People have been talking about the controversy surrounding Susan Smith Blakely’s recent article “Are Women Paying Enough Attention to Upward Mobility?” published in the American Bar Association Journal.
The article suggests that working moms fail to reach their potential in law because, among other things, we aren’t working hard enough or paying sufficient attention to upward mobility. We lack focus. We’re over-burdened. Our mommy responsibilities get in the way of our career development and our willingness to contribute to the law firm machine. We don’t have lunches with our colleagues, take on enough business development responsibilities or join social events after work. It’s our fault. We need to work harder. Show more commitment.
At first, I didn’t plan to weigh in. When women talk about tough issues, there always seems to be a healthy dose of criticism, finger-pointing, and judgment. I’ve got tough skin as an advocate but this issue is personal. I decided to add my voice because it’s an important topic. If women like me stay silent, we can’t expect the system to improve.
Yes, I disagree with the article – but perhaps not for reasons you might expect.
- Telling women to work harder with no equal commitment from the legal profession to level the playing field is a one-sided recipe for disaster. For women.
- Although well-meaning, the advice is outdated. It over-simplifies complex problems in a highly traditional, male-dominated paradigm. It creates dangerous misperceptions that women are to blame for gender equity problems and fails to recognize systemic barriers that impede women’s careers.
A Growing Trend of Women Leaving Big Law
It’s no secret that talented women are leaving Big Law (and even the legal profession) in record numbers. It is unfortunate. If you are interested, a recent ABA May 2021 report, “In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession,” does a good job of explaining systemic challenges women face and why some decide to pivot.
Several months ago, I became one of these women. I left Big Law at the peak of my career during what some refer to as prime “earning years.” It wasn’t an easy decision.
I am proof that the “work harder” advice doesn’t work.
A few important disclaimers.
- When I left Big Law, there was no juicy story, no major controversy. It was more complicated, an accumulation of thousands of paper cuts. I ran out of band-aids.
- My views are not directed at any law firm nor am I mad at anyone. I had the privilege of working in three large law firms over my 20+ year career. I often got recruited by others. I could have gone to another big firm. I chose not to.
- I am close with peers who have left Big Law and those who remain. I’m not alone in my views. The problems discussed are a challenge for the industry and not unique to any law firm.
- Unlike some women in the ABA May 2021 report, I didn’t leave the profession entirely. I joined a small firm with long-time friends who are extraordinarily talented and highly sought after for complex legal, business and reputational matters.
Reaction to the ABA Journal Article
For decades, I’ve practiced among accomplished women who effectively juggle many responsibilities and work extraordinarily hard. Although I understand Ms. Blakely’s well-intended advice, her views on mom lawyers couldn’t have been farther from my reality. The words in her article felt a little patronizing, even demoralizing.
I was pleased to see ABA President Patricia Lee Refo and others respectfully counter the advice, pointing to systemic profession issues that need to change.
But there is more. While some of the article’s perceptions of my reality were off the mark, others were not. The views that women shoulder many burdens (visible and invisible) and that the system effectively requires women to work harder to succeed in law are accurate. It’s a frustrating reality whispered among women peers – all the time.
Working harder was in fact what it took to get ahead in Big Law. Women still have to work harder to succeed because:
- Barriers exist in the legal profession;
- Invisible burdens and biases at work and home are real; and
- If we don’t juggle like mad (or trip across a fairy godfather champion), many won’t achieve career successes we legitimately earn.
The problem we face now is infinitely more complicated. We’ve set extraordinarily high standards and expectations for women without sufficiently resetting an imbalanced and unrelenting system. We met our end of the bargain and proved we belong, but the other side of the equation lags behind. Against this backdrop, some women leave law firms (and sometimes the profession) because – in spite of much fanfare on diversity, equity and inclusion:
- Real change remains elusive.
- Budgets are tight. Competition is fierce. Equity often loses on the priority scale.
- Women grow weary of working harder. They feel undervalued. They burn out. They see better opportunities. They leave.
Working harder is not the answer (if it ever was) nor is it sustainable. In a nutshell, here’s how it played out for me.
Advice I Received Mid-Career
Coming into Big Law, I was lucky. I’d served as a criminal prosecutor and had more jury trials under my belt than some seasoned litigation partners. I got immediate access to great cases and quickly focused on honing my skills and understanding the business. I learned to navigate a predominantly male environment. I had tough skin.
Around the time I was pregnant with my daughter in 2007, several senior, highly-accomplished women partners took me aside to offer advice, eerily similar to Ms. Blakely. Knowing they had juggled successful careers and motherhood, I listened closely. The gist of it was this.
- Big Law is still male-dominated with biases that hold women back.
- Keep your head down and your foot on the gas. Buy help at home wherever possible.
- Be available. Go the extra mile. Help out on any committees or business development efforts you can. (The fact that my generation didn’t have to be physically in the office 24/7, yet could be available remotely, was considered an improvement.)
- Never show you are struggling or go part-time. You’ll get paid less, work just as hard, and find yourself on another track. You’ll never make up the pay gap.
The advice was reality. A bitter pill we had to swallow. Do more with less time. Make it work. Don’t complain.
Keenly aware of sacrifices I’d already made and a salary deficit relative to male peers in the market, I wasn’t about to take a step back.
Like other women, I made career a priority. I said yes to assignments. I helped on a wide array of business development efforts and wrote countless publications, giving away or “sharing” authorship credit to be inclusive even when the gesture was not returned. Partners and clients got the benefit of my time, billable or not. When I wasn’t traveling or jet-lagged, I attended social events. This is just the short list.
My young amazing kids were warriors. They accepted – sometimes reluctantly – that I juggled work and family priorities. It wasn’t easy. At times, they came in second to law firm and client needs. They sacrificed too.
Fast Forward Over a Decade Later. A System Where Change Remains Elusive.
As an equity partner, I attracted business and, in time, made a substantial salary year-after-year. I never made up the pay gap entirely but I did improve my financial position.
Although ever-present gender-based challenges were annoying, I forged ahead stubborn and hopeful. I was an all-in kind of gal – a survivor. I always believed things would change as more women rose to the top. Over time, that belief seemed more elusive – always on the other side of the next peak. Years went by.
The cost of “success” in Big Law was more work and more hours. “Great job,” they’d say. “Do it again.” The load got bigger.
I worked with executive coaches, conducted post-mortems on big cases, and looked at creating efficiencies wherever possible. There was no more time to squeeze from the clock.
Working harder wasn’t catapulting me or the majority of my peers to the inner circle. Nor was it otherwise making our lives easier.
What became increasingly clear is that generating hours, revenue and business was (and is) infinitely more important than gender equity. It’s what the reward system values and incentivizes. Meeting these priorities didn’t translate to changes that moved the needle for women.
From time to time, I identified systemic challenges or business changes that would make the job more sustainable, perhaps even enjoyable. Alongside colleagues, I shared possible solutions on resource challenges, client credit problems, strategic business planning, opportunities for women, and sponsorship. I advocated for pay increases and promotions for peers – women and men – especially where I knew they supported a better work environment. I argued for recognition of true collaboration and teamwork, a profession-wide challenge for all firms because of the incentive system.
Yes, big sister, I also did what I was told not to do. I mustered the courage to ask for help when the juggling act seemed unmanageable.
I have great respect for leadership teams and the burdens they carry. That said, I often found leadership’s response lackluster. It’s no secret we lawyers aren’t trained leaders who consider the long-game. In fact, most law firm leaders with power are still practicing lawyers with very busy caseloads. They don’t always see how their own biases can show up when problems arise nor their responsibility in modernizing the system.
- Imagine you are an extraordinarily busy lawyer, who happens to be a working mom and has been billing crazy hours on challenging client matters for months. You seek support and resources.
- You alert someone you trust in leadership. He dutifully listens. He then goes on to share that he too is busy and has kids at home. In an awkward moment, he proudly shares he does the laundry and even the dishes sometimes. He knows what it’s like to be in your shoes – except you know, he really doesn’t.
- You respectfully point out important differences. He makes multiples above your salary, sits among the Firm’s inner circle and gets access to resources on request. You gently mention his wife stays at home. The burdens you carry are different. He grudgingly sees your point and promises to be in touch.
- A day or so later, you get a package with an expensive bottle of whiskey. The note says Firm leadership appreciates your hard work and tells you to “hang in there.”
- The help you asked for never comes. The silence is deafening. You stare at the whiskey bottle wondering if they expect you to drink it all. Exhausted, you return to finishing your work by 2am and fall asleep for a few hours to meet the demands of the next day.
I have several unopened liquor bottles sitting on my shelf. I’m no expert on how to fix the profession nor make everyone happy at work. I’m quite sure though that the way to support an exhausted lawyer who is asking for help (and happens to be a working mom) – isn’t misplaced commiseration or a bottle of booze.
Each time one these well-meaning gestures arrived, I’d shake my head thinking to myself, “They just don’t get it…”
Women with whom I’ve spoken these last few weeks agreed with the frustration surrounding the ABA Journal article, as well as the lack of solutions and progress.
Gender equality, equity and retention are tough issues. There are no easy answers. There’s no checklist or uniform set of needs. Perspectives frequently evolve with time, even among women. Yet, despite the challenges, we all agree the industry can do so much better.
In my many years in Big Law, I didn’t see or hear much curiosity among leaders when women changed firms or left the profession. There were surprisingly few discussions about how law firms could improve or take steps to retain women in the future. Rather than ask the hard questions or hear tough answers, it seemed easier for everyone to accept convenient excuses offered to make departures less uncomfortable.
ABA President Refo is right. The legal profession needs a wake-up call. It’s not realistic to put the burden on women. In fact, putting the burden on women to fix gender disparity is sort of silly. Women aren’t the problem. We are not afraid to work hard. But working harder to accommodate a system that isn’t changing can’t be the answer.
The ABA May 2021 report offers some good insights on improvements to consider. It’s the subject of part 2 of this article, coming soon.
One suggestion will be that women need to stop advising women to work harder. The profession needs to stop expecting it. It doesn’t work. It’s not sustainable.
Another woman down. Life moves on.