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Blame It on Big Law—And Maybe Hubby

Vivia Chen

November 13, 2012

Crop©iofoto-Fotolia.com(1)I was inclined to skip this one. But since I blogged yesterday about whether men really care about work/life balance, I have no choice but to weigh in about the female associate at Clifford Chance who abruptly quit her job.

It's the classic "women can't have it all" story—Big Law–style. The anonymous associate's memo, which Above the Law got its hands on (Clifford's communications director Michael Kachel verified the accuracy of the email but told us, "it was a good-bye letter intended with some humor"), recounts her typical work day:

4:00am: Hear baby screaming, hope I am dreaming, realize I’m not, sleepwalk to nursery, give her a pacifier, and put her back to sleep
4:45am: Finally get back to bed
5:30am: Alarm goes off, hit snooze
6:00am: See the shadow of a small person standing at my bedroom door, realize it is my son who has wet the bed (time to change the sheets)
6:15am: Hear baby screaming, make a bottle, turn on another excruciating episode of Backyardigans, feed baby . . .

The memo goes on with an every-15-to-30-minute account of her day, including her hectic time at the office, mad dash to day care to pick up the kids by 6 p.m., shower at 1 a.m., and finally her own bedtime at 1:30 in the morning. Finally, she tells everyone she can't take it anymore:

Needless to say, I have not been able to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family, so have chosen to leave private practice, and the practice of law (at least for now). I truly admire all of you that have been able to juggle your career and family and do not envy what a challenge it is trying to do each well.

ATL's Elie Mystal calls the memo "heartbreaking." He adds, "It shouldn’t be so damn hard—in the richest country on Earth—to have a big-time job and be a loving parent. The struggles highlighted by this woman make me sad as a new parent myself."

More often than not, I'm on the same page with my buddies at ATL. But I do wonder if Mystal is getting a bit maudlin in this instance. While I generally share his cynicism about law firms, I think he goes overboard in making Big Law the culprit. I, for one, wonder what was going on with the associate on the home front.

Let me be blunt: Where the hell was her husband in all this? Why wasn't he getting up to give the crying baby the pacifer, taking the kids to day care, picking them up, putting them to bed, etc.? One of the few references the associate makes to her spouse is this:

7:45pm: Negotiate with husband over who will do bathtime and bedtime routine; lose.

Not to be presumptuous, but I think we should all chip in for some negotiation courses for this poor woman. I realize we don't have all the facts, but her husband seems to be getting away with murder.

Another question: If both of them have demanding careers, why don't they get a nanny so that she doesn't have to rush about like a madwoman? And please don't tell me they can't afford one. We are talking about people who make a decent living, not someone who's stocking shelves at Kmart.

Look, I don't want to fault anyone, and I don't think we have the complete picture. Big Law is unrelentingly demanding and stressful—but it's too easy a target. At some point, we have to take measures to make our own lives a bit easier. Like getting more help. Or telling your spouse to get off his ass.

Related post: Men on Paternity Leave Are Slackers.

 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at [email protected]. Follow The Careerist on Twitter: twitter.com/lawcareerist



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Bill nailed it. Studies shows that wives do not give their husbands credit for the housework their husband's do, and that work around the outside of the house - mowing the lawn, building a deck, shoveling snow -are not given credit at all.

Besides, since women usually are the partner that wants the baby in the first place, anything the husband does should be regarded as a favor. Most wivdes today are the like a kid that insists on buying a dog and then doesn't want to take it for walks.

Big Law; small law, what's the difference? Who cares?
The point here is that she had it tough and was big enough to gather herself together and make a decision in her life one way or the other. Whatever she would have chosen, good for her! It takes a lot of guts to do step back and know when to cut your losses.

Well said JW!

Today I learned that I am a terrible husband because I forgot to write a detailed blow by blow of my 12 hour work day, followed by grocery shopping and picking up my wife's dry-cleaning, doing the dishes, taking out the trash, helping my eldest son with his homework, and then foolishly asking my wife to put the kids to bed while I clean the living room and do the laundry. I tried to make up for it by getting up with the baby at 2am, but my wife slept though it so it never happened. Someday I'll learn to get off my lazy ass.

I've walked in this woman's shoes, however, not in Big Law. And what saved me was working from home two days a week. And my husband, who did a lot of the picking up and dropping off. In the absence of a regular work-from-home schedule and a husband who picks up the pieces, this woman needs a reliable nanny. The nanny, of course, would not be around in the middle of the night, but would provide a lot more flexibility than a childcare center, and, could do extra jobs like cleaning the house, driving, errands, etc. My kids are older now but still require care, my husband has moved out, and my new employer doesn't embrace a regular work-from-home schedule. I don't know how I'd manage without my nanny.

I agree with Graham. Just like you make sacrafices for your career you have to make sacrafices for your kids. Kids are way more important than any job. If you don't agree then perhaps you should not have kids. They deserve just as much from you as any work assignment. I want my kids to call for me and not a nanny when they need comfort and security.

"I don't want to fault anyone." Really!? Lets not jump to blame the husband -- or this woman. The goodbye message was funny -- and sad -- because it resonates so strongly with so many biglaw women in her shoes. First of all, a nanny is not the right choice for every family or every child, regardless of the parent's work situation. Second, giving up her parenting time with her children in the early hours and in the evening is not a way to "balance." It's another way of choosing your career over your family, which is a valid choice for some but clearly not hers. It seems her point is that she's not willing to give up being a very involved parent, and most big law work (and most big law firms) is simply not flexible enough to allow her to do both. Finally, you clearly have no idea about this woman's situation -- and to suggest that she simply hasn't tried hard enough to make it work or that her husband isn't engaged enough is presumptuous. Perhaps they have substantial debt, or he works very long hours for very little pay (like a medical resident) and hiring a nanny for twelve hours a day is not an option. Maybe she doesn't have grandparents in the area willing to chip in. I agree -- the husband should be as involves as he can, but an article suggesting that an "involved" husband would resolve the bigger issues she raises is simply misinformed.

Why is everyone so eager to off-load their kids on someone else? I totally agree that the husband should have chipped in more. It's not that hard to drop off kids at daycare, put them to bed, or even change a dirty diaper. However, I'm not with everyone else is saying a nanny is the way to go. Kids mean sacrifice. If you don't want to sacrifice don't have a kid. No one can raise a child better than a good parent. I'm not saying you have to quit your job and spend 24/7 with your children, but if you don't want to be there to pick them up from daycare or put them to bed then maybe you should have forgone creating another human being that needs you.

Sorry, but this one really doesn't merit any discussion of so-called balance or juggling. If this big firm associate (presumably hired for her smarts and judgment) hadn't even figured out that she shouldn't be the one responsible for drop-off and pick-up of her kids, and if she's "negotiating" with her husband in the morning about that night's bathtime, then this is not about Biglaw or hubby... it's all about her.

Absolutely what I was thinking when I read that article. If her husband is making a lot of money working long hours then they can afford to have someone pick up the kid and start dinner (or, gasp!, order in). If he's not, then he should be the one picking up the kids from daycare. Also, where is grandma/grandpa?

This isn't just about wanting to balance big law and home life and not being able to do so. It's about wanting all that, plus also fit into traditional gender roles, while remaining un-traditionally independent from grandparents, etc, who could pick up some slack.

I wonder why big law does not adopt a second shift? The issue here is that both parents are trying to work days. We did not do that when our kids were small. We worked opposite shifts. I took care of the kids during the day. Then, had a nice dinner awaiting my wife when she got home. Had a 20 minute dinner and I was off to work. Gets tiring - but no more so that this young lady's job. Big law clients are international; thus, they need human contact 24/7 anyway (regardless of our time zone). There are associates who would LOVE to work a "second shift." And, let's be honest, there are plenty of partners who expect the associates to be working crazy hours anyway. So, why not have a "second shift" of lawyers doing research, writing briefs, cite checking, doing document review, etc.?

In her defence - in an ideal world she might be able to persuade her husband to help, but in reality, there are a lot of husbands who are so exhausted from their own jobs that they refuse to help at home. Maybe "negotiation courses" would help, but it is an entirely different ball game negotiating at 4am when the baby is screaming!

I agree: she needs help, both from hubby and nanny/au pair. The juggle always seems the most daunting when you have an infant and you're not getting sleep, like this associate. It gets a bit better. I do BigLaw with 3 little kids, but I don't try to take them in and out of my home everyday: daycare would be nearly impossible. A nanny comes to my place. My oldest turns 5 next month and he started full-day school this year and his grandmother does a lot of that driving. And, my husband does child care! He's a lawyer too, so I understand when he's busy, but fully expect real help when he's not. Again, it does get easier. I'm on a countdown until my baby turns 1. (3 months, and 2 weeks to go)! And, frankly, scale back a little at work. Ask to work from home a couple days a week. It may be a dent in your career to say "no" to assignments, but careers are long, and the madhouse that is having a baby with other little kids is relatively short. Or so I tell myself.

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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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