The legal industry has seen droves of women entering the field since the 1980s as strides have been made — both through legislation and cultural pressure — towards eliminating gender discrimination. Women now represent about 45 percent of those entering private practice.
The problem is, many of them don’t stay. At the equity partner level, the number of women drops to just 17 percent.
Why they leave has been the topic of much debate and discussion. Surveys have cited concerns about everything from compensation to work culture and work-life balance (issues that have also come up in other male-dominated industries like tech). Add it up and the result is that many female associates feel it’s impossible to have a family and stay on the partner track.
I thought I’d be different. In over a decade, I had never once been called “honey” or “emotional” or been privy to any awkward, sexist verbal harassment. I considered myself fortunate. As a young associate, I was granted the best assignments and increased responsibility based on my hard work and efficiency — and I was paid accordingly.
However, as I climbed the ranks — and ultimately, when I became a mother — the unconscious bias towards women affected me in ways I could not have imagined when I began my career.
When we began planning a family, I finally left my firm for an in-house counsel position, anticipating fewer hours and a more flexible schedule than the one I’d suffered through as an ambitious new associate — working six days a week and juggling multiple client demands at the traditional law firm. My new position delivered on all counts and went above and beyond with unlimited pumping breaks allowing me to breastfeed beyond the first year.
I thought I was set. And then I had my second child.
Having built a reputation with the company, I felt comfortable approaching my male boss — who had five children himself — and telling him I had a hard time juggling the demands of an infant and a toddler and the full-time position. I promised that I could maintain my existing workload during a four-day work week — and I was willing to take a paycut to make it happen. I desperately needed that extra day to run errands and take care of the household without sacrificing the family time we had on the weekends.
Although it wasn’t verbally expressed, I got the feeling that the decision makers within that small company thought they knew best — that perhaps I belonged at home because I was such a hands-on mom and wanted to keep it that way rather than delegating more to other caregivers.
However, that wasn’t what I asked for. I was attempting to carve out the time to excel both in my personal and professional worlds.
Ultimately the company decided that a modified schedule would not work for them. This wasn’t unusual in an environment where facetime is key. It was already a modification of an unspoken company policy when I left “early” to enjoy dinner with my family, something that group of suburban fathers with stay-at-home wives as caregivers did not do with any regularity.
When I left my in-house job, I suddenly saw an added benefit of going back to a law firm. The billable hour was a way to prove how hard I was working, even if I wasn’t always in the office.
I found an exceptional law firm that was willing to give me all the flexibility I needed from day one. They assigned me a female mentor who was an equity partner — a rare gem indeed.
In this seemingly ideal environment, I came face-to-face with two new obstacles that I didn’t anticipate. First, I was doing it all and found it incredibly overwhelming. My bosses were very generous with my scheduling — no one was ever looking over my shoulder or checking in on me at my desk. They had realistic expectations about reaching me during dinnertime and they never batted an eye if I had to work from home with a sick child.
However with the added flexibility, I found myself baking for events at the kids’ school, doing errands and then working past midnight five days a week to bill the required hours. As a Type-A overachiever I was suffering, stressed out and exhausted all the time. My superiors gave me the trust and leeway to do it all, but it didn't alleviate the enormous amount expected of me at the office.
Secondly, I encountered the same paternalism that I saw in-house, this time not from the management — who had older children and a broader perspective on the advancement of women — but from my contemporaries. The men with young children looked at me with pity when I had to explain that I was working remotely once again with my son’s flu or my daughter’s croup. My presence seemed to reinforce their belief that the only way to make it work was to have one partner as the breadwinner and the other as caregiver for the kids and the home.
Unfortunately, these subtle influences became powerful factors in the end. And I quit.
I had never intended to leave the law — a childhood aspiration — for any period of time. But I also hadn’t anticipated the unspoken ways being a mother set me back in a work culture where men traditionally make their way as breadwinners and their wives are at home.
My legal career began as a sprint for the highest ranks. I never imagined that years later I’d be walking away from it like so many women before me.