Street Talk: K Street Firms Adjust to Keep Moms

Posted March 27, 2011 at 2:00pm

Lobbyist Sara van Geertruyden, a mom of two sons, wanted out of the billable-hours confines of the law firm world.

Andy Rosenberg, who had recently started a boutique K Street shop, needed additional personnel, particularly to help his clients navigate executive branch agencies. But he didn’t think he could afford to hire a job candidate with van Geertruyden’s résumé.

It turned out, she wanted something more than money.

So in January, van Geertruyden joined Rosenberg’s firm, Thorn Run Partners, as a senior vice president with two enormous perks: schedule flexibility and zero requirement to bill clients for her time.

“To the clients she works on, she is fully accessible,” Rosenberg explained. “But she tries to have a schedule where she doesn’t have to work before 9:30, so she can drop her kids off at school. Most evenings she likes to be done by 3:30 so she can pick her kids up from school.”

That is definitely not the typical K Street daybook.

Between breakfast and dinner fundraisers, client conference calls and Hill meetings, most lobbyists say some days it can be impossible to squeeze in any personal time. But some mom lobbyists like van Geertruyden have negotiated deals, or even started their own ventures, in an attempt to find more time to spend with their kids while still staying on a high-level career track.

It’s the smaller startup firms that have adapted to these desires the most.

“These smaller shops can get a lot more bang for their buck by bringing in some of the folks who are looking for a little more work-life balance,” said Jennifer Folsom, who started her mom-focused staffing firm, Momentum Resources, in 2007. Since then, she has placed lobbyists at many Washington, D.C., firms. “Flexibility is priceless to the candidates and free to the employers.”

That’s exactly what Rosenberg and his five-person firm found.

And van Geertruyden, who last year left the city’s largest lobbying practice, Patton Boggs, said the new job works better for her clients and her kids, who are 3 and 5.

“I find small is definitely better,” she said.

Ditto for one former top GOP Hill aide who negotiated a four-day workweek at the startup lobby shop that she joined more than two years ago. She would only speak about her arrangement on background because, she said, there’s still a certain “stigma” of being mommy-tracked, even though her clients and colleagues seem to have no problem with her schedule.

This lobbyist interviewed with several different types of employers: big law firms, trade associations and smaller shops.

“What I found was basically the law firms and associations, they have the structure and rigidity of a firm. They have an HR department, and if you let one person do one thing, then you have to let everybody do it,” she said. “The smaller firms are able to be more flexible.”

Although some firms flatly denied her requests, she found a firm and a paycheck that worked for her.

“If I had gone out and said five days a week, could I have negotiated a higher salary? Probably. But I was willing to negotiate less to have the better quality of life,” she said.

Her advice to Congressional staffers looking to make the move downtown or to fellow lobbyists who want a reduced schedule: Don’t make apologies when making the ask. Even now, she doesn’t say she’s sorry when she has to skip a Friday conference call because that’s the day she’s at home. “I don’t feel bad about it,” she said. “I own my decision.”

Some mom lobbyists skip the negotiation process with potential employers altogether and launch their own businesses.

Melanie Nathanson, who left Glover Park Group last year to start Nathanson + Hauck with Megan Hauck, said she made the jump to have more control — control not only over her client relationships but her personal ones, too.

“There’s a huge amount of internal work just to make sure everyone’s on the same page in a bigger firm,” she said. “We can take that time and invest that in our clients and also with my son.”

Owning her own business, though, means having to fill out her own Lobbying Disclosure Act forms, finding IT help when the computers go haywire (which they did) and all the other underpinnings of operating a business. Even so, Nathanson said, it still works out that she has more time to directly work for her clients and to be with her son.

“This was as much about making sure I could be a good mother and wife and be the best for my clients,” she said.

Another K Street entrepreneur, Maura Colleton Corbett, who opened her own public affairs and issue advocacy firm, Glen Echo Group, last year after leaving Qorvis Communications, said the pace of manning the shop has been frenetic.

“I’m probably working more,” Corbett admitted. “But yesterday I was able to take an hour and do occupation day at school — which didn’t go very well. They just totally didn’t understand what I do.”

But her two daughters, ages 4 and 6, seem to get it.

“One kind of unexpected pleasure is showing two little girls that a mommy can do this,” Corbett said.

Owning her own business also makes her accountable only to her clients and family — not to business partners or colleagues who might think that if you’re not in the office “you’re getting your nails done,” she said. “Does it really matter if you’re on a conference call from your desk or a soccer field?”

But don’t expect all firms founded by working moms to allow for complete freedom.

Stephanie Silverman, who launched Venn Strategies 10 years ago when her daughters were 6 months and 4 years old, said her employees may work out individual schedules, but there are limits.

“Some leave at 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon, pick up their children, then work later, or some work very early in the morning,” she said. “The design is not for them to work less. I know how much you can do as a working mother, so having kids is not an excuse.”