Women Attorneys: Opting Out
By Anne McDermott, Senior Trial Consultant
Karen Craig is a lawyer. But all she practices these days is playing with her kids.
SOUND BITE (Karen Craig) “Do you ever regret going to law school?
I don’t regret it. It is funny that you ask that because sometimes people come up and talk to you and they know that you are a lawyer and they say, Oh, my child is going to law school. And I have to admit, my first reaction is, Oh! Why? Don’t send them to law school! And I think I say that just because it is really hard to be a lawyer if you want to work at one of those big law firms, you give up so much in terms of your personal life.”
Karen started at a big firm, but didn’t stay.
SOUND BITE (Karen Craig) “I didn’t want to work as many hours a week so I chose to go in-house.”
When family responsibilities became too demanding, even in-house work was too much to juggle. Karen joined what many call the opt-out revolution--she left work to temporarily be a full-time mother to her children.
SOUND BITE (Karen Craig) “I was lucky enough to have another beautiful daughter about six months ago and maintaining that job and caring for two children was a lot different than just having one child. I used to do some of my work from home and would be able to sort of manage my older daughter while I could get some of the work done but a baby and a toddler is a different equation and I didn’t want to leave them for that long during the week and be gone from two children and I am older now and more tired and have two kids now instead of one. So, I opted to resign, which was a very difficult decision because I loved the company I worked for. They were very good to me. It is a scary thing, too, because I don’t know how I will get back into the work force and I certainly don’t know that I can go back there although I think that they think highly of me and should a position be available and I am ready to go back, they would hire me. But we just wait and see.”
Karen is not the only attorney worried about balancing career and family. Meet Heather Weisser, a USC law student who is already worrying about her future.
SOUND BITE (Heather Weisser) “Do you hope to marry and have children?
I do. When I first started looking at law school I was 19 and those thoughts were not really in my head so when I had all of these great ideas about being a litigator and making partner in a law firm I don’t think that that was really something that I was thinking about, but by the time I graduated law school even I will be in my mid to late 20's and I’m already starting to think about marriage and children and it’s something I definitely want and plan on doing. Can you do them both? I don’t really know. I have heard mixed reviews on that.”
SOUND BITE (Anne McDermott) “What are your hopes and what are your fears?”
Her biggest fear is not living her dream.
SOUND BITE (Heather Weisser) “I would like to be able to have my family and also my legal career and my dream was to make partner in a law firm and to stay at a law firm and I would like to be able to do that but also see my family not just have one. So my ideal would be to be able to be home for dinner with my family every night and to still be able to work on the exciting cases or the big cases that come into whatever firm I’m working at. To feel like I actually have a full career but also have that time with my family. To feel that I’m actually part of the family in raising my children.”
All these women want that, and none could find it in the big law firms they worked for. Sandy Tholen is not the first to observe that big firms can be big on machismo.
SOUND BITE (Sandy Tholen) “I think the culture in many firms is that if you’re not burning the midnight oil, if you’re not working with that goal of partner or shareholder in mind that you’re slightly less than a full member of the team.”
Robyn Crowther discovered that some big firms do make allowances for attorneys who want to cut back on their hours, for children or other reasons…but it may cost you.
SOUND BITE (Robyn Crowther) “The firm was willing. They were instituting a part-time policy and there were some people there who actually worked on a reduced hours basis. My impression though was that those people were marginalized. And either they had kind of their own little niche where they came in and they did their work and they left and they worked for one or two people and that was enough for them or that they were just getting a lower quality of work and they weren’t the people who were going to progress and who were going to make partner.”
Crowther, mother of 3, didn’t want to be marginalized, and neither did Sandy Tholen, who has 2-boys. But Tholen knew she needed a change—so she also joined the opt-out revolution, deciding not to work in order to be with her family.
SOUND BITE (Sandy Tholen) “My time was very unpredictable. I planned to be home at 6:00. I’d get tied up with something and I would end up not making it home until 8:00 or 9:00 sometime after they were in bed. So part of the problem was really just the predictability of the schedule. And it wasn’t that the firm was unwilling I don’t think. The problem was it was just kind of the nature of the work at that time and it made it very difficult to feel like I had control over my life and that I could really be there with my kids for my kids when I wanted to be.”
What is going on? Harvard Law School Dean, Elena Kagan:
SOUND BITE (Elena Kagan) “This is one of the main legal issues of the time, I think. I just don’t think that there is any doubt that many lawyers find that they want to exit the workforce for some period of time, that they want to work part time for some period of their lives, certainly many women, many men as well. And in constructing a professional workforce in which that can be accomplished, it seems to me, is one of the great challenges that the legal profession faces right now.”
Robyn Crowther met the challenge by finding that elusive “family friendly” firm. But even working there wasn’t easy…at least in the beginning.
SOUND BITE (Robyn Crowther) “ I had a hard time maintaining my billable hours even at a reduced rate just because of the transition to becoming a parent is hard. It was the first time I really felt incompetent at something and that was a really difficult adjustment. The firm stuck with me. They didn’t ask me to reduce my compensation to a part-time level. They didn’t ask me not to count that year towards my partnership track. They said what can we do to help. How can we make it better? And continued to give me interesting work and let me develop as a lawyer and figure out I really wanted to make this work.”
It did work…she made partner…and she hired Sandy Tholen—drawing Sandy back to work by offering a very flexible schedule. Both are very happy.
SOUND BITE (Sandy Tholen) “People leave to coach, people leave for programs at their kids’ schools in the middle of the day and nobody raises their eyebrows. It’s basically, you feel supported.”
SOUND BITE (Robyn Crowther) “I don’t have to say I’m going to the doctor’s or that I’m at a deposition and hope nobody finds out that I’m with my kids.”
And now, a lot of women are saying, it’s time for the big firms to change.
SOUND BITE (Karen Craig) “Why can’t you just still make partner if you work less and are willing to earn less? But still give high quality work and just have fewer clients or whatever it would take. I don’t think the law firms are very receptive to that and I don’t understand why because I think if you are willing to work however much it takes around the clock for a certain client or a certain project and then be able to have a breather space and consequently earn less money than the person who goes deal to deal to deal, you should be able to do that.”
SOUND BITE (Sandy Tholen) “I think that law firms have to take a look at how they can structure work for women and for parents in general, people who want to find that balance in life and work. Look at ways that they can structure things so that that’s possible so that you can have both. Why should they? I think that there is a huge pool of women that have a lot to offer that have great skills, great abilities who are being underutilized because there hasn’t been that effort to kind of find that balance.”
SOUND BITE (Robyn Crowther) “I think there are a lot of solutions. It’s a really flexible job. You can do it anywhere. You need pretty much a computer and a phone.”
More women in top positions would help…and maybe the nation’s law schools can help as well.
SOUND BITE (Elena Kagan) “One thing that law schools can do is law schools provide career training, career advice for their students but generally fail to provide it for their graduates. It turns out that people more often need advice not when they are getting their first job but when they are in the middle of their career and trying to think where their careers are going and how their careers can be reconciled with their family and with other interests. For law schools, at that point to come in and give career advice to mid-career folks, to people who have been out of law school for five years, ten years, even twenty years--would be an incredibly valuable thing.”
But change…is slow. Will it come quick enough for her? Will she get the family and the partnership?
SOUND BITE (Heather Weisser) “I’m really not sure. I’m trying to be optimistic because I’m just starting out. I really don’t want to go into my career thinking I’m never going to make it. I’m never going to make it. I want to be optimistic and try to work it out and try to get over the hurdles as they come and it’s only talking to so many people who have said they couldn’t do it or didn’t want to do it that makes me wonder if I will end up saying those same things.”