Volume 20, Number 1
Searching for Balanced Lives
By Deborah L. Rhode
Shortly before the turn of the last century, Leila Robinson, the first woman admitted to the Massachusetts State Bar, raised the question: "Is it practicable for a woman to successfully fulfill the duties of wife, mother, and lawyer at the same time?" At the turn of this century, when the American Bar Association put similar questions, about a third of surveyed female lawyers doubted it was realistic to try to combine these roles, and only a fifth were very satisfied with the allocation of time between their personal and professional needs.
Although these are long-standing concerns, they have attracted new urgency. When Leila Robinson raised the issue, she was one of only about 500 women practicing law in the entire nation, and few of the profession's predominantly male practitioners assumed significant obligations in the home. There are now close to 400,000 women attorneys, and many of the nation's approximately 600,000 male attorneys are taking on substantial family responsibilities, including caretaking obligations for elderly family members.
Legal practice has not caught up to the needs of this "sandwich generation" caught between the needs of both parents and children. Workplace hours have increased dramatically during the past two decades, and technological innovations have been as much part of the problem as the solution. Workers remain perpetually on call, tethered to the workplace through cell phones, e-mails, faxes, and beepers. Expectations of total availability are the norm rather than the exception, regardless of gender.
Although most employers have made some significant efforts to help lawyers balance personal and professional commitments, these initiatives have fallen short. Nearly half of surveyed practitioners doubt that their employers truly support flexible workplace arrangements. So too, while the vast majority of legal employers endorse pro bono work in principle, many fail to do so in practice. Despite the personal satisfaction of helping those unable to help themselves, most lawyers feel unable to make substantial pro bono contributions. The average for the bar as a whole is less than half an hour a week.
These inadequacies in workplace structures carry a considerable cost, not only for individual workers but also for employers, the profession, and the public. Excessive workloads are a leading cause of lawyers' disproportionately high rates of stress, substance abuse, reproductive dysfunction, and mental health difficulties, all of which can also contribute to performance problems. Inflexible schedules are a primary cause of early attrition and glass ceilings for women in law firms. Employers also pay a price in excessive recruitment and training expenses, as well as in inadequate diversity in positions of greatest status, security, and influence. The absence of support for pro bono service shortchanges thousands of individuals with pressing needs and the thousands of lawyers who rank public interest contributions among their most rewarding professional experiences. According to ABA surveys, young lawyers' greatest source of dissatisfaction with their legal careers is a lack of connection to the social good. Inadequate pro bono policies deprive many practitioners of opportunities to realize the values that led them to law in the first place. These problems cannot be easily resolved-but neither can they be easily evaded. Increasing numbers of women (and men) with substantial family commitments are entering the workforce, and we urgently need to address the problems they confront. The issues confronting women in law practice are not only "womens' issues," they are problems for the entire profession. In addressing these problems, most experts identify two key strategies: more humane hours, and workable alternative schedules.
Forty years ago, an ABA Lawyer's Handbook reported there are "approximately 1,300 fee-earning hours per year" for an attorney with a normal schedule. "Normal" now is closer to 2,000 hours, but what hasn't changed is the number of hours in a day. Billing at current rates often requires 60-hour workweeks, and the obligations in many organizations are even higher. Last summer, during the ABA's Annual Meeting, the managing partner of one Wall Street firm acknowledged the importance of balance in lawyers' personal and professional lives yet at the same time concluded that his firm's quota of 2,400 billable hours, "if properly managed," was "not unreasonable." Well, maybe for him-particularly if, as was reported, he had a full-time nanny and wife at home.
But when that conclusion is discussed among women lawyers, virtually every woman responds with quite a different experience. As one associate working similar hours responded to a question about her quality of life: "What life? This is not a life." Particularly in large firms, where sweatshop schedules are most common, many women agree it's "difficult to have a cat, much less a family." The institutional attitude is, as litigator David Boies explains to lawyers working on his high-stakes cases: "Would you rather sleep or win?"
Fortunately, except for rare circumstances, that is not the only choice. Oppressive schedules are not inevitable byproducts of effective representation; they stem from the excessive preoccupation with short-term profit and the inadequate value that senior management accords to family values. Part of that problem reflects generational differences. Most of those holding managerial positions are men or women who have not assumed major family responsibilities. A commonly expressed view among highly successful lawyers is that if they managed without special treatment, so can everyone else. As one lawyer in the New York bar's Glass Ceiling study put it: "I had a family. I didn't get time off. Why should you?"
In contrast, professionals who are now in the process of building their careers see no reason to replicate the sacrifices of their predecessors. In recent surveys, both men and women indicate a willingness to take lower salaries in exchange for more time with their families. A 1999 cross-national survey of some 2,500 university students found that over half identified "attaining a balance between personal life and career" as their primary professional goal. A generation of women who grew up expecting equal opportunity in the workplace is unwilling to settle for less, or to give up satisfying personal and family ambitions to achieve it.
Alternative Work Schedules
A related problem involves inadequate alternative work arrangements such
as part-time or flexible schedules. Research by a broad array of organizations including Catalyst, the National Association for Law Placement, and prominent bar associations finds a huge gap between formal policies and workplace practices. Although about 95 percent of law firms have policies that allow part-time work, only 3 percent of lawyers in fact work part time. "Part time" to many professionals means a "fast track to obscurity" or ending up "permanently out to pasture."
Those interpretations are not without basis. In Cynthia Epstein's recent study of part-time lawyers, only 1
percent had become partners. Assump-tions about the inadequate commitment of attorneys on reduced schedules often influence performance evaluations, promotion decisions, and opportunities for the mentoring relationships and challenging assignments that are pre- requisites for advancement. Although some part-time lawyers report respect and support from colleagues, many
recount frustration, isolation, and marginalization. A pervasive attitude is that captured in an Ed Wilson New Yorker cartoon featuring a well-heeled professional explaining to his younger associate: "All work and no play makes you a valued employee."
Whatever their official policies, many legal employers view the willingness to work long hours as a proxy for qualities that are more difficult to measure, such as commitment, ambition, and reliability under pressure. The result is a "rat race equilibrium" in which most lawyers feel they would be better off with shorter or more flexible schedules, but work within institutional structures that resist such alternatives.
Pro Bono Opportunities
A similar problem arises from the gap between pro bono policies and practices. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct establish an aspirational standard of 50 hours per year of service primarily to individuals of limited means or to groups assisting such individuals. Yet most lawyers fail to meet this goal. As noted earlier, the average contribution for the profession as a whole is less than one half-hour a week. For members of the most profitable firms, who could presumably afford to do substantially more, the average is eight minutes a day. Salary wars have pushed compensation levels to new heights, but this affluence has eroded, not expanded, support for public service: Many firms simply increased billable hour expectations and reduced their willingness to count pro bono fully in meeting hourly quotas. That, in turn, reduced lawyers' willingness to spend increasingly scarce free time on additional legal work. For attorneys with substantial caretaking responsibilities, the tradeoffs are particularly painful, and women are the group most adversely affected.
Gender Dimensions of Workplace Policies
Although the inadequacy of workplace policies carries a cost for all lawyers, women pay a disproportionate price. Most male attorneys have spouses who assume the bulk of family responsibilities; most female attorneys do not. Almost half of women in legal practice are unmarried, compared with 15 percent of men, and few women have partners who are primary caretakers. Despite a significant increase in husbands' assumption of domestic work during the last two decades, wives in dual-career couples continue to shoulder the greater burden.
For employed women, who still spend about twice as much time on domestic matters as employed men, extended hours result in double standards and double binds. Female attorneys who seem willing to sacrifice family needs to workplace demands appear lacking as mothers. Those who want extended leaves or reduced schedules appear lacking as lawyers. These mixed messages leave many women with high stress levels and the uncomfortable sense that whatever they're doing, they should be doing something else. "Good mothers" should be home; "good lawyers" should not. What does a parent do when her six-year-old son announces, "When I grow up, I want to be a client"? So too, professionals who do not have spouses or significant family commitments often have difficulty finding time for relationships that might lead to them. As unmarried associates in a recent law firm survey noted, they end up with disproportionate amounts of work because they have no acceptable reason for refusing it.
Issues involving balanced lives are women's issues, but they are not only issues for women. Men face similar problems for somewhat different reasons. Workplaces that are reluctant to accommodate working mothers are generally even more resistant to fathers. To be sure, the situation has improved in recent years. The traditional expectation, as one director of law firm professional development put it, was that men with newborn infants would "just go to the hospital, take a look, and come right back to work." Now fathers generally feel free to take a few weeks-but only a few. Few law firms (or Fortune 1,000 companies, for that matter) offer the same paid parental leaves to men and women, and less than 5 percent of male lawyers take reduced schedules or extended leaves. As one male lawyer explained to a Boston Bar Association Task Force, it may be "okay [for men] to say that they would like to spend more time with the kids, but it is not okay to do it, except once in a while."
Workplace policies that disadvantage men also disadvantage women. By discouraging male attorneys from assuming an equal division of household responsibilities, the policies reinforce gender roles that are separate and by no means equal. As long as work-family problems are seen as problems primarily for women, potential solutions may receive inadequate attention in decision-making structures dominated by men.
Strategies for Reform
We can and must do better. And it is in an employer's economic self-interest to do so. A wide array of research indicates that part-time employees are more efficient than their full-time counterparts, particularly those with oppressive schedules. Alternative work arrangements and humane working hours reduce lawyers' disproportionate rates of stress, substance abuse, and other health-related disorders. This, in turn, increases efficiency and reduces other costs, such as those of recruitment and training. Some recent estimates suggest that every dollar invested in family-friendly policies results in two dollars saved in other costs.
Promising proposals are not in short supply. Balanced Lives, a report-in-progress by the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, includes a wealth of research, recommendations, and sample policies concerning quality of life. They address issues such as flexible, compressed, or reduced schedules; telecommuting; short-term leave; childcare and eldercare assistance; and pro bono work. Although the details of effective policies will
vary across organizations, the guiding principles are mutual commitment, flexibility, and accountability.
Other institutions have responsibilities as well. Law schools should educate and empower their students to demand a balanced life, and bar associations should put pressure on employers to provide it. Both institutions need to work together to develop best practices on quality of life and to educate educators-law professors, administrators, and career services personnel-about the need to address these issues in law school. More systematic information also needs to be available to students and practitioners about where and how to find gender-neutral workplaces. Anyone can now log on to the Greedy Associates website or pick up a law-related magazine survey and find instant information about who is paying what to whom. No comparable sources exist to rate employers by criteria that are equally-or more-important than income in ensuring workplace satisfaction and balanced lives.
This is not a modest agenda. But nor is it one that is beyond our commitment or capacity to achieve. As Janet Reno put it, if "we can put a man on the moon, surely we can create a workplace where it is possible to have a meaningful life and do right by those we love." We have made enormous progress in the quarter-century since I graduated from law school. I can still recall one interview for a summer job in which a senior partner at a leading Chicago firm assured me that there was no "woman problem" among his colleagues: Why, in the past year, the 70-attorney firm had added its first woman partner, and she had had no difficulty reconciling her personal and professional lives! In fact, she had just given birth-it happened on a Friday-and she was back in the office the following Monday.
Since that time, these "faster than a speeding bullet" maternity leaves have become routine. The current record may go to the woman who drafted interrogatories while timing her con- tractions-her theory was that if you're billing at six-minute intervals anyway, why waste one? Fortunately, most of us now recognize that these attitudes themselves constitute a "woman problem," and that the problem is not only one for women. The challenge now is to make balanced lives a priority, not just in principle but also in practice.