her clients don’t care about the firm’s day-to-day work structure at all, Geller says. Whenever they need a face-to-face meeting, they get one.

“When I’m on the phone they have my attention,” she says. “What do they care where I am? Just because it’s always been done this way doesn’t mean it’s the right way. When people say, ‘This is how you have to do it,’ I’m a big believer in asking, ‘Why?’

“I want the people who work for our firm to be happy in their jobs and happy in their lives because that attitude gets passed on in the work that we do for our clients. There’s always that illustrious ‘can you have it all?’ I think what we’ve created is as close as we can get.”