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Wed, 05/07/2008 - 15:06 — monica
I was chatting with a local television reporter recently, and she shared with me some of her personal challenges in working and having a young child. She told me that prior to having her first child, she tried to thoughtfully plan her career track to accommodate future motherhood. She even considered law (my profession), so she called up my alma mater, the University of Texas School of Law, and asked an unnamed source there about law school.
"She asked me what my professional goals were and if I thought I'd like to have kids someday," the reporter recalled. "I told her that I definitely wanted children and she responded by telling me that if that's the case, the law probably wasn't for me."
Whoa!!! I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"You mean to tell me that you called over there for an application and a little advice about law school and somebody in the office told you that if you're planning on being a mom, you should just forget about it?" I asked her in disbelief.
"Yes," she replied with a shrug, "After that, I gave up that idea and decided to stick with journalism."
I couldn't believe it. It's 2008 and someone at a well respected and highly ranked law school is telling a prospective student that she might as well forget the law if she wants kids. I was hopping mad. A couple of days later, my home phone rang and I could see on my caller ID that it was the law school looking for a donation. I was tempted to answer it and give the unfortunate soul on the other end of the line a piece of my mind about what I'd just heard. I stopped myself, however, after realizing that the person I'd be speaking with was probably just a student trying to make a little extra money to buy overpriced textbooks and not the Dean himself.
I've since thought more about this, and I think that this incident illustrates the quandary many women face today as they try to pursue both work and a family life.
I also hate to admit it, but after calmer reflection, I think that at one level the woman handing out advice at the law school has a point, although I still refuse to concede her conclusion.
Given the way big law firms are traditionally structured, if the goal of the incoming law student is to someday become an equity partner of the firm, then the likelihood of accomplishing that at the same time she has children is extremely small. Don't get me wrong. It's not impossible. There are women who've done this, but their numbers are extremely small and if you pin them down on the details, several will tell you that their legal accomplishments didn't come without a price to their children.
The reason for this is simple. Success at a law firm, particularly in the early years, is measured by the billable hour. As a junior associate, the number of billable hours you can squeeze out of each and every day will determine whether or not you "make partner" in the end. Combine this with the fact that you aren't simply trying to do your personal best, but you're also competing aggressively with other attorneys in your class to have the most billable hours and it's clear that the system heavily favors the single man over the working mother.
In researching our book, JC and I came across a few women who firmly believe that the wisest course for a woman is to simply choose between a career and children. Kids or work. That's it. They believe that you shouldn't even attempt to do both. While we understand their rationale for this argument, we don't subscribe to it.
Personally, I think it's time for law firms to change. Thankfully, some are doing this. A few large law firms in the country are pioneering a program of part-time partnership tracks. This allows women who are mothers to attain partnership over a period of ten to fifteen years at a family friendly pace instead of trying to do it all in eight work packed years. Not only is this good for the women involved, it's good for business too. These firms are now able to hold on to the talent they hired and invested in through the early associate years.
My hope is that employers in other fields will change as well so that women can pursue the fields they're interested in with the support and encouragement of the people responsible for bringing new talent into the fold while maintaining a satisfying home life.
Under the current system, who knows how many great legal minds have been lost in the past because of the kind of decision the reporter had to make? With change, hopefully we can bring that number down to zero.
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