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How the Work-Life Balance Advocates Do A Disservice To Women Lawyers

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[Updated as of 10 am]

For years, Deborah Epstein Henry, author of the just-released book, Law and Reorder , Cynthia Calvert of the Project for Attorney Retention and others have been pushing large law firms to offer part-time and other flexible employment arrangements to retain women. And if the results of the fifth annual report by National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) mean anything, it seems that the work life balance (WLB) advocates have succeeded, beyond their wildest expectations. According to the NAWL study, more law firms than ever offer part-time arrangements, and more women than ever are taking advantage of those programs. So much so that women disproportionately suffered the impact of the economic downturn, since part-timers (largely women) were the first group sent packing at two thirds of the law firms that made cuts. (NAWL at 17). That’s not particularly surprising; after all, less job security is one of the costs that part-timers pay for flexibility in any industry.

When I covered work-life balance issues in my gig at Legal Blogwatch, I don’t recall much discussion about the downside of part-timing at a law firm. Of course, back then (between 2006 and 2009), the legal world was different, and a hot economy made for a sellers’ market. Due to the demand for talent (or bodies, if you’re a cynic) in the boom years of the mid-2000s, women lawyers could demand scheduling accommodations. But even as women lawyers won flexible schedules, there were also clear signs that the part-time path was taking a toll on women’s opportunities for advancement. Most significantly, a part-time schedule interfered with women’s ability to build a book of business at a time when their male counterparts were starting to do so.

Generally, associates start to focus seriously on client development and marketing during their third or fourth year at a firm, after they’ve mastered the substantive practice of law and can start handling cases independently. Unfortunately, that’s also right around the time that many women associates embark on starting a family, and cut back on their hours. The reduced schedules barely leave women associates enough time to meet their substantive work obligations, let alone develop business. So it’s no wonder that women lawyers stand at a disadvantage to their male counterparts ten years down the line, since the men have had a substantial lead on business generation. [As an aside, work-life balance isn’t just a woman’s issue. There are plenty of men who likewise seek saner hours when their children are born. The difference is that most men on the partnership-track are married to wives who stay home or have flexible jobs that enable them to take care of the kids so dad can continue working 80 hour weeks, guilt-free. Truth be told, the same marriage-model applies to women. The three women I know who are partners at AmLaw 200 firms not only have great nannies, they also have husbands in academia or low-key 9-5 jobs who pick up the childcare slack, showing up at school events and shuttling the kids to after-school lessons and sports events].

But whereas most men seem to understand the realities of a part-time schedule, for one reason or another, women have differing expectations. By downplaying the need for women lawyers to make rain and minimizing the difficulty of doing so on a part-time schedule, WLB advocates did a disservice to women.  Moreover, now that studies like the NAWL Report make clear that women’s lack of rainmaking is holding them back from leadership roles, WLB advocates are compounding the situation by failing to offer new ideas for improvement beyond continuing to insist that law firms to change their culture (as if!). Meanwhile, there’s little mention of what women can do to empower themselves, including taking advantage of one of the most effective marketing tools that’s come along in while: social media.

Within the past five years, we’ve seen the emergence of social media, a powerful tool that can compensate for the “marketing gap.” Among other things, social media activities such as writing blogs or engaging on Twitter – makes it easier for women lawyers to stay abreast of new trends, establish a reputation and build relationships without spending long hours at networking functions or on the road at conferences. Yet it seems that most WLB programs are oblivious to the value of social media. The Project for Attorney Retention blog discusses topics like the importance of keeping in touch with the office during maternity leave or which large firms offer the best environment for women lawyers, but never suggests that a women consider starting an authoritative blog to demonstrate their expertise and build a following on those days when they’re home with the kids. The gap is even worse for lawyers who seek re-entry: this re-entry program focuses on writing cover letters and resumes – as if LinkedIn or other online directories had never been invented.

Despite the fact that everyone is suffering from a bit of social-media fatigue these days, there is virtually no information about the benefits that social media can provide to women lawyers, and its potential to compensate for the marketing opportunities that women otherwise lose when they go part time. My co-author of
Social Media for Women Lawyers,Nicole Black and I detailed the benefits that social media can provide to women lawyers in this article, and we’re offering a webinar on December 2, 2010 at 3pm EST on Social Media for Women Lawyers . Even if the contacts that women generate through social media aren’t enough to enable them to advance at large firms, social media can help lay the foundation for other opportunities.

In addition to failing to educate women lawyers about the tools they need (like social media) to overcome the disadvantages of part-time work, my other beef with the part-time advocates is that they view partnership at a large law firm as the only meaningful barometer for equality in the profession, ignoring the hundreds of women lawyers who run their own practices. This myopic view of biglaw as the brass ring partly explains In Search of Perfect Client Service blogger Patrick Lamb’s puzzlement as to why women lawyers continue futilely and insanely to “fight the man” at big law instead of finding places where they can truly thrive.

Unfortunately, by continuing to pine for biglaw like a desperate woman clinging to a jerk of a guy who has no interest in her (and overlooking the nerd who adores her), women lawyers aren’t just dooming themselves to unhappiness; they’re missing out on enormous opportunities. More than ever, big firm lawyers are jumping ship to start their own law firms and provide value to clients, free from biglaw’s suffocating overhead, bureaucracy and bloated rate structure. Yet, strikingly, not a single one of the biglaw refugees profiled last month at Above the Law’s piece on the exodus from biglaw to solo was a woman.

Ultimately, biglaw is driven (or more accurately, pushed along) by market forces and client demand.  The economic downturn lead to the jettisoning of the billable hours in favor of flat fees and increased outsourcing and reliance on contract lawyers to save costs.  Likewise, if there’s a sound economic case for part-time practice as the WLB advocates suggest, biglaw will be receptive to part-time programs, just as it has been receptive to alternative billing and reduced associate leverage.  But if that doesn’t happen, then perhaps women lawyers ought to start focusing on a Plan B.

By the way, if you’re ready to start looking for a Plan B for the coming year, consider our upcoming webinar, Social Media for Women Lawyers, December 2, 2010 at 3 pm EST. Visit here for more details.

  • Anonymous

    I am a big-law (small pond) refugee who just opened my own firm and I have really been enjoying your blog and finding useful tips. However, the title of this post really irked me. Reading the article itself was not so bad, but its not the advocates of balance that do the disservice to women. You are absolutely right that social media and/or a slightly wife-like spouse can help. But ultimately, it is the big firm senior partner failure to understand modern life that does the disservice to all well educated attorneys of a certain age.

    No one should be making what big firm associates make just out of law school. Its just wrong (market/economics speaking), and the big bosses don’t have the cojones or imagination to do anything about it. Through the 90s, they just kept paying more to keep their associates from moving to San Francisco until first year associates expected it, not understanding the tradeoff. So why not encourage firms and educate law students to have more lawyers who work less and get paid less consistently and who can work their way up through rainmaking or brilliant writing and argument or remain a worker bee making more than any other profession for a 45-60 hour week? You need office lawyers and court lawyers and deal lawyers and lunch/golf lawyers.

    Big firms need major reorganization, but anyone who thinks outside the box quickly realizes the sane option is to get the hell out of the box and those with no creativity are left there crying into their 50 year old Glenfiddich, wondering what all these young folk want so much personal time for. The last thing they want is to spend more time with their wife and kids in the Hamptons or not have to rush back to the office after visiting their mistress in the Village. Hobbies? I can look at my civil war figurine collection in my office and the firm picks up my club and gym tab. Until these folks die from the self/greed inflicted stress there will be no work-life balance at a big firm. And then, maybe there won’t be so many big firms. I am pretty sure that those firms’ malpractice policies are going to be the ultimate source of funds to work out the securitized mortgage/foreclosure crisis. So maybe it will come sooner rather than later.

  • Anonymous

    Other than the headline, this is a great piece.

    Carolyn, you are right that women lawyers and lawyers working reduced hours are making great strides in firms. PAR’s report last year on part-time partners who are thriving as rainmakers, firm leaders, and significant revenue generators provided proof (see, as did Vivia Chen’s article this week about WilmerHale’s new partner class being 73% female and Bill Perlstein attributing it first to the firm’s effective part-time program (

    We are also in complete agreement on the issue of the need for all lawyers, including women lawyers working reduced hours, to develop business starting early in their careers. PAR works with lawyers as well as law firms, and we give many presentations about how part-time lawyers can creatively develop business. In fact, I spoke about that topic yesterday, and have written two reports and a book that contain proven rainmaking strategies for part-time associates and partners. (And while PAR’s blog hasn’t advised blogging, you can be sure our book advises it and we advise it in our programs – and we will be sure to point women lawyers to your important work on how they can use social media.)

    Obviously, NAWL’s report on the number of part-time lawyers who were laid off is distressing. Many law firms are doing a much better job of offering non-stigmatized reduced hours work, but many still have a long way to go. Flexibility stigma and hidden gender bias are entrenched at many firms, and they lead to the lack of progress and outright career derailment that you describe. But I appreciate that you think I’m so capable that I should have already solved all of the issues that hold women lawyers back!

    –Cynthia Calvert

  • Alison

    I think this is spot-on. I worked part-time at a large law firm for a year after the birth of my first child, and was constantly made to feel that I was “lucky” for working 40 hours a week instead of 60, when I really longed to work 25 so I could actually spend some quality time with my infant. It was only by leaving and starting my own firm that I’ve actually found the balance I needed. When I left the big firm, I felt some guilt for not trying to work harder to make it all fit–after all, all these groups have campaigned so hard to make firms create part-time policies, and the firms pay so much lip service to being “flexible” for women. But in the end, if you have kids, and you want to actually spend time with them, working at a large law firm is the classic square peg/round hole scenario. Is there a way to change it without radically changing the law firm business model? I don’t think so, and it’s not a for-profit business’s obligation to change its business model just because it doesn’t work for a certain segment of their workforce. I’d rather see women’s groups talk about how to take control of your own destiny by going out on your own, or at least make it a part of the conversation, instead of acting like large firms are the only place one can practice.

  • Carolyn Elefant

    Thank you for your comment. I do agree that I was probably too hard on the WLB advocates – after all, they really did do quite a bit to fight against the tide and get firms to change culture to some extent, for that they deserve credit for that. However, because big firms are in trouble, it would also be nice to see some recognition for careers for women outside of large firms and there seems to be very little interest in that approach, or at least a prevailing view that starting a firm is a consolation prize.

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