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Moi--The Status Quo?

Vivia Chen

November 10, 2010

Establishment I'm largely amused to be called "a mouthpiece for the status quo" by Flex-Time Lawyers founder Deborah Epstein Henry. As you might know, Henry took umbrage at my recent post, "Business Case for Work/Life Balance--Really?," in which I questioned whether law firms and companies actually care about the balance issue beyond using it as a public relations prop.

Really, I've been called a lot of names, but never a member of the establishment. So I'll take that as a sign that I've somehow arrived.

Truth is, I did hesitate about writing that post. I knew I was stepping into a political minefield. It's also difficult to challenge the work/life balance movement, because I mostly support the cause. How can anyone not be for work/life balance?

The blog Ms. JD accurately describes the ambivalence many of us feel about waging any kind of criticism about the work/life balance agenda:

I can't tell you how many "off the record" conversations I've had with women who are 100 percent  committed to advancing other women in the profession, [yet who question] the work/life balance argument of Henry and others like her. But it's never voiced.

I think partly that's because we all are hyper-aware that any "cat-fighting" will quickly distract from our common cause. I think partly it's because we're all committed to "women helping women" and truly don't want to spend time undercutting one another.

So why am I airing the disagreements now? Well, for some time now, women lawyers have been urging me to challenge the movement's tenets. Some of them, ironically, work at the very firms and companies that have been touted by Flex-Time (in conjunction with Working Mother magazine) as the best places for women on their annual list. Clearly, there's a divide between those who have become the high priestesses of the balance movement and those who are working in the lawyer trenches.

What's true is that the push for work/life balance has given more lawyers the option of part-time or off-site work--something that was far less available ten years ago or so. But the flip side is that some of those family-friendly offerings can be traps that do little to further women's progress in the long run.

"My work is deadly and dead-end," says a part-time lawyer at a big firm that's made the coveted "best" place list several times. "I have flexibility, which is good for my quality of life, but I have no career." The work is so "dreadful," she adds, that she's thinking of quitting big law altogether to work full-time with a nonprofit.

"As long as we have part-time positions that some sucker will take, there's no need to look at the discrimination women really face," says a senior lawyer at a corporation that endorsed Henry's book, Law & Reorder. "It's a camouflage." Highly competent women, she adds, regularly get passed over for promotions: "Flex-time doesn't do much for those of us who are trying to get ahead."

For better or worse, I've put the work/life balance issue on the table. So let's start having an honest discussion about how this is really affecting women's careers.

As for my being the status quo mouthpiece: Hello big firms and companies out there--are you listening? It's me, the Careerist blogger. Please send money!

Reader, does your workplace offer part-time, flextime or other arrangements? What are the pros and cons?


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.

Photo: National Archives.

 

Comments

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I believe the secret is to take control of one's own future. This may not provide a short term answer to work commitments but will provide a light at the end of the tunnel.

By understanding what it is you wish to achieve with your lifestyle (and by when) you can put the steps in place to achieve it.

Fail to act and you will find yourself 5, 10, 15 (!) years down the line with the same work/life struggles wondering where life went.

It is a tough, tough issue. For a lot of people, especially the older generation who really had to put up and shut up, not working full-time can be seen as not really being dedicated to your firm or your work. I'm at a loss as to how to change that perception.

Vivia, I agree that the flexible work policies of many law firms (perhaps even most) undermine the careers of women lawyers.


But this isn’t news. Joan Williams and I were among the first to identify and illustrate the very serious stigma that often attaches to working anything but a standard high billable hours schedule – and that was ten years ago. In the study that launched the Project for Attorney Retention, we documented how working part-time can be a career ender and, importantly, provided guidelines for firms to reduce the stigma.


It also isn’t news that the issue of work/life balance has to be addressed in the legal profession. Not addressing it has had as a huge impact on women lawyers’ advancement as addressing it poorly has. Work/life issues also impact male lawyers, baby boomers, racially and ethnically diverse lawyers, clients, and law firms’ business models. I don’t think any of the lawyers you quote would advocate doing away with flexible work policies or ending the work/life movement, despite their criticism.


What is news is that some firms do actually get it right when it comes to flexible work programs. Doing it “right” means addressing the issue of flexibility stigma when the policy is created, and again every day thereafter. When I was at PAR, we developed a test for determining the health of a flexible work program that looks at hard numbers such as how many lawyers who work reduced hours have been made partner and how many men are working reduced hours. Happily, there are firms that score well on the test. Even more happily, when we studied part-time partners, we found that many felt their firms had supported them and did not feel stigmatized or that their careers had suffered as a result of their schedules. Many were equity partners who were rainmakers and leaders in their firms. The promise of flexible schedules is real: if firms are willing to make a real effort to implement nonstigmatized reduced-hours policies, lawyers working reduced hours can advance professionally and contribute significantly to their firms.


Thanks for keeping these issues on the front burner.

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About The Careerist

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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