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The Parent/Legal Trap: The Challenges of Being Both a Parent and a Lawyer

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Summary: BigLaw attorneys who are also parents are fighting back for better life-work balances, particularly for their children.

The Parent/Legal Trap: The Challenges of being both a Parent and a Lawyer
 
  • We all know the challenges of work and parenthood.
  • That challenge is especially acute in the legal world.
  • Lawyers who are also fathers and mothers perpetually suffer a lack of work-life balance when it comes to parenthood and law practice.
  • Well, the parents are fighting back, and all BigLaw can do about this issue is capitulate.

Take a good look at those cute cherub faces and little bodies that grow larger each day: Why? Because once you’re out that front door and off to the firm, you may not see them again for 12, 15 or possibly 24 hours.

What’s being served up here is the very real lifestyle of a BigLaw lawyer – most likely an associate, who is also a parent, and who in lieu of their legal practice, kids come in a distant second. A lawyer’s children are, for all practical purposes (practical, that is, to the law firm) a vague afterthought.

Yes, an afterthought.

Kids and law don’t mix. Oh sure, they mix when junior gets into some sort of trouble, which is part and parcel to a kid who is neglected – in this sense, law and kids mix quite well, thank you very much.

For the fact is, children who don’t receive enough attention, or who in some way are deserted by Mommy or Daddy are more likely to be reached out to by the big Mommy and Daddy of the legal system.

So, yes, they do mix.

It’s when Mommy or Daddy are big corporate attorneys that law (as a profession) and kids don’t mix.

For Moms: Having It All

Understandably, the hardest hit of all lawyers who are parents are mothers. According to Working Mother, a website geared toward moms (as well as dads) with children and jobs, the 2,000-plus-billable-hours-or-bust BigLaw law firm model is outdated, and in the case of some lawyer-moms, not in use.

More progressive firms, however, recognize that flex hours allows lawyers who are also moms to address the needs of their children. The most broadminded of these firms will let lawyer-moms select their own hours as well as cases. They are given, according to the article, full autonomy of their work in accordance with a work-life balance.

This makes motherhood much easier for women lawyers. If scheduled properly, they can attend their kids’ soccer practice, get involved with their schools, have teacher conferences, take their little ones to the doctor for checkups or if they’re feeling ill, as well as engage in other motherly responsibilities that the legal world in most cases previously waved off as unimportant.

As a consequence, the lawyer-mom can still practice. She can continue as a viable part of the law firm, keep her book of clients within the firm where she now works, while the firm itself continues to get strong productivity from the lawyer-mom without the hassle of needing to hire a replacement.

The article states that “Whether the firm supports a flex schedule is totally irrelevant if it doesn’t work for the partners and clients.”

What this suggests is that a parents’ ability to practice law should have no bearing on what the firm or its clients think about their woman lawyers and motherhood.

No, they are just as, if not more engaged in their work, are more productive and hold greater value to the firm and its clients.

Maybe it’s because there’s a kid in the mix of all this, and lawyer-mom has something she wants to disprove what others previously disbelieved to be impossible; that a resourceful law firm, whether she’s BigLaw or not, can also be a strong mother.

It’s Much the Same for Dads

In some ways, being a lawyer and a father may be more difficult than it would be for a woman who is a lawyer and a mother. And why is this? Simply because there are still partners (more likely who are male) within stodgy old-school law firms who believe being a parent is a woman’s job, not a man’s.

Decidedly, this attitude/judgment is not helpful to attorneys who are also fathers.

According to The Atlantic, for decades, work-life balance at law firms has been a women’s issue—something for working moms to sort out. But there are a growing number of new firms built on flexible schedules that are now attracting men, and slowly shifting the definition of a successful legal career.

While the partner office remains the prototypical legal-career status symbol, the prerequisites of long hours and 24-7 availability are inconsistent with the emphasis many men put on time away from the office.

“Young men today have different values, different aspirations than their fathers,” says Stewart Friedman, a Wharton practice professor of management and director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project. “They want to be available both psychologically and physically for children.” At some of the most competitive white-collar workplaces, such as Netflix and Microsoft, these shifts have led to expanded parental-leave policies.

Some major law firms have formal paternity-leave policies on their books, but many of them still lack a culture in which men feel comfortable utilizing those policies. Male lawyers—as well as men in other industries—often receive mixed messages from superiors: They’re allotted significantly less parental leave than their female counterparts, they’re implicitly discouraged from taking leave at all, and those that do take leave say they feel stigmatized.

The Atlantic article states that though recent lawsuits have demonstrated that men—including men who are lawyers—are willing to stand-up for stigma-free paternity leave, the well-documented benefits of such leave and the logistics of family-life balance, in general, remain taboo for men at major law firms.

Of course, despite wanting to be present for their families, male lawyers often internalize the message that job flexibility is not really for them.

“So much of men’s career psyche is still informed by societal expectations that men are the primary breadwinners,” says Lauren Pearlman, the founder of Pearlman Career Consulting. “It seems to be the assumption that the woman will bend the career to be present for the children, but not the man.”

The issue with today’s law firms, as well as many other types of workplaces, is that their assumption one parent, who is usually the mother, should shoulder caregiving responsibilities at the expense of career, “do[es] not fit the realities of our lives,” wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter in a New York Times article.

These are no longer the days of stay-at-home-moms. Currently, most women work outside the home and couples share in childrearing and household duties.

With that said, instead of pushing for more flexibility at traditional law firms who are firmly set in their old ways, the Atlantic article states that some men are now leaving Big Law to join alternative firms that embody what Joan Williams and her colleagues at the University of California, Hastings call “New Models of Legal Practice.”

In short, these firms differ from one another in structure, size, and type of work, but they all offer flexibility—a feature that doesn’t appeal only to women.

Conclusion

Parenting is no longer a mother’s job. With the need in recent years for both parents to be in the workplace, parenting has become a job that mothers and fathers need to attend to. In many ways, this notion evens the playing field, making it just as important for professional men who are fathers to have flexible work hours as it is for professional women who are mothers.

It’s now time that law firms, as well as other corporations, realize the importance of this movement to a better work-life balance for parents. Management and senior partners need to make these accommodations, particularly in this job market, where employment is plentiful and qualified workers are scarce.

In short, if a law firm or company wants to survive, it needs to alter its thoughts that all there is to life is work, billable hours and profit. The human aspect of one’s profession, law notwithstanding, has to be considered as well.

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