Family friendly law firm options on the rise: so where are all the women lawyers going?


What boundaries will work for you?

Working at a family friendly law firm, experiencing fulfilling work life balance, setting healthy boundaries, AND keeping career goals on track — can this all happen at once, or is that unrealistic?

Are there “negative” effects of setting healthy boundaries around your personal life?

As I was brainstorming topics for a post this week, I kept coming back to the importance of boundaries between work life and personal life.  Then I came across a recent blog post by Jennifer Alvey of Leaving the Law called Good Fences Make Happier Lawyers (thanks Alison Monahan for sharing this!).  I like Jennifer’s post for its straightforward and powerful message, that lawyers have lost the ability to set boundaries, and need to reclaim that right and skill.  I could not agree more!  However, I wanted to play devil’s advocate and address another aspect of boundary setting and balance which I have been thinking about a lot lately.  This may sound crazy to the women’s lib readers out there – but there is still a very real risk that setting boundaries will have a negative impact on your legal career, especially for women lawyers.

The nature of the beast – law is an unpredictable profession with peaks and valleys

Along with thousands of other associates (male and female), I often struggle with how to manage my life, alongside the ebb and flow of work requirements.  As a transactional and IP lawyer, when the going is good, it’s hard to complain about being busy – I also see friends in criminal law, administrative law, and family law positions struggling with the impact of working in a profession that rarely comes in a neat package of manageable or consistent workflow.  When a busy period hits, when I have a closing looming, trademark applications to file, LLCs to set up, and contracts to draft and review all at once, skipping yoga to knock off a few more tasks seems like a good choice.

For now, it’s just me and my husband, and skipping yoga is much less drastic than not leaving on time to pick up a child.  As the responsibility of parenthood gets into the mix – what does this to mean for your legal career?  If you take a stand and create a boundary that weekends are for your family, who will do the work for you when a big project comes in requiring Sunday attention?  Does it jeopardize your job or appointment to high-profile clients, or should it just spur law firms to hire more associates to properly staff matters during the regular workdays?  There is unfortunately no simple answer.

Where are all the women lawyers going?

Work expectations in the legal profession clearly have an impact on its women professionals.  A recent report on Women in the Law statistics by the Catalyst indicates that at the summer associate to associate level, women make up 45-47% of the ranks.  However, in 2011 the percentage of women partners held at 19.5%.  So where are all the women lawyers going?  Records show that many women associates leave the law to go in-house, to a non-profit or corporate setting, or go into law school administration.  The Commission on Women in the Profession also put out A Current Glance at Women in the Law 2011, offering up stats to document this phenomenon, and looking at salary disparities between male and female lawyers in similar positions.  In a profession in which there have only been 4 female presidents in its governing body (the American Bar Association) since its inception in 1878, is this really a shock?

Family-friendly law firms, part-time work options, and stay-at-home parenting – what will work for you?

I happen to work at a law firm that does support family and personal balance for its lawyers, and in my current “married with no kids” phase of life, I look up to women who are working hard to protect their family time.  Of course, men face similar concerns of work-family balance, but especially for new mothers/professionals, there are just some things that only mom can do…or maybe just wants to do.  But the reality is that there are likely to be negative impacts your progression in your legal career when you take a hard stand on creating boundaries.

Although some law firms are wising up and offering more family-friendly and part-time options, trends show that most lawyers taking these flexible opportunities continue to be women – as stated in this report published by the NALP, in 2011, just 6.2% of lawyers were working part-time, and over 70% of those part-timers were women. Out of all female lawyers, 10-13% of them report as working part-time depending on level and position, while of all male lawyers, only 2.7% work part-time.  Contrast this to the converse percentages of equity and non-equity partners in law firms above!

Perhaps you are thinking that women lawyers have the support of a stay-at-home partner while they focus on their careers, but the statistics show that to be a generally rare case.  According to a 2009 piece on 60 Minutes, Staying at Home, Census bureau statistics showed a 15 percent increase in the number of stay-at-home moms in less than 10 years.  An older aggregation of 2004 Census Bureau data indicated that out of an estimated 5.5 million “stay-at-home” parents — 5.4 million were moms and only 98,000 were dads.

There is no magic answer – if I ever find perfect balance, I will let you know 😉

There is no single correct solution for how a lawyer (of either gender) should balance his or her career with her family, and there is no guarantee I will prioritize yoga class over a trademark application on any given day or vice versa.  Whatever works for you is the right answer for you, even if that changes several times throughout your career and family life.

Just so you know I’m not all doom and gloom on the topic, here is a throw-back to a gender stereotype reversal movie that came out the year I was born.  Maybe you have a Michael Keaton in your life who rounds out your working woman goals.






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