(a Publication of the Florida Association of Women Lawyers)
I recently consulted with an attorney in the second trimester of her pregnancy. She was facing a dilemma no expectant mother should ever have to face - and one very familiar to most women attorneys who have had, or considered having, children.
With maternity leave looming, this associate needed to ready her projects to hand over to a colleague. But as she tried to clear her desk, her partner kept adding to her caseload. Her obstetrician had advised her to minimize stress and she wanted to - this pregnancy was particularly important to her since her biological clock was ticking down.
As you can well understand, the prospect of telling the partner she needed to limit her hours as her pregnancy progressed caused her greater stress than actually putting in those hours. Even though she knew that she needed to rest more - for both her baby and herself - she could not bring herself to tell this to the partner. She was too afraid of the repercussions on her career.
For the past fifteen years, I have maintained a psychotherapy practice in the Washington D.C. area, which, almost by definition, means that I’ve worked with countless attorneys. And during this time, I’ve heard more variations on this story than Bach ever wrote for Goldberg.
Despite official ABA recommendations (1), the fact remains that most women in the legal profession are forced to adapt to a stereotypically male culture defined for and by white men. Joan Williams has clearly articulated the gender-biased assumptions guiding the legal profession. (2, 3)
The billable hour is fraudulently presented as a gender-neutral measure of an attorney’s contribution to a firm. But it is not gender-neutral at all; in fact, it has a discriminatory negative impact on women through it’s inherent hostility to family needs.
The billable hour criterion is based entirely on a male model of commitment - and it is used to determine who will be partner material.
Even in those firms with de jour flexible schedules and part-time work arrangements, the women who select these options are too often excluded from the partnership track. The stereotyped assumptions of incompetence, weakness, lack of commitment and over-emotionality undermine the efforts of many women lawyers to balance work and family.
But success at the expense of personal and family needs is increasingly unacceptable to women lawyers. As explored in the Winter 1999 issue of the F.A.W.L. State News, work/family balance has become an important value to women attorneys, but workplace attitudes remain unbending.
As Williams points out, solutions that focus on the need for women attorneys to learn better time-management strategies suggest that the problem is their own deficiency rather than the gender-bias of the system. At the same time, the political changes that Williams advocates will not come quickly enough for those women attorneys now raising families, or thinking about raising families, or simply wishing for a more balanced life today.
The approach I like to use when coaching women lawyers to achieve life balance takes into account both the system and the person. With this approach, women lawyers are more able to envision possibilities for changing the nature of legal practice; to find options within, or outside, the law for career satisfaction that will not require them to sacrifice a life of meaning and value; and to discover practical methods to balance the multiple roles of our increasingly complex lives.
Strategies for system change:
- Actively Participate in Women’s Bar Associations
Organizations like F.A.W.L. and other women’s bar associations on the national and local level allow women attorneys to network, which is crucial for system change. As the number of women lawyers increases and more women are elected to ABA and state bar association office, the opportunities for change multiply.
- Network With Senior Corporate Women
Law firms need to reflect the clients they serve. As the number of women in senior level positions in the corporate world rises, law firms will need to retain and promote women to remain economically viable.
Networking with women in senior level corporate positions will also facilitate change. When women in powerful corporate positions demand representation by women in law firms, change will become necessary.
- Advocate For Change
Just as women attorneys have led the way in establishing redress for domestic violence and sexual harassment, women lawyers and judges can work together to reform the practice of law itself.
Strategies for coping while the system is changing:
- Reject Blame
While women lawyers may have to solve the problem of balancing work and family, they must remember that the problem is not their fault. Internalizing accusations of weakness, insufficient commitment, over-emotionality, selfishness or inadequacy is untenable.
I want to emphasize this point. Over and over I’ve heard strong, competent women attorneys attribute the problem to their own personal deficiencies. This is simply not true - and believing it will undermine your efforts to create a truly successful and satisfying life.
Countering these stereotypes takes practice. Working on this with a mentor or coach or trusted colleague can be a big help.
- Define Your Purpose
To live a balanced life is to live the life that reflects who you are deep inside and what you truly believe in. Therefore, achieving life balance requires a sense of purpose, a life vision. You need to ask yourself, “What is most important to me? What gives my life meaning?”
This is not just a philosophical exercise. Your answers to these questions will become the beacon that guides all your planning — from long-term life goals, to the moment- to-moment choices you’ll make about how to distribute that most precious resource — time.
How can you begin to answer these questions? You may want to think about consulting a professional coach, for this is the essence of what she does. A coach specializes in helping you identify what gives your life meaning and in transforming that into specific strategies, tailored to your own unique situation, that enable you to make your life vision a day-to-day reality.
- Balance Roles
Beware of self-help books. Too often they address our various life roles as if they were separate compartments. Balance is much more than dividing time between separate boxes of your life. Success or failure in any one role contributes to the quality of every other role. Trying to live under the illusion that our life roles are separable is extremely stressful. If you’ve ever blamed yourself for allowing your feelings of concern for a sick child at home to “bleed” into your work time, you know exactly what I mean.
- Derive Balance From Vision
When our life roles grow out of a clear vision, mission, sense of purpose, values and principles, then balance becomes much more than juggling work and family. As Siobhan Helene Shea wrote in the Winter 1999 issue of the F.A.W.L. State News, “For me finding balance in my life comes more from a state of mind and a sense of perspective about life, rather than feeling in control over time and events.” (4)
- Find Good Role Models
Many women trailblazers in the legal profession succeeded at tremendous personal sacrifice. While they are models of courage and professional success, they do not model life balance. Many of the younger attorneys I see have been told by women partners that they’d have to choose between career and family.
An ongoing relationship with someone who teaches and models balance can be enormously helpful. Unfortunately, finding a good role model is often difficult.
Stories like those published in the Winter issue can be inspiring and instructive. Working with a professional coach can also help.
- Consider Alternative Practice Areas
Consider areas of legal practice that may be a better fit with your values, priorities and life vision. Too many lawyers leave law school believing that a large-firm practice is the only option — and facing down a large law school debt reinforces this belief. But when we neglect parts of our lives, we pay a price for the lack of balance. There’s more than one way to pay off school loans — make sure the price you’re paying with your life is worth the cost.
- Consider a Career ChangeSometimes the only way to achieve real satisfaction and balance in life is by changing careers altogether. Many woman lawyers with whom I’ve consulted feel trapped by golden handcuffs or believe that their skills are unmarketable outside the legal profession. As a coach who has helped women attorneys successfully find satisfying careers they’d never before considered, let me assure you: the same qualities of courage, competence and persistence that brought you to where you are now will be the ones that will allow you to stop, re-evaluate what’s important, make choices, and succeed.
- “Unfinished Business: Overcoming the Sisyphus Factor.” American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, 1995.
- Joan Williams, “Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It.” Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Joan Williams, “Work/Family Conflict as Discrimination Against Women.” F.A.W.L. State News, Winter, 1999.
- Siobhan Helene Shea, “Getting into the Balancing Act.” F.A.W.L. State News, Winter, 1999.