For the second time in just a month, the media has anointed AltLaw as the savior for lawyers – particularly women – who want to parent and practice.
Back in August, the Harvard Business Journal profiled various “new law” models that gaining traction as alternatives to the big law partnership track. And just today, The Atlantic touts many of the “new business models” that assign freelance lawyers to temporary gigs – companies like Montage Legal or Bliss Lawyers – as a middle ground for women who want to raise families but don’t want to leave the law either.
Call me skeptical. It’s not that I don’t support new law ventures like Bliss or Montage. To the contrary, I’m a huge fan because these models make legal services more competitive and affordable, while offering career options that have always been available (see, for example, Lisa Solomon, an independent freelance lawyer who’s been in business for two decades), but were not necessarily as accessible. But viewing these models from the perspective of the women providing the services, I’m not convinced that they offer a viable long-term career path for women who want to parent and practice, as these recent news stories suggest.
To begin, how many women can these new law models actually place? The Atlantic piece says that Bliss Lawyers draws on a network of 10,000 women for secondments to law firms and corporations. Yet, even if Bliss is dispatching women on massive document review assignments (which doesn’t appear to be the case), it can’t possibly be keeping more than a small fraction of its network members busy. Who wants to be in their 50’s, hanging out by the phone waiting for an assignment to come in?
In addition, even those women who find work through one of these platforms don’t derive long term benefits. With questions about who owns the client, anti-solicitation clauses (which don’t apply to law firms) might prevent a female attorney from pitching services to a client that initially engaged her through a new law model. And of course, while some companies might work out arrangements so that a long-term placement might lead to a job, more often than not, the women are doing the work without the benefits of stability or insurance that come with traditional employment. To use an analogy familiar to almost any woman of my day, the law firms using these placement agencies for staff won’t buy the cow when they can rent it instead.
For women who want a long-term career in the law as well as a long-term source of financial support for their families, your only solution is to own it. Own your talent, your business and clients. Do it now while your children are young, while college tuition for your kids is a long way off and while you’re going to be living frugally anyway since as a parent, you won’t be eating meals at expense account restaurants or vacationing at luxury getaways.
Make no mistake – starting and running a law firm as a parent is really, really hard – working late nights, accepting a messy house as the rule rather than exception, taking a client call while you’re hanging at the playground – but it can be done. And while technology isn’t a magic solution, it gives today’s women access to so, SO many more tools – social media, client portals, and mobile technology that can support an anywhere practice, enable you to develop a new niche or most of all, to set down the roots of a stable, lucrative law practice that you love – that can pay for your kids’ college or fund your retirement. Sure, the new business models have their place too – women can take on short-terms gigs as necessary to generate short-term cash to finance their own firm. In other words, view the alt law models as a means – not an ends, and milk them for what they’re worth (in other words, take back the cow!) Because the end of the day, women need to own it, not loan it. That’s the message we ought to be sending to women lawyers.