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The lawyer moms

A typical morning for one of the founding partners of the law firm of Lewis & Malone LLP:

Patty Campbell Malone sits in her kitchen office, typing ideas for a court case. Four-year-old son Huey squirms in her lap. Malone keeps typing, riding a wave of legal inspiration.

Finally, Malone lays down the law.

''Please, just 15 more minutes," she tells Huey. ''Can you go upstairs and get your trucks?"

A staid, oak-paneled attorney's office this is not.

''It can get a little chaotic here," said Malone after being asked to describe what it's like to practice law at home.

Malone hopes to find a way to give stay-at-home mothers like her a chance to put their law degrees to work. She and her law partner, David Lewis, rent a conference room for meetings with clients. But Malone works from her South Natick home, and Lewis from his home in Cambridge. They have compiled a list of lawyer mothers and are trying to attract enough cases to hire them to work 10 to 20 hours a week.

It's an experiment in a profession some say isn't always very mother-friendly.

According to the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, about one-third of practicing lawyers in the state are women, but just 19 percent of law partners with an equity stake in the state's top 100 firms are women. No one tracks how many mothers are in the profession, association officials said.

Margaret Marshall, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court chief justice, who knows Malone from her days as a clerk for Justice John Greaney, said progress has been steady but slow. Pay disparities between the sexes still exist, despite ''enormous strides forward," ending formal discrimination. When Marshall graduated from law school in 1976, she said, there were few female lawyers and judges and no women who worked as district attorneys.

Marshall, who does not have children but cares for an elderly parent, said she has watched many of her closest female friends successfully raise children and practice law. She said most successful female lawyers she's met have ''kept a hand" in the law while raising children.

''How do we help institutions adjust so they can accommodate the challenge of parenting and being a professional?" she said. ''Well, one model I think we have to explore is . . . not assuming we will all move in lock step up the ladder. . . . People can come back gangbusters at the age of 45 and develop substantial practices between the ages of 45 and 70. Patty's model fits into that [idea]."

Malone, 44, stopped practicing law in 2002 after several years working as an appellate clerk at the Supreme Judicial Court and later as counsel and spokeswoman for the state Department of Revenue. She wanted to spend more time with her three children, then 2, 4, and 6 years old. She found the adjustment difficult. She missed Boston's vibrancy. And it seemed like her husband, also a lawyer, was always at work on interesting projects.

''We define ourselves by our work, by what we do," she said. ''When I'm out at a party and colleagues ask 'What are you doing,' and I say, 'Well, I'm home with the kids,' they turn around and talk to someone else."

She wanted to work part time and fielded some job offers, but most firms wouldn't allow her to work from home. She worked on cases for other firms to keep her skills current, but the jobs were sporadic.

Parents at her children's bus stop introduced her to Lewis, her law partner, about a year ago. Single and without children, he had been working out of an office in his Cambridge residence and knew how to run an at-home operation, Malone said. By last September, their firm was incorporated.

Lewis said their model allows them to charge less than other firms.

''The legal industry is very conservative [and] there's a tremendous amount of talent that's going unused," he said. ''It's really a shame that incredibly well-qualified people aren't being put to as productive use as they could be."

Malone and Lewis talk by phone and e-mail regularly. They have a dozen clients, and Malone said she has been visiting law firms to drum up more work.

Generally they look for appeals work, because it is more research- and writing-intensive than other forms of litigation.

For now, Malone is working three mornings a week in her kitchen and enjoying ''face time" with her children.

''In the office, you had to be there just to show your commitment to being there," she said. ''But does it really matter as long as the work is done?"

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at 508-820-4251 or woolhouse@globe.com.

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