Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Partnership Pinch

When it comes to working moms, the legal profession has got it all wrong. For most big firms, the partnership track is 8 or 9 years, which means 8 or 9 years after you’ve graduated law school you are supposed to focus on developing new business and generally start to be able to feed yourself (and hopefully others) work.

But as any entrepreneur will tell you, developing business is hard work. It means being involved in local bar associations. Writing articles. Public speaking. Attending rubber-chicken award dinners. Basically doing anything and everything in your power to get to know business people and other lawyers who can hopefully feed you work. Oh, and you need to do this on top of billing 2000 hours each year.

The problem with this situation is, at the exact moment a woman lawyer is supposed to be upping her game to make it into the elite partnership ranks, she is often also raising a young family. And, if the woman is anything like me, she begins to feel like she can’t possibly manage all of the expectations placed on her. And they leave the profession.

I certainly thought about it. I like what I do and know that I’m pretty good at it. But I’m not about to put my professional life before my family. For a while I looked at in-house legal jobs, but between the already ultra-competitive nature of those jobs and the dismal state of the economy, an in-house position just didn’t seem to be in my future. Instead, I sought out and found a “family-friendly” firm with a lower billable hour requirement.

While the lower billable hour requirement has helped, the move hasn’t alleviated as much of the pull between my personal and professional lives as I would have liked. I still work until midnight many nights. I’m still constantly battling deadlines. I still miss bedtime. In short, I still haven’t found the right mix.

I have, however, had more time to market. I’ve joined some bar association committees and industry groups. And to my surprise, they are filled with other women like me - working moms trying to balance their personal and professional obligations and generally feeling like they are failing at both.

But the truth is, we women aren’t failing. And we aren’t the problem. It’s the profession’s idea of “success.” If a lawyer doesn’t make partner by year 9, they are written off and labeled “of counsel” or let go. But what’s so magical about the 9 year mark?
The same smart, driven women used to surpassing expectations that enter the legal profession are the same smart, driven women who are up for partnership at year 9.  The only difference is that by year 9, those women can no longer focus solely on their professional lives.  The profession should relax its standards to retain those women and allow them to be successful in both their personal and professional lives. 

 But with no industry-wide change on the horizon, lawyer moms like me have no choice but to either play by the rules or blaze our own trail.  For me, I choose the latter. I no longer define career success as making partner by year nine.  I believe that I only get one chance to see my family grow up. I have the rest of my life to develop a book of business. If that means I won’t make partner by year 9, or if I get saddled with the dreaded “of counsel” title, so what? I’ll still have made it as a mother and a lawyer. And that’s all I ever wanted in the first place.


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