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Message to Moms: New Law Is Not A Permanent Career Option – You Need to Own It

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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.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
  • “Own your talent, your business and clients.” When you do, you create your own personal brand. When you work for somebody else, you are only promoting their brand. I would say that you, Carolyn, have successfully created your own personal brand with MyShingle. I’m sure it’s taken a while and saying it’s “really, really hard” is the voice of experience. But then again, you could have chosen to spend all that time and effort building someone else’s brand.

  • Mary Neal

    I agree. I started my solo practice when my kids were in preschool and kindergarten. Freelance placement options such as those described in the article seemed attractive in the first lean years, but they are not tapping into any hidden wellspring of legal work. The sort of legal work that builds a career requires client relationships that you are unlikely to get from temp assignments where a client just wants some lawyer, any lawyer to X now. These sort of assignments can help you pay the bills, but rarely work out to more than a side project. Side projects are important, especially before you have built a client base, but cobbling together side projects should not be heralded as some revolutionary career path.

  • Emily Wood Smith

    Thank you for this post, Carolyn. I am bookmarking it for days I have so much doubt about what I am trying to do with my own firm while also being a mom to a toddler and a wife to someone who is in his first year of medical school.

  • Bob Jessup

    And of course this advice applies just as well to young male lawyers, lawyers who are in big firms, or young women lawyers who aren’t mothers. The only basis for long-term success in the law (maybe in anything?) is what you know and who you know, and the sooner you take charge of that for yourself, the better. I will happily steal the phrase “own your talent, your business and your clients.” Thanks for another great post.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more. And, from your specific perspective, do these jobs actually offer more flexibility? It would seem as though once you were placed in the job you actually had less flexibility than you might otherwise have. There is no history with the company, no loyalty, no track record. You’re just another cog in the machine.

  • Susan

    I 100% agree that starting a solo practice and building a brand is an excellent option for some mother lawyers. I also agree that these “new law” practices may not be long-term solutions. But I take issue with the tone of this post because it sounds like yet another addition of the Mommy Wars. Solo practice and building your brand has worked very well *for you,* but I know of many, many others who have special circumstances and who have no interest in taking on the liabilities and issues involved with a solo practice. I have lawyer friends who have babies with special needs, or who have family members with medical issues, and many other circumstances that make it undesirable for them to take on a solo practice. Are they doing something wrong by joining up with these “new law” companies? These are smart women we are talking about here. Can’t we let them decide what is best for them without judgment? Yes, women can and should start solo firms. Absolutely. But please keep an open mind. These New Law companies might actually be helping the women who would otherwise slip through the cracks.

  • myshingle

    Susan, Thank you for sharing your perspective. You are 100 percent correct that the new law alternatives do help women who would otherwise slip through the cracks and to that extent, the availability of these options gives women lawyers far more choices today than they had back in my day. My only real objection was not to these services themselves, but to how the article seemed to tout them as a solution. As you point out, there is no one size fits all.