The Leaky Pipeline: Can Women Have a Family in BigLaw? (with Podcast)

Work-Life BlendingToday, we’re excited to announce the fourth episode of Law School Transparency’s podcast mini-series about women in the law. This week’s theme is the leaky pipeline for women in the legal profession and dealing with work-life blending issues.

For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be running posts related to the LST topic of the week, along with a podcast episode and roundtable discussion on the same topic. You can learn more at LSTradio.com/women. Hope you enjoy it!

In approximately the late 1980’s, the phrase “work-life balance” was first used in the United States to convey the concept of prioritizing one’s career in tandem with prioritizing one’s personal life. Although this phrase is often-used, it misses the mark when used to characterize what is occurring in the legal industry for many attorneys wanting to start a family. Namely, there is little to no balance. The scales of competition have been tipping to induce you to choose work over personal goals, such that work blends into your life whether or not you’re physically in the office.

A work-life blend (not balance) has become a near inescapable reality of the legal profession

Balance, by its very definition, is a condition in which different elements are equal or evenly distributed. Equilibrium is a fantasy for many (if not most) of today’s practicing attorneys. Painting with a broad brushstroke, for attorneys who practiced before the internet, when you left your office for the evening, you were done for the day. If you went on a vacation, you were likely inaccessible, and that was okay! This ability to be unplugged and have time to decompress is important, but it has become a near relic of the past.

For attorneys entering the legal profession today, it is increasingly rare for employers not to require their attorneys to be “synced” to their phones 24/7 (pun intended). And if attorneys are expected to always be mere seconds away from receiving a work-related message, it is much easier for work to invade (i.e., blend into) our lives at home, on vacations, and on family-related leaves from work. Instead of a balance, attorneys are pressed to make work-life blending an acceptable reality for them and their loved ones. This can be particularly hard for attorneys who want to start a family.

Whether or not to take maternity or paternity leave should not be a question

It is widely known that America is pretty awful when it comes to maternity leave (let alone paternity leave). Perhaps because there is no mandated paid leave, many companies have been slow to offer it to their employees and are hailed as champions when the do. Firms that extend their leave a week or two beyond their competitors are touted as more family-friendly. The unfortunate reality, however, is that some law firms that advertise they offer paid leave turn a cold shoulder on those who seek to take advantage of it when the time comes to do so.

I have heard many instances where women who took maternity leave found it incredibly hard (if not impossible) to get their previous casework back, obtain the hourly bonus thresholds that they had been on track to reach prior to taking leave (even when their hours are prorated), or be given meaningful work upon returning. Some women express concern about how having another child will look, as if there is an unspoken “one child per attorney” rule that has to be obeyed, and what impact having children will have on their ability to make partner.

I have heard similar stories from men in the industry, who intentionally choose not to take all (or sometimes any) paternity leave. Like women, they are concerned about how their decision will look and what impact it will have moving forward. Some men are blatantly told not to take paternity leave, because, even though it is offered, it is “really something only women are allowed take” if men want to become partner someday.

Most stark in my mind is the story I have heard from men and women who had to do work-related activists as their child was being born. This level of blending is unacceptable, yet it is a reality for many of our peers.

Change can occur, but it cannot happen without making it a priority

Just as competition to obtain a legal job is fierce, so is the competition to acquire and retain the top talent. For those of you still in law school, when you interview at firms, learn as much as possible regarding how they treat new parents if this is a priority to you. When possible, speak to someone who attended your law school that works there to learn if what you are being told during an interview is accurate. The best time to do this would be after you secured an offer.

For those of you already in the legal practice, management generally acts when there is a business justification to do so. If a firm’s talent will leave in favor of another firm that fulfills its family-friendly promises, that is a business concern that must be addressed. If having paid medical leave that people can take is important, let management know. The best way is through appropriate channels of communication, such as an associate committee (there is power and safety in numbers). If necessary, speak with Human Resources. When possible, identify a family-friendly firm leader who would be open to your concerns and may be able to identify constructive ways to institute positive change.

Finally, to those of you who are or will be parents and are fervently working towards your professional goals, when you achieve a position of power follow the Golden Rule and do to others what you would like them to do to you. Be the change you wish to see in the legal industry.

Change takes time, particularly in the legal field, but it is possible. Let’s work on stemming the blending and bringing balance to the profession.

Law School Transparency’s Women in Law Podcast and Roundtable

Here’s the fourth episode of Law School Transparency’s podcast mini-series about women in the law.

And the roundtable discussion (same as week three):

Learn more about the project at LSTradio.com/women.

Check out the other posts in this series:


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About Sara O'Connor

Sara O'Connor is a law school tutor and bar exam tutor for the Law School Toolbox and the Bar Exam Toolbox.

While in law school at Duquesne University School of Law, Sara received the Outstanding Appellate Brief Award in her Legal Research & Writing course and served as a tutor for their nationally-ranked Legal Research & Writing program. She also served as a Law Review Associate Notes and Comments Editor, received a Cali Award in Administrative Law, competed on Mock Trial teams (one of which became Quarter Finalists),coached a high school team that went on to become District Champions and Semi-Regional Champions, and graduated third in her class.

After graduating, Sara practiced law for several years at K&L Gates, LLP in the areas of commercial disputes, insurance coverage, toxic torts, and product liability. However, she could not resist the temptation to teach and found herself serving as a Bar Prep Tutor, Trial Advocacy Adjunct Professor, and an undergraduate and law school mentor and adviser. Sara has since left Biglaw to devote herself to her two passions -- working with students who know their worth and potential but may need assistance reaching it and showcasing her artwork throughout the North East.

Sara regularly blogs about law school, the Bar exam, and the practice of law.

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