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Why Leave the Kitchen?

Vivia Chen

January 20, 2012

RetroMom_© Ethan_Flickr.comI won't pretend: Parenting (really, "mommy") magazines drive me nuts. Those helpful articles on breast feeding, potty training, and vegetable pureeing always put me into an immediate funk.

Unfortunately, those publications are not limiting their advice to those drippy subjects. These days, they're wading into the whole work/life balance mess, targeting moms who work, once worked, or would like to go back to work.

To cheer on this generation of conflicted women, they're offering advice about how women can have a spectacular  career while fulfilling their noble role as nurturers of the species. The oft-cited solution—drum roll, please—is job flexibility. It goes something like this: Golly, if you just put your mind to it, why shouldn't you rise to the top of your field from your own kitchen, with the little darlings hanging at your feet?

Feeding this fantasy is Working Mother magazine, which lists "15 Surprising Work-From-Home Jobs." Out of curiosity, I checked what those careers might be.

Some of them seem plausible enough: Bilingual technical adviser, grant writer, vacation counselor (is "travel agent" no longer an acceptable term?), and CEO (which is a fancy way of saying that you work for yourself). Some of the other proposed jobs sound a bit obscure (county transportation planner, online fitness coach, and community garden director). Then there are a bunch of jobs that I'm not convinced can be performed at home, including director of global advertising, project manager, and nurse coach.

But I really hit the roof with this one: senior trial attorney! The author, Sara Sutton Fell (who happens to run a business call FlexJobs.com), writes:

Virtual attorney positions have starting popping up throughout the country. Attorneys looking for work from around the U.S. can find work-from-home positions. This allows them to provide counsel from their home offices, while still collaborating with coworkers through a variety of communication tools. Virtual attorney positions can be found with large, national law firms or with law firm staffing companies and lawyer-on-call firms.

I'm sure there are virtual legal positions out there—sexy jobs like reviewing reams of tedious documents online—but "senior trial attorney"? Are you kidding me? Doesn't being a "trial" lawyer mean you have to show up in court? Is the author just totally clueless about law practice? Or is she trying way too hard to be encouraging about the type of legal work you can do from home?

But what truly bothers me about this type of article (aside from the lie it tells) is that it depends on magical thinking—that women can play traditional mom, do challenging work without leaving the house, and somehow reach the top.

I don't know any women with real-world experience who would find this plausible. You can do a lot of jobs from home—but being a trial lawyer, or any high-level lawyer? I don't think so.

But what's offensive (and patronizing) is that the author and Working Mother seem to think that women will buy this stuff.


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I'm a sales VP, and my husband actually believes I'll be able to keep doing my job and raise kids at the same time. Hello!? Frequent (and last minute) worldwide travel, long conference calls, and a crushing work load are just three aspects of my job that would preclude me from being a full time stay at home mom while keeping my job. This may work for jobs with lower expectations but not for anything like what I'm doing. Working from home isn't the same thing as being at home. Most women who have demanding jobs knoamosite kind of articles are mostly a fantasy unless you have older children or a full time babysitter.

New Jersey's "bona fide" office rule virtually (ha-ha) eliminates the option of operating a minimalist home office: http://www2.americanbar.org/sitetation/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=626 The ethics opinion came down in 2010 but I don't think they've changed the rule or the opinion. While a lot of N.J. attorneys can work within the rule by setting up an office in the front room of a house, it's a little problematic for the author to use the term "virtual" in that article.

I'm a lawyer who works from home and am completely virtual...but there is no way that I could keep my young children home with me and have a prayer of performing my job with the level of competence that I expect of myself. Articles like this fail to account for the fact that working at home does not necessarily equal working with the rugrats running around at your feet. In fact, many employers (such as my firm) make appropriate childcare arrangements a condition of employment.

as a mom who would desperately love to find a virtual law job, though is currently working at a big law firm, it is VERY difficult to find, if not impossible. believe me, ive tried

Technology has certainly increased the flexibility of a female attorney, even a trial attorney, and many tasks can effectively be done from home, but when you work for a law firm many times there is no substitute for your physical presence at the office. Fortunately, I do think that many law firms understand the importance of flexibility, requiring you to work hard, but granting you the freedom to participate in important family events. www.stromlaw.com

Many of these articles make it sound as if working from home is an automatic option. I draft and negotiate agreements for a living and can do this anywhere there's a phone and an internet connection. However, I had to build up trust with my employer before they would consider letting me (or anyone else) work from home.

Also, there's something to be said about "face time" - you don't want to get cut off from what's going on at work or have anyone forget that you are the one getting the work done. For this reason, I like having my office in the city, but appreciate the convenience of being able to work from home when necessary.

Love the "magical thinking" metaphor. But in fairness to the article writer, there's no reason that the vast majority of legal work can't be done from a home office as effectively as from a downtown office. And even a stay-at-home "mommy" can make an occasional court appearance. A recently launched law firm that I'm affiliated with, Clearspire (www.clearspire.com), has exactly that business model, and litigation is a large part of its portfolio.

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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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