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August 15, 2011 Articles

Legally Mom: Every Mom Has a Story

Legally Mom is a work of qualitative research on the experience of women practicing law and raising children.

By Anne Murphy Brown

I am in the process of researching and writing a book entitled Legally Mom, which is a work of qualitative research on the experience of women practicing law and raising children. Essentially, I am conducting interviews with women practicing across the country and dealing with a myriad of personal and professional issues, which range from partnership, part-time schedules, billable hours, finding satisfaction at work, finding satisfaction at home, starting a practice, paying law school loans, divorce, and children with special needs. Every mom has a story.

Although I left the practice of law years ago to pursue an academic career, I chose to pursue this research because I felt that the statistics on women in the law, and particularly, mothers working in the law, did not really answer the question why?

Why do so many mothers drop out of the legal profession? Jane Leber Herr, an economist at the University of Chicago, analyzed a national survey of college graduates and a sample of Harvard alumnae and discovered that approximately 25 percent of female lawyers with children left the workplace. Brigid Schulte, Movement to Keep Moms Working is Remaking the Workplace,The Washington Post , published May 7, 2011, (last visited July 28, 2011).

Why are so few female attorneys, including women with children, made equity partner at law firms? According to a 2010 survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), only 15 percent of equity partners are women. Scharf, S.A. and B.M. Flom. 2010. Report of the 2010 NAWL Survey on the Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms . NAWL Foundation and National Association of Women Lawyers, (last visited July 28, 2011).

Why do women earn less than their male counterparts in the legal profession? Is this related to child bearing and motherhood? The same 2010 survey by the NAWL reported that women equity partners earned only 85 percent of the compensation earned by their male colleagues.

I did not begin my research with a hypothesis but simply wanted to discover how real women deal with the challenges of juggling responsibilities at home and at the office while trying to stay sane. My research thus far has not answered these questions completely. In fact, in many cases it has led to new inquiries. However, after speaking with a number of women, I have comprised a few generalizations that speak to mothers in general, if not simply to those working in law.

•Legal moms put their children and jobs first. Every woman with whom I have spoken has been incredibly hard working, both at the office and at home. They have achieved coveted positions while keeping a finger on the pulse of preschool politics. They fire up the computer at 9:00 p.m. when the kids are tucked in bed and work until the wee hours, waking up just in time to make cupcakes for their child’s school birthday. Really, I have been amazed at the energy, drive, and dedication of these legal moms.

But, something has got to give. The women I have spoken with generally put themselves last.  When asked the question, “What do you consider your greatest sacrifice in juggling a legal career and raising children?” The likeliest response has been “I have no time for myself.” or “I used to have hobbies.” Many of us are moving through our days with the thought, “there will be time for me again someday.” Several moms see their career as their “me” time.  This thought led to my next discovery.

•Legal moms can be very hard on themselves, which may be why they need to rediscover some time for themselves. Despite devoting 99 percent of our time to our kids and jobs, we still feel inadequate and torn between two competing worlds. Some comments included variations of “My husband still [insert activity here __________, e.g., golfs, sails, plays backgammon], but I can’t seem to find time to do anything but work and try to be a good parent, and I feel like a failure at each and experience guilt at not doing either as well as I should be.”

A corollary to this observation is the idea that women are hard on each other. Many legal moms lamented the difficulty of finding female mentors willing to empathize with their situation. Women crave role models to whom they can relate. Hearing these responses made me think more about the 25 percent attrition statistic for legal moms and led to my next discovery.

•Most of the legal moms that I have interviewed exhibit Type A characteristics. They have always sought the highest level, gaining the accolades, seeking promotions, and earning the A. Women who work a part-time schedule to spend time with their children cannot compete with other men and women in the office who are going above and beyond their billable hours and spending their free time on client development. It is a customer service profession, and those that excel serve the customer 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Essentially, as long as someone else is working harder than you are, your career is slipping.

Perhaps this is why 25 percent of legal moms leave the profession and why only 15 percent of equity partners are women. Being Type A personalities, it is awfully hard to feel inadequate in any area of life, let alone both at home and at work. Despite the fact that perfection is an illusion, many women still feel lacking.

•Legal moms are spectacularly, extraordinarily, supernaturally intelligent. They crave the intellectual stimulation that they get from debating the finer points of the law and combing over intricate contracts. They bring an understanding and perspective to their work that is unique and valuable. Legal moms are efficient; they have to be as they are proofreading appellate briefs and pumping breast milk at the same time. One legal mom commented that she feels that she brings more to the table now as a parent because she is able to remember that it isn’t just business. “We are all people, and we have to remember to put that sensitivity in there.”

•My last observation is based partially on my first four. Legal moms are exhausted. What many of us could really use is a weekend at the spa with no responsibilities or even just a little more rest. One mom comments, “I envy my preschooler. What I wouldn’t give for a snack and an afternoon nap. He doesn’t know how good he has it.”

I read a quote this summer that stuck with me: “The days are long, but the years are short.The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin, Harper Collins 2010. Legal moms know they have to savor every moment of their children’s lives, but this can be hard when a toddler has a 102 degree fever on the day a legal mom is scheduled for an oral argument.

As I continue with my research, I am continually inspired by the legal moms who have given their time and stories to this body of work. They have offered insights into their lives and advice with a generosity of spirit and with the intention that other women might benefit knowing that they are not alone trying to develop a successful legal career and raise wonderful children.