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They Are Not Miserable. Really.

Vivia Chen

June 27, 2012


"There's an assumption that there must be something wrong with us, that we're secretly miserable and that we outsource our children."

                                                                        Maura Monaghan, partner at Debevoise & Plimpton

They can't stop yakking about it. No, it's not about Fifty Shades of Grey (though I hear it's the rage at some law firms), but that article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic ("Why Women Still Can't Have It All"). You know the one—where Slaughter recounts her decision to quit a big State Department job to spend more time with her kids.

I already told you my views on it (I thought the article was "regressive, deflating, and infuriating"). But how do those on the front lines feel—particularly women who hold prestigious, pressured jobs? I decided to check in with some female law partners to get their take. After all, the article is in many ways directed at them.

In fact, early in her article, Slaughter talks about how younger female lawyers have a hard time relating to women partners. She describes her conversation with two young women:

When I told them I was writing this article, one young  lawyer said, “I look for role models and can’t find any.” She said the women in her firm who had become partners and taken on management positions had made tremendous sacrifices, “many of which they don’t even seem to realize. . . . They take two years off when their kids are young but then work like crazy to get back on track professionally, which means that they see their kids when they are toddlers but not teenagers, or really barely at all.”

So how tough is the work/life balance equation for women partners? And what do they make of Slaughter's article? As you might guess, there was no shortage of opinions. Several requested anonymity for this post, but just as many wanted to go on the record, including (pictured from left to right) Debevoise & Plimpton's My Chi To and Maura Monaghan; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett's Marissa Wesely; and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr's Molly Boast.

Here are some themes that ran in our discussion:

Having it all: 

Wesely: "We have to drop this 'having it all' discussion—what man or woman in the workplace has it ALL? . . . If one can look at one’s life from time to time and feel basically happy with the way one is dealing with work, spouse, kids, friends, self—that is a huge success."

Monaghan: "Slaughter did have it all: She had a public policy job, even though she didn't stay. She's got tenure at Princeton. She has a loving relationship with her husband. She has a family. . . . If you look at her actions, and not her words, she does have it all."

The kids are all right: All the women took umbrage with the notion that their kids are raised by nannies. That said, they also sympathized deeply with Slaughter's problems on the homefront, particularly Boast, who served as a director at the Federal Trade Commission in the Clinton administration and, more recently, as a deputy assistant attorney general under President Obama.

Boast: "When I went to the FTC, my child was 12. I lived in D.C. and my husband and child lived in New York. There were painful moments. My daughter said to me, 'I know how much you love your work, but I really miss you.' . . . The guilt piece is something you have to get used to. . . . My daughter was not damaged, but she did become very close to my husband, which is positive."

Partner #1 at Am Law 100 firm: "Junior associates think women partners have it worse than we do. We don't always tell them that we're going to school events and how much time we spend with our kids. We don't want anyone to think we're not committed to our jobs. . . . We are happy with our personal lives."

There are high-powered jobs, and there are ridiculously high-powered jobs. The consensus is that Slaughter didn't really know what she was getting into.

Boast: "Slaughter is incredibly accomplished but probably didn't realize how much autonomy she had [at Princeton]. . . . She was a policy person who's not used to front-line diplomacy and bureaucracy. The work model in Washington is very different."

Monaghan: "She was trying to do the absolute hardest of the hard. She's away from home; she can't unwind at the end of the day. She's in a job that's all-consuming. It's more like being in the military."

Partner #1 at Am Law 100 firm: "Her job at the State Department sounds like hell. It would break anybody. I don't know how anyone can spend an entire week away from their family. She must have had no sense of control."

The personal is not universal.

Wesely: "It's dangerous to take one’s personal experience and derive general principles about the way the world works from it. . . . To be honest, we all do that a bit—[Facebook COO] Sheryl [Sandberg] translates her success into what every woman needs to do to succeed. . . . But only some of us have the platform from which to preach our view."

Partner #2 at Am Law 100 firm: "I think there were other factors [in Slaughter's decision]. She's my age, and when you hit 50, and you realize half your life is over, your priorities shift."

Slaughter's article is furthering the discussion—maybe not.

To: "It's good to have the conversation, but this is not a helpful voice. . . I feel women with children and families should be leading by example. Things aren't going to change if people like us aren't showing that it's possible. . . . I was very discouraged by her message that you have to make these irreconciliable choices. . . . She's entitled to make her decisions, but she seems to be saying that women have to set their sights lower. That's the wrong message."

What do you think? Is it possible to have a reasonable life at a big firm? Or are these women just tuning out what Slaughter is saying?

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.


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I can see how "having it all" feels like an assault on women who decide not to have children, implying they somehow have less because of their choice. Perhaps if we change this instead to "holding two full time jobs" it would level the playing field. Because whether your second job is as a parent or as a owner of an art gallery, they are both your "babies" and take a great deal of nurturing for them to flourish. With that defined, I liked the article by Slaughter because it was a call to change the business culture to give people more balance, so that they could have a life outside of work. Having worked in corporate world for 20+ years I invested everything in my work and I got nothing back but a paycheck. So the real message is a wake up call to everyone, men and women alike to invest in yourself and what is important to you. And to business - if you want creative, passionate workers they need the ability to nurture their own "babies" outside of work to be fulfilled.

This is a very interesting debate going on here. As someone who has had hopes of going into the law for a very long time (I'm in my mid 20s, almost finished with undergrad and planning to apply to LS next year) and making a career out of it - and also someone with no desire for children, I really appreciate the insight from the women who are already dealing with these issues.

I think that the above poster was right when she said that "having it all" does not mean husband, kids, career - having it all is something that is different for everyone. My "having it all" may be a great marriage, a great career, and the freedom allowed by being child-less. Someone else's "having it all" may be just the opposite. I agree 100% that the fact that there is a consensus about what it means to "have it all" is ridiculous.

I am not at a large firm. I have been a partner at a midsize firm since 2008. The first 10 years of my practice life were spent at small firms. I agree that you can't have it all.
The truth is there are some women, myself included that don't want children. We have a full and complete life. I read the woes working mothers and wonder where I fit in. The idea that you must be a mom and a lawyer (or other high powered job) to be happy is a little ridiculous. To me having it all means you have the power to make the choices that best suit you. The rush to have it "all" tells young women that you must acquire jobs, husbands and children to be fulfilled and well, that is not the case. Perhaps we should start teaching young women to know what they want and go for it no matter what those choices are. My feelings are the discussion itself is good but the focus should be on choices and how they can lead to happiness. Every decision is a choice and has consequences and you make those choices daily. Learning what is best for each person is more important that using the goal of "having it all".

I can't help thinking that this conversation would be radically different if men were interviewed. How many readers out there know male partners at AmLaw 100 firms who grapple with any of these issues? Like my neighbor says, if you want something done, call a woman.

One of the points made in the general discussion in response to Slaughter's article (that these women are ignoring) is that part of the way to help younger women is to *talk* about spending time with your family and going to school events, etc. so that people hear about work-life issues and do see opportunities for mentorship from female partners. That's part of the way you "change the conversation" and that needs to come from the top. If a *partner* at an AmLaw 100 firm doesn't feel comfortable saying she's going to one of her children's school event, the cultural problem is strong.

Being around your children when they are teenagers is over-rated. I'd gladly trade that - in fact their 20s too.

Also some of us don't want it all. Some of us choose NOT to be mothers and happily so.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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