Women seeking work/life balance are getting their faces slapped with cold water these days. Last week in Texas Lawyer, Andrews Kurth partner Kathleen Wu warned law school graduates not to "get their hearts set on having it all." Wu calls law practice "demanding--exceedingly so. It is next to impossible to balance a full-time legal career with marriage, children, and regular trips to the gym."
Wu, a 1985 law school graduate, says it's possible to have family and career but that it will entail "sacrifices." She ultimately passes the torch to younger lawyers to push for greater life balance.
So how are some of the younger women doing on this front? Angie Kim, a 1993 graduate of Harvard Law School, gives us a hint in Slate ("The Mommy Track Turns 21"), and the news is sobering.
When she decided on a legal career in 1989, Kim writes, she wanted no part of any mommy track, a job where ambition would take a back seat to the demands of family:
For the next decade, I stuck with this plan: I was a law review editor, federal appellate clerk, and a litigation associate at the Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly. I shifted to the corporate ladder and continued the climb with a stint at McKinsey & Co. and then as cofounder and president of a dot-com-turned-software company with more than 200 employees.
But then--you guessed it--having kids changed her course. "I didn't want to be an antifeminist opt-out revolutionary," Kim writes, but then her second baby became ill with an unknown ailment. So for the next five years she embarked on what she terms the "doctor mom track," doing medical research and taking her son for medical treatments. (Her son is now fine.)
About a year ago, Kim became curious if the other women in her law school class had also seen their plans derailed. So she took a poll of the 226 women in her class. After a lot of prodding, a surprising 90 percent responded:
According to my survey, the majority of the women of the class of 1993 of Harvard Law School have left the fast track. Thirty percent of the respondents have mommy-track jobs, with 21 percent working part-time and 9 percent working full-time with special arrangements like job-sharing and working nonconventional hours. Another 30 percent of the respondents stay at home, most having "off-ramped" with the expectation of going back to work when their children are older.
That 60 percent of these women have dropped out of the fast track is astonishing, especially since they graduated at a time when women's enrollment in law schools was at an all-time high. According to Catalyst, women represented 50.4 percent of law students in 1993.
I called Kim at her home in northern Virginia to discuss her findings, and she offered some other fascinating tidbits that didn't make it into the article. She says that only 15 percent of the women from her class are law firm partners--a rate that's even lower than the national average of 19 percent women partners. Women on law review, however, seemed to fare better: Of the 15 women on law review, Kim says she's the only one who's not working.
Despite this very mixed picture, Kim wants to stress the positive. Her thesis is that the so-called mommy track has evolved:
The "mommy track" was renounced at birth for sanctioning boring flextime jobs with low plaster ceilings. But some of my not-fast-track classmates are using their clout and influence to create prestigious roles. A senior partner who brought many clients to her law firm, for example, now works 15 to 40 hours per week, mainly out of her home and on her own schedule. . . . The author of a best-selling book on negotiations launched her own conflict resolution firm with about 15 attorneys and consultants. She works from home during school hours and after bedtime and takes July and August off.
Kim argues that "the line between the fast track and the mommy track is blurring," and that flexibility "is infiltrating more and more jobs and replacing traditional work values—long hours, face time—as the new workplace ideal."
It's all quite hopeful, though there's plenty of room for debate as to when--if ever--this type of track will be available on a wide basis. Right now, Kim admits that a few "privileged women occupy such a space."
But the real stunner to me--and what Kim doesn't really address--is that nearly a third of the women from her class aren't working at all. These are some of the brightest legal minds in the country, and yet they've decided to drop out completely.
Kim says that most of these women are taking a hiatus from practicing to raise children. "Very few said they would never go back to work," says Kim.
Despite Kim's assurance, I can't help but feel a bit deflated that so many of her female classmates have decided not to pursue any type of career at all. Yes, I realize that these are personal choices, and that many women are perfectly fulfilled minding the home and kids. And as the cliche goes, kids grow up so quickly. So who can blame anyone for not wanting to miss those magical years?
Yet, I'm baffled. Are these women just burned out by the legal profession? Is it that impossible to balance--however badly--home and career of any sort? Or are these women taking the path of least resistance?
It's a mystery to me.
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Photo from Mad Men, courtesy of AMC