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Want Balance? Dump Law and Go to Medical School

Vivia Chen

December 8, 2010

Are high-flying women professionals willing to sacrifice prestige and money for more predictable hours? Not if they can help it.

According to research by Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin, women want high-paying careers too, but they also expect work and family balance at the same time, reports Sue Shellenbarger at The Juggle of The Wall Street Journal.

It's a tall order--and one that's largely eluded women in law and finance. But women in the medical profession seem to have found the magical elixir.

The hot area for women doctor is--believe it or not--colon and rectal surgery. WSJ says women docs are flocking to that specialty because colonoscopies, which have become more routine, can also be scheduled in advance, thus "giving doctors control over their time."

Colon/rectal surgery hardly fits the stereotype of what a nice lady doctor should do. Indeed, it used to be a man's field. Goldin says that "31 percent of colon and rectal surgeons under 35 years of age were female in 2007, compared with only 3 percent of those ages 55 to 64, and 12 percent of those ages 45 to 54."

Generally, medicine tends not to penalize doctors for taking time off or working part-time. In contrast, Goldin's study finds that "business and finance are among the fields with the highest career cost for employees with families. The earnings penalty for taking a career break for family is largest for MBAs, and lowest for doctors," says WSJ. That's not entirely surprising, unfortunately, given the 16 percent-plus drop in the number of women working in finance since 2000.

And where does the legal profession fall in this spectrum? "The J.D.s fall in between the M.B.A.s and the M.D.s," said Goldin in an e-mail to me. The New York Times's Steven Greenhouse summarizes the position of women lawyers relative to other professions:

The study found that female M.B.A.’s who have taken off 18 months from their career to raise children suffered a severe income penalty, leaving them earning 41 percent less on average than male M.B.A.’s. Regarding other female professionals who took 18 months off, the study found, female Ph.D.’s earn 33 percent less than male Ph.D.’s, female lawyers earn 29 percent less than male lawyers, and female M.D.’s earn 16 percent less than male doctors.

Goldin's study raises a number of interesting questions: Can the medical profession serve as a model for the way lawyers are promoted in big firms? Or is the legal profession, where a small percentage of law graduates ever make partner, just too competitive and fast-moving to wait for talent to return to the fold?

Readers, what is the colon/rectal surgery equivalent in the legal world? Could it ever be high-stakes dealmaking or bet-the-house litigation?


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There's no such thing as a free lunch... or work-family balance.

If you want a high-paying career with work-family balance, two things are necesssarily true:
(1) all careers that are not high-paying are foreclosed to you, meaning your ability to achieve work-family balance is constrained
(2) all careers that are not conducive to work-family balance are foreclosed to you, meaning your ability to achieve high pay is constrained.

Shockingly, people with more constraints on their behavior are less able to achieve their goals. Because work-family balance is an unqualified good (meaning no rational person would turn down the option to have it at zero cost), and its production is not free, you have to pay for it.

Life is trade-offs. You can pay the piper in terms of sacrificing one goal for the other or in terms of sacrificing some external thing to pursue both. In the case of doctors, those female doctors sacrificed pursuing a more accessable degree earlier in life.

There's always one other option: incur the costs required to be substantially better at what you do than those who demand less than you do, such that you can command your increased price. That means, if women want both and men don't, that women need to work twice as hard as men to "do just as well."

Prospective students should dump law and go to med school?
That assumes that law students have the brains to be able to study medicine
The reason law is chosen over medicine is mainly that law students chose law because they can't do maths.

You should complain to king Obama, so he can establish another commission to make sure women get paid equally in spite of working far less. This is so tragic.

I totally agree on Prof. Claudia.

Is the job market only softening for law school grads looking for specific, high-paying jobs at the top law firms, or if it means that the United States has too many lawyers in general? However, a report earlier this year by the National Association of Law Placement indicated that even though the majority of law school graduates can still find jobs, a far higher percentage of those grads are now taking jobs that are temporary.

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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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