Rejecting the Male Definitions of Success

Susan Smith BlakelyWhat rules are you playing by in your life and your career? Today we’re delighted to welcome back Susan Smith Blakely, author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series, to discuss a provocative question: Do you need to change your definition of success so it’s less “male” to truly succeed?

Rejecting the male definitions of success may seem radical for some young women lawyers. However, for those young women lawyers who desire to have children and play significant roles in the upbringing of those children, the traditional male definitions of success probably will not work.

The direct path to the corner office that men typically aspire to is likely to come up against some real obstacles when babies and business are on collision course.

Is “Leaning In” Enough?

I am watching with keen interest to see what happens with Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In, as described in the NY Times. You may remember her as the former Google executive and current Chief Operating Office and member of the Board of Directors at Facebook. She has been advising women in business for years to “lean into” their careers and to be more ambitious.

In fact, from what I can gather, she believes that all women in business should aspire to the corner offices.

I was a supporter when I read her comments about staying in the workplace and “not leaving before you leave” delivered during a lecture to women in business in Silicon Valley. I was also a supporter of her later comments at a commencement at Barnard College when she urged young women to “lean into” their careers. I even blogged about and included reference to them in my second book.

However, it was her comments at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last year that gave me pause. She said that western women lack ambition and that is why they have not ascended to the C-suite in business (CEO, COO, CFO, etc) in greater numbers.

According to the Times article quoting from her new book, women are sabotaging themselves:

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in, and the result is that men still rule the world.”

In other words, women are to blame. Really? Women lack ambition? I don’t think so.

Women in business — and the law is a business — lack time and the opportunities for upward mobility that time makes possible.

If most women had the same amount of time to devote to their business life as most men do (and that Sheryl Sandberg obviously does), they would be able to compete at the same level. However, most women in business are not so blessed.

Challenges Remain for Women in the Legal Profession

I am a lawyer, and that is the business I know.

I do not pretend to know what goes on in the C-suites of business, but I suspect that Ms. Sandberg’s theories only work for women who either do not have small children or women who have small children and also have the resources to hire all of the help they need to care for those children.

People like Sheryl Sandberg, who has two young children of her own, also have nannies, lots of financial independence, security….and the list goes on. The other women with children or with others dependent on them for caretaking, have enough of a challenge just getting to and through work every day.

And let’s not forget that come the end of the work day, these same women must go home and re-assume the responsibilities of their second job — caretaker.

These are some real differences, and I will be interested to see how the women in business either embrace or fail to embrace what Ms. Sandberg is referring to as the movement to advance women in the workplace, according to her vision.

The Billable Hour Persists

Nevertheless, there are some very important differences between traditional business and the profession of law.

Lawyers in private practice, the setting for the largest number of lawyers practicing in America today, are wedded to the billable hour.

Upward mobility and recognition for accomplishments in the law profession are almost always dependent upon billable hours and new client/new matter development, which are inevitably reduced to hours billed and billable hour expectations.

In other words, the legal profession is all about TIME; a very restrictive environment for anyone who is in a position of having to split his/her time between professional and personal responsibilities.

My second book, Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer, proposes ways to create the effect of more time, but it is a great uphill battle.

There is simply not enough time for many young women lawyers to be on the path to the corner office while simultaneously trying to mother small children.

It might work in business, where billable hours do not apply, and it might work in other alternative practice settings, but at a law firm time is truly of the essence.

Where Do We Go From Here?

For years, I have been promoting what I refer to as the New Liberation Movement for Women Lawyers. I write about it, I speak about it, I live it.

The reference, of course, is to the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1960’s and 1970’s, which I know all too well. Although the WLM opened up great opportunities for women in the workplace, many women paid too high a price in terms of the choice between family life and work life, a decision that ultimately proved discouraging as many women soon dropped out of the work force as a result.

The model for success that was promoted by the WLM was the male model of success in business.

However, we soon found out that the male definitions of success do not work for women who take on more responsibilities in their personal lives.

Essentially, it is an uneven playing field and, if women are going to survive, in law especially, they will have to throw off the male definitions of success in favor of what I call Personal Definitions of Success.

This is because women lawyers should not have to choose between all or nothing.

The choice should not have to be between a direct path to the corner office or leaving practice because you cannot compete with people who don’t share the same at-home responsibilities.

There have to be other options for women who want to be great lawyers but need the great flexibility of reduced hours as a means of getting them through the critical child-rearing years.

Developing Personal Definitions of Success

Personal definitions of success can include full time, part time, partner, of counsel, in-house lawyer, not-for-profit lawyer, government lawyer or whatever fits the individual’s personal needs and circumstances.

These choices should be approached with dignity, and women should celebrate whatever success they envision and achieve. Women lawyers also should learn to support each other in these individual choices.

There is no place for judgmental attitudes. It is what works for each individual lawyer.

Young women lawyers will need to address and revise their personal definitions of success early and often and make good career choices and career plans based on the various definitions of success that may be appropriate for them at different points in their careers.

At some point, after what may be some difficult choices in cutting back on professional goals, the children will leave the nest, and the woman lawyer/mother will be able to put new energy and time into her career. That only works if she has been able to dial it down when she needs to and has found a way to stay in the profession.

Going off ramp and leaving the profession with the expectation of re-entering at a later date is not advisable and rarely has a satisfying ending.

Law firms and other employers also have a role in helping young women lawyers achieve their professional goals.

They should protect their investment in women by providing flexible time and reduced hours programs to keep valuable women professionals in the workforce to minimize the talent drain and increase the diversity that clients are demanding. It also makes very good business sense. Figures show that it can cost up to $500,000 for a law firm to replace a senior associate when all the hidden costs are calculated.

This does not mean that ALL women lawyers with young children should work part time or flexible or reduced hours.

Absolutely not! In fact I am hoping that enough women lawyers with children will find the perfect nanny, the perfect mate, who will participate in the childcare and home responsibilities, or the perfect employer, who will allow them to stay on their career paths and help advance women lawyers to the top of management and leadership.

But, let’s be realistic.

Many of you will have to choose. Choose well.

Choose realistic expectations and a Personal Definition of Success that will get you through the challenging years and allow you to come out bolder and better when your circumstances change. Not according to someone else’s vision for you. According to your own vision FOR YOU.

Choose it. Own it. Respect it. Live it. It is your life, and you should define it.

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Bravo, Susan!

Read On:

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  1. THANK YOU. A rare voice of intelligence in the “Lean In” saga. I left a comment similar to your post on a business site linked to by LinkedIn today – it talked about how women don’t tend to want to be CEOs the way men do, and how to remedy that.

    I say, why the heck does ambition have to equal being a CEO? Or a partner in a law firm? What sane and rational person would ever want to be either on? OK, I’m biased, I see the only thing a reasonable person would ever want to be as a business owner, entrepreneur, scholar or creative artist. I’d rather cut my head off with a butter knife than be either a CEO or BigLaw partner. But aside from my bias, when did “ambition” turn into one flavor? And the worst thing – I’ve seen women in large firms, who are overlooked, mistreated, unappreciated AND spending no time with their children, lecture me that I really needed to “lean in” more so I could be just like them. Delusions, and many of us are aware enough to recognize them as that…

    The only answer is – this is the one life you get. What do you want? Now own it. You nailed that 100% and I thank you for it.

  2. Excellent column from Susan! I love this and have been passing it on to every woman lawyer I know, especially those still in law school who have the perfect opportunity to think about this now, BEFORE they start their careers jumping in to BigLaw because they think it’s what they’re “supposed to do.” I have always operated under the belief that I and I alone should be responsible for defining what SUCCESS means TO ME, and I sure wish more women believed that they could do the same. Actually I wise EVERYONE believed they could do the same!! Anyway, great post. I’m happy to read this and pass it on. I already had Susan’s first BFAB book and just bought the second one referenced here. Thanks to you both for fighting for all of us!

    • Agreed! It’s so easy to get caught up in what you’re “supposed to” care about when law school starts, but that’s generally not a path to happiness.

  3. Great column, but I don’t like Blakely’s the phrase “male definition of success” – I feel like it implies that men are not just as justified as women in rejecting this particular view of success. What she calls the “male definition of success” may work better for plenty of women than it does for a lot of men. While women may struggle with the choice between career and family commitments, for men, particularly in the world of the large law firm, this often isn’t a choice at all. In a world where many large law firms view female attorneys’ family-related time commitments as a barely tolerated burden on the firm’s ability to churn out hours, the idea that men might want their desires to be more actively involved in family life seems to be a non-starter.

    I certainly don’t mean to suggest that women have it better than men in this area, and I don’t disagree that women face special challenges in this area that men don’t. But I don’t recognize this so-called “male definition of success” as my own.

    • I think that’s right. When people ask me why I think women leave BigLaw, I ask them why anyone stays. It’s not necessarily a male/female issue — I know tons of miserable male lawyers who’d love to get out.

      It would be silly to say that on average women don’t face more pressure to assume family/child care obligations, but there are plenty of men who would be happy to do the same, given the option. And it’s hard to say “No” to working all the time, when you’re stereotypically supposed to be the breadwinner. Tough choices all around, when the work part of work/life is so demanding…


  1. […] we stop looking at women’s legal career choices as a failure that needs fixing, a failure to fit the traditional standards of success? What if, instead, we start looking at this trend as evidence of women’s eminently sensible […]

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