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Solo & Small Law Firms

Don’t Lean In, Tune Out

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With My Girls 2003

In August 2003, roughly nine months into blogging, I crossed the line between professional and personal when I posted this picture of my daughters and me at MyShingle. I recall actually fretting over whether to put the picture up or not – because even though the legal blogosphere back then was small and full of camaraderie, somehow, it seemed unprofessional or at least, off-topic (and therefore, against the “rules” of blogging) to talk about my daughters. A decade later, my reservation seems so silly in a world where we routinely share with professional colleagues photos of kids and pets and what we cooked for dinner on Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest. But back then, it was different.

For better or worse, I didn’t follow conventional wisdom. Though I hardly converted my blog into a “mommy blog” (which by the way, I don’t consider a pejorative term), I used my forum to mark the passage of time as my daughters grew older and to publicly struggle with balance while dealing with stereotypes.

Ten years later, I’m emerging on the other side of child-rearing. Debate on work-life balance or Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In no longer resonate with me because those issues aren’t mine anymore. But guess what – they’re not Sheryl Sandberg’s or Laurel Bellow’s either: choices about children and career belong to you.

What that means is this: just because an ABA honcho without a modicum of creative thinking can’t figure out how women (or men) might re-enter the law after taking five years off to raise kids doesn’t mean that the advice applies to you. Just because one of the most successful women in the tech industry tells you to lean in to your career and climb the corporate ladder by making contacts within an organization instead of building something new doesn’t mean that approach will make you happy or work for your family.

Moreover, this kind of advice — and any advice, really, falls short, because it presumes a static world where nothing changes. Because the world has changed – giving us access to the web and social media and contacts that were never available before that make work life balance (for want of a better word) feasible. But even more, parenthood changes us too – or at least, it should. Motherhood has changed me profoundly — as I realize that luck and genes play as important a role in our children’s success as parents do, while the things you thought would make you proud of your kids (honors! awards! photo in the paper!) take a backseat to the way your heart swells when you watch your child refuse to give up in a class that’s a struggle or perform some random act of kindness. And that no matter how wise you think you are, your kids will often tune you out – and things will work out anyway.

So in honor of my daughters (who tune me out), why not do the same? Don’t listen to me, don’t listen to Sheryl or Laurel, listen to yourself. Don’t lean in to job and career like everyone else says. Don’t look over at what everyone else is doing and follow their lead, don’t lash out and feel compelled to justify your path over others. Instead, tune out — ask yourself what you want and what matters — then plug in your ear pods and follow your internal voice, wherever it might lead.

  • Lara

    Your question about why having it all means working for others is intriguing. I’m just now going solo, after 10 years in big firms. The reason I (and many of my friends) waited to escape was the maternity leave, vacation and short-term disability that big firms offer for each child’s birth. With each of my kids, I was able to cobble together 6 months of paid leave, and returned to firm with on-site back-up childcare and a nursing room. (And this was a big top 5 NYC law firm). Female colleagues who have expressed interest in going solo (or to a small firm) cite the lack of paid maternity leave and unexpected problems with childbirth as the reason for staying in large firms and working for others.

    I think of starting a business as a luxury available only to those with partners who make a stand-alone income, or those who have moved past (or are not having) young children.

    Do you disagree?

  • myshingle


    I think you raise some good points here – not just about when it’s right for a woman to start a firm, but generally, when it makes sense to start at all. Though I’ll admit that I am prone to “idealizing” solo practice, in many respects, I am very pragmatic about it and believe that lawyers starting out should position themselves as best as possible for success. So if a new grad avid to start a firm has $200k in debt and wants to start a firm, but there’s a $160k offer on the table or even a $40k clerkship, I’d say go with the job for a little while and pay down the debt.

    Likewise, when it comes to starting a firm as a parent, the same considerations apply depending upon the type of firm. In the situation that you describe, the ability to take 6 months paid leave is an enormous benefit and something that would be hard to rival as a start up. However, many women working at firms do not have this amount of leave, and may be called back to work after 8 weeks – and either be expected to bounce back to working 50-60 hour weeks or alternatively, allowed to work part time – but are then first to be let go when the firm does badly. In the latter situation, starting a firm may be a preferable option.

    In addition, while I haven’t worked at a firm in a long time, it still seems (from the trade press) that there remains a glass ceiling for many women. I think at ome point – and it may be after children are grown, it may be sooner – it makes more sense for women to just start their own firms rather than to forever swim upstream.

    On the last point, you may be right that starting a business is a luxury. Nice cars, a fancy house and exotic vacations are luxuries too – that for better or worse, I don’t have because of choices I’ve made (partly starting a firm, partly paying for private school and saving for college). At any given point, we choose which luxuries matter most and make our decisions based on that.