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Harvard Law Women Opt Out

Vivia Chen

June 15, 2010

Betty 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.

If you have topics you'd like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected]

Photo from Mad Men, courtesy of AMC


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Why haven't you posted any comments in almost one year on this issue? The back-biting evidenced by the 2010 comments misses the bigger issue. The US does not value child rearing regardless whether it is done by the mother or father. It's not a matter of whether a parent wants to work or not; very few have that luxury anymore.
It's only a matter of time b4 some enterprising 45 year old women attorneys get it together and formulate a firm that works in shifts to cover each other's needs (childcare; parent care; disabled spouse care) as well as clients' needs. When that balance is struck, we will have no need of glass ceilings at all.

I liked this post very much as it has helped me a lot in my research and is quite interesting as well. Thank you for sharing this information with us.

Angie, the only thing I apologize for is the fact that I thought I could trust you as a progressive and a feminist. I am saddened that you have devoted your vast intellect to the cause of the stay at home mother. In that quest, you join the ranks of the government, the mass media and almost every one of the world's religions. Certainly overeducated mothers who live posh lives running homes for their executive/investment banking/hedge fund husbands don't need you to justify their existence, do they? After all, they did use their education for the purpose for which it was intended - to marry a wealthy man - and therefore they have succeeded.

The reason I described your conclusions the way I did was because I was quoting directly from Vivia's previous article, which I direct you to look at.

Unfortunately I do not have the time to draft a response as lengthy and eloquent as you did. After all, I do work for a living and spend my non-working time relishing my children and not blogging about them.


I don't like to get into comment wars, but I need to correct some blatantly false statements in Rebecca Eisenberg's comment above.

First, I did not say that “one-third of the women in [our] graduating class dropped out of the workforce ‘entirely.’” What I wrote in the Slate article is that "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" (emphasis added). As someone who is planning to go back to work, I think there is a big difference between dropping out and off-ramping.

Second, as to the argument that my article was "unscientific and flawed,” here are the facts. For about five months, I located and contacted our female classmates one by one using not only the Alumni Directory (which is only as current as the alumni want it to be), but also other sources such as state bar associations, Facebook, LinkedIn, newspaper articles, multiple phone and email directories, and referrals from friends/classmates, former employers, parents, and husbands (whom I found by searching through various newspapers’ wedding announcements). I tallied up the results in an Excel spreadsheet, and I reported the results from the respondents. I have no idea how my methodology compares with that used by Professor Wilkins or what his conclusions are, nor does Rebecca Eisenberg tell us. But I am happy to discuss these issues at any time with Professor Wilkins, for whom I worked as a Research Assistant and Teaching Assistant during law school, and whose work I greatly admire.

Finally, as to the bald assertions that the numbers I reported are “[j]ust a bold faced lie” and that "I already corrected Angie privately but she has no interest in correcting her error publicly”: completely and totally untrue. I have carefully combed through all the messages Rebecca Eisenberg sent me (privately through Facebook’s messages, which are all still available, and publicly through Slate’s comments to my article), and nowhere did she say anything about the numbers being erroneous in any way. She criticized my article as harmful to perceptions about women and questioned the implications of the article. But she said not one word questioning the survey results. If she had asked, I would have told her the truth: the results I reported are accurate, and I stand by them.

It is one thing to criticize someone’s ideas and to debate (even vigorously) the merits of those ideas. It is another thing entirely to call someone a “bold faced li[ar],” which implies not only falsity of conclusions but also an intent to mislead. Rebecca Eisenberg has shown neither, which makes her comment nothing more than an unprincipled ad hominem attack. Rebecca, you owe me an apology.

Viva, I know I'm late for the game, but Angie Kim's study was unscientific and flawed. It's simply not true that one-third of the women in my graduating class dropped out of the workforce "entirely." Just a bold faced lie and Angie should be ashamed of herself for publishing that. I already corrected Angie privately but she has no interest in correcting her error publicly. At any rate, I just thought I'd say. Feel free to go to Professor David Wilkins for more accurate statistics.

The author of the article, Vivia Chen, states:

"... 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."

Vivia, For a future article, why don't you ask them? They shouldn't be so hard to find.

Don't forget them how many of them are married to rich guys.

According to Kim's article, a "most" of the 30% (i.e., 16% of the total) not working are taking care of their children, which means that 14% might not even be taking care of children, at all.

What happens when the kids grow up and these women want to go back to work after 5, 10, 15 years out of the workforce? Most of them probably cannot (and, indeed, do not want to) practice law again. But they have Harvard Law School trained minds. And when the kids are gone, they will be bored. But who will hire them?

I remember quite vividly listening to the lead editor of the law review in law school (a women) trying to encourage those of us selected to join the review to follow through with it. She said "You can have it all!" She was referring at that time to good grades, the distinction of being named to the review, clerking, etc. I remember thinking to myself (a 32 year old male law clerk working part time, with a family) - "Oh no you can't!" So I declined to participate. As you probably know, that is unheard of in law school. Indeed, I was even told by one of the partners at the firm where I clerked that it was the "worst mistake I would ever make." The comment was deflating, to say the least. Thankfully, it also turned out to be untrue. Indeed, it made no difference at all in my career. But I was more fortunate than most.

The real point is this: if you want to raise children that are more than functional, you have to spend time with them. And you have to actively parent them during the time that you spend. That won’t happen if you are gone all day. It probably doesn’t matter so much if it’s dad or mom that stays home (although women are usually better at nurturing than men), but somebody has to be there for them. I have seen it over and over again.

My wife was employed as an engineer at the beginning of our marriage. After the first child was born, we did the daycare thing. What a hassle! Always having to rush here and there, constantly splitting up the housecleaning, washing, cooking, and transportation chores. Kid always sick from being with so many other kids. We did that for a little over a year, until the second one was born, and then she quit working. What a relief, for everyone. The tension level of everyday living went way down. And it's been that way ever since. But it was a struggle for my wife. She even suffered the hostility of other women who thought she should be working.

The moms from Harvard aren’t staying home just because they don’t want to miss magical moments. They are staying home because they realize what a HUGE difference it makes in the end. They’ve figured out that they will only lose out if they try to balance their career and “however badly” the lives of their children.

I agree with Ms. Sperling - the women that turn down the higher-level jobs are just smarter than those people, men and women, who don't. Instead of working harder, they're working smarter. In the end, they will live longer and more satisfying lives. Imagine what would happen if all vice presidents and junior officers simply refused promotion until they received guarantees of reasonable hours and backup staff to handle off-hours labor? Then we might actually have some corporate change in this country. But the materialistic culture of America appears to be winning out for now -- many folks are simply too greedy to quit.

I don’t envy women beginning their life after college these days. One of my daughters just graduated, and is one of them. They work hard to get educated, and to start a career. Then they usually have to make a choice: career or family. Many don’t realize that a choice even exists, because the media generally says you can "have it all." But that’s not reality. Well, maybe it is, if you have a 9-3 job. But for those women that attempt to reach the top of a demanding career (e.g., law) it isn't - they often end up losing out in every way. The ladies from Harvard are smart – they had to be to get there in the first place – they know the truth.

I have nothing but admiration for women that attempt to be mothers as well as partners in a law firm. But it also makes me sad, because the legal system simply isn't set up to facilitate that kind of existence.

Can we call this the parent track yet? Both my wife and I are lawyers, graduating in 1999. Over the years, as we have had children, I was the one who went onto the mommy track as the corporation I work for has flexible working conditions such as telecommuting. My career has "suffered" (not that I am complaining, I made my choice) as I have stayed in my current position due to the hours and ability to be available for our children and my wife now makes more than me.

The problem with this topic is:

There is No Incentive to Talk About It Honestly-- There is Only Social Punishment for Voicing Concerns.

It is sexist and unacceptable to say: "Statistically, 60% of the slots that are allocated to women at Harvard, are slots that were taken on providing a world-class education that will not be utilized to the extent that they really should be, 60% of these students probably should not have been admitted."

But it really merits consideration. These are slots that are being taken away from both Men and Women who would apply the education in their life and use it to better the world, our government, and the practice of law.

Further, the same can be said for undergraduate degrees. 40% of women do not participate in the labor force. of the 60% that do, 30% are in jobs that are service/manual labor sector, which leaves us again with roughly 40% of women who will be using their undergraduate degrees in their careers.

It feels crass and probably is crass to say "we are over educating women". But I feel like it is an argument that really merits examination and that Universities should really reconsider if going for 50/50 is a wise goal... particularly when we're seeing a lot of universities with women as a strong majority.

Education has become a "value" when it should instead be seen as a "resource". Especially when it is financed by loans from the state.

to hilseq

The grass is always greener . . . . I was home with my two children for 5 years and never once sat reading a book while pushing one of them back and forth with one toe. I did not have more than 4 hours' sleep in a row for five years. Working at a firm is not harder than rearing children full time - it is just a different hard. It's extraordinary that you think women have more children to avoid jobs and don't be surprised when you get blasted for that opinion. I've been on both sides. Now I'm in-house; nothing is easy.

I agree with Betty -- men would "chuck it all" too (where "all" = the legal eagle track, especially in Biglaw) if it were as socially acceptable to do so as it is for women. I remember back when I was a first and second year associate, when the mid-year women would bring in their new babies to show off around the firm. All of us would be running around in the usual cold sweat panic over some filing deadline, wearing the same wrinkled power suits from the day before, and the mommy would come strolling (literally) in with her little bundle of ticket-out-of-there, in yoga pants and a t-shirt, looking a good kind of rumpled and a kind of relaxed and happy that for most of us was but a dim memory (5th grade, maybe?) Sure, we all chuckled at the woe-is-me tales of sleepless nights and spit-up, but we were all -- men and women -- watching them escape out into the real world (for an afternoon sitting with a book in starbucks, pushing the stroller back and forth with one toe) and thinking, "Holy Sh**! How do I get that gig?" The truly brilliant thing is that they got to be so holier-than-thou about it: they weren't "quitting," let alone "giving up," or "melting down," -- oh, no, they were being Mommies, dedicating themselves to a Higher Good. I have recently read a few "trend" stories about the move back towards bigger families in the upper-middle class, and I have seen some evidence of this around me. It has occasionally occurred to me that this might have something to do with the fact that this generation of women is sometimes expected to actually use their $100,000 law degrees again once the kiddies are comfortably out of diapers. This is anecdotal, but I myself know a number of former professional women now on their third or fourth kids, and some of them have even admitted that they had another one (or two. . .) to avoid having to go back to work. What a world.

A law firm career is probably dissatisfying for most men and women, and discouraging particularly when one is in the late associate years. Women, as childbearers, have a socially acceptable excuse for chucking it. The tendency among high achieving women to seek out high achieving men allows them to have the lifestyle of a successful lawyer without putting in the effort. Good for them. They exhibit a defensiveness as if they have to justify this choice to their still toiling sisters but they shouldn't pretend that their lives are as demanding as they used to be.

I don't think this is just an issue for women. Men are probably equally as dissatisfied and disillusioned by the pressures and expectations of practicing law. We women get a break - we can quit to find a more satisfying occupation, be that Mommy and Housewife, entrepreneur, in-house attorney or wherever our hearts lead us. Men just don't have that opportunity to the extent that women do - they are most often the primary income generator of the family.

The truth is that the career just isn't that great. Most attorneys are merely facilitators for the movement of wealth. We haven't found a way to make that worth the sacrifices to our personal lives. I say let the men have it! I believe that most women are finding that the careers that we were told were supposed to be essential to our self-esteem because we had to break through ceilings to obtain them, just are not that essential, fullfilling and moreso can be quite damaging to our health and sanity. When is the feminist movement going to stop telling women that they have to pursue male-dominated fields in order to be successful? Have we even asked ourselves why we have to care if we don't "make it" in a lawfirm environment?

I worked in big law firms and medium law firms for almost twelve years and I can tell you that firms are actively trying to make it work for women and they have been for many years. What we cannot change is the attitude, expectations and culture of our clients. This is what law firms cannot talk about because of the fear of alienating their clients. Client expectations drive the inhospitable environment of law firms and the unreasonable expectations placed on attorneys which drives the alienation of attorneys themselves. The reality is that we are a commodity service provider.

I refuse to believe that the problems with the legal industry is men trying to keep women out. Let's think more deeply about this. My opinion is that nothing but a total overhaul in how law schools recruit and train attorneys and graduate ever growing populations of eager and indebted students into the market place coupled with a total overhaul of client expectations and demands will make a legal career that appealing for the long haul.

Better for women to create their own careers based on a true connection to who they are as individuals. Again, when is the feminist movement going to catch up with what is really happening with women. Who cares about law firms, investment banks, or the Fortune 500? We can choose to fight the good fight as a civil rights attorney! Open a bakery! Write a book or a blog! Design homes and gardens! Be great Mothers, Wives and Friends! We get to find out who we truly are and where our true talents lie! The wonderful thing about 2010 is that we can choose! We don't have to climb ladders any longer, we don't have to break anything, we just have to be who we are.

It's not a mystery. There is no way to balance. There is no path of least resistance. There is spending time with your child (and being pushed out as a low performer) and there is spending time at the firm (and giving up time with your child). There are no other paths. To say that finding a job that gives your more time with your child is the path of least resistance implies there is some way to make it work at the law firm. I assure you, despite the "flex-time" programs law firms claim to have, there is not.

It is not impossible. It just requires a lot of focus, excellent time management, and a solid childcare arrangement. I hope women lawyers are not dissuaded by the statistics. There are some of us who strive to make it work, even if things don't always go perfectly.

The reason so many women "opt out" needn't be a mystery! For those women in large firms (and probably for many in smaller ones), the "mommy track" isn't something the women choose. More likely, it is forced upon them by employers who find not-so-subtle ways of punishing women for having babies and/or taking maternity leave. When I had my first child, I went from being reviewed as a "superstar" to being told that the firm "questioned my priorities and thus my future with the firm," despite the fact that there were no complaints about my performance and my collectibles were higher than same-year associates who hadn't taken maternity leave that year. The same thing happened to every other woman who had a baby during my years there. We didn't abandon our ambitions with the firm -- it abandoned us. Of those several women, every single one of us left the firm to go solo, take a clerkship, or go in-house in a more family-friendly environment. To paraphrase Malcolm X, "we didn't land in the Mommy Track -- the Mommy Track landed on us" when our firms decided that the choice to have a family would be viewed as a career-damaging move, regardless of our performance.

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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: [email protected]

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