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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Answering the "balance" question

In my experience, one job of women law prawfs is to field "the balance question."  Perhaps the Notre Dame pool is skewed (although I doubt it), but women law students frequently come to my office to ask about work and family.  The conversations are all similar:  "Professor, I have a question about something that is not related to law school exactly . . . I really want to have a family, and I was wondering how you balance your career with your family."   In my experience, the inquirers fall into one of three categories:  (1) those who want to "have it all" -- so want to hear that their kids will never interfere with their careers; (2) those who want to stay home with their kids -- so want to be told that staying home is a valid and respectable choice; and (3) those who really want achieve balance but know that balance will be hard to achieve.  (Most women students fall into the third category, as far as I can tell.  I've only fielded "the balance question" from a handful of men.) 

I take the job of mentoring students seriously, which is why I never know how to answer this question.  In my experience, the key to "balance" is flexibility.  (Rick -- yes Rick Garnett of Prawfsblawg fame -- and I ran out last week to attend my daughter's end-of-kindergarten picnic; he was one of two dads there.) I am in Phoenix vacationing, and the Arizona Republic features a story about yet another Bar task force on the lack of women lawyers in leadership positions.  These efforts demonstrate that the legal profession has yet to figure out how to make legal practice flexible.  So, I am left wondering what an honest but encouraging answer to the balance question is?

Posted by ngarnett on June 17, 2006 at 12:07 PM in Teaching Law | Permalink


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Over at Prawfs, guest blogger Nicole Stelle Garnett posts about giving students, mostly female, advice in response to questions about [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 20, 2006 3:49:26 PM


As someone who exited the profession, reluctantly at first, then fully appreciating the vast reward of that decision, I observed a shift of career energy being transferred to my spouse to stoke his practice/teaching. Since the pre-marital stage did not include "the balance talk," an inevitable entropy guided our path until forced to have the "reliable nanny" consideration. Having traveled a distance down the big firm path, I learned that a more realistic balance for all would have had a better chance at success if a smaller practice/boutique firm were sought from the start.
And one off-topic note to whom this applies (and you know who you parenthetical darlings are), the life experience of all is valuable and worth your attention and genuine Christian interest.

Posted by: sahm3 | Sep 18, 2006 10:45:15 PM

The lore is that, toward the end of each term, Justice Powell would take all the other chambers' law clerks out to lunch and tell them to "go home." I rather suspect his advice was motivated not by concern about work-family balance, but by agreement with Suzanna: Lawyers are happier, and can contribute more, in smaller markets than larger ones. (I don't know what he said to New Yorkers.) I agree with Suzanna that this is good advice: Practice/life in smaller places can be both easier to manage and more rewarding -- especially when supported by extended family. But, it is tough to convince students of these realities. Many students tell me that they plan to go home after "a few years" of big-city practice. I don't really blame them -- we're all ambitious -- but I do suspect that they underestimate the extent to which our lives play out in unexpected ways. (Sort of like how we never know what it is like to work and have kids until we work and have kids.)

Posted by: Nicole Garnett | Jun 19, 2006 6:27:01 PM

Making oneself indispensable is one option, and it is advice I give my students. But another option -- which I also suggest to my students -- is to order your life so that you don't need special accommodations to balance career and family. How to do that? Go to work in smaller firms, and, even more important, smaller legal markets. Lawyers in Minneapolis (where I used to live) and Nashville (where I live now) simply aren't expected to put in the same hours as lawyers in New York or DC or Chicago or LA or their ilk, even at the most prestigious firms. And lawyers in Birmingham or Columbus or Des Moines or dozens of other cities not on the east or west coasts also find it easy to balance career and family.

No, you can't have it all. But if you're willing to give up life in the big city, you can have everything else -- and you might just find life more enjoyable as well. (Disclaimer: As a born-and-bred New Yorker, it took me a while to figure this out, so I didn't know it when I graduated from law school . . . .)

Posted by: Suzanna Sherry | Jun 19, 2006 3:25:07 PM

As my mother always told me: "You can have it all. You just can't have it all at the same time."

Posted by: anonprof | Jun 19, 2006 12:26:59 PM

This thread seems to have gotten away from Nicole's interesting topic of giving advice to (mostly female) law students on balance, and I may post my thoughts at the Glom later. But Ethan and Rick's comments rightly assume that any married person seeking balance must also have a life partner on the same wavelength. I've had a lot of friends in law firms have to make second-best choices because of choices their spouses wanted to make or didn't want to make. I think there was a book a few years ago called The Hard Questions with a series of hypothetical questions that engaged couples should ask each other. When you're 25 and childless, you might not think to ask your spouse questions about work/family balance or whether you always want to be in this career, live in this town, etc. But again, as Nicole said, I try not to give marriage advice to students!

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Jun 19, 2006 11:07:09 AM

I don't think it's safe to assume a couple who didn't completely work out these issues beforehand somehow hasn't taken proper responsibility for their own marriage. For one thing, it's hard enough to assess ex ante what you *yourself* think. It seems to me it's kind of like combat; sure, we all like to think we'd be the heroes, but the fact is many people under fire for the first time experience pure, incapacitating terror. Maybe not the most appropriate analogy for the stresses of parenting, but I suspect it's hard to predict in advance what it's going to be like until you get there.

Posted by: Bruce | Jun 18, 2006 9:33:21 PM

Attorney labor unions anyone? These are good and intriguing comments. There seem to be (at least) two levels of potential reform here. One would be at the individual level law firm level - does the firm value $$$ or does it value lifestyle and are the two mutually exclusive? Any firm that requires less of its attorneys than the next firm, so the argument goes, loses competive advantage and is destined for failure, yada yada yada. There is the potential that the law firm culture, more generally, could change and become more amenable to family friendly policies for its attorneys. Then, finally, there is the possibility of legal reform - will state or nation pass laws that make work life more reasonable. Forty years ago, would anyone have taken seriously the FMLA or ADA? Have we peaked with these reforms? What are lawyer work weeks like in other developed countries?

To follow up are lawyers willing to give up the $$$ individually for a better lifestyle and does the answer to this lead us back to individual choices since such jobs (i.e. low pay, less hours) are available?

One last thing and I'll quit, I promise. Do these lifestyle concerns matter only for married people or people with kids? It seems that in the past some of the conflict on this issue has arisen due to the concerns of some that there may be differences in treatment, either now or in the future, based on these factors. Are single women or men any less entitled time off for personal growth or important life activities (to them) than are married people with kids? If, in fact, we institute reforms, will they be solely for married people? I recall an episode of Sex in the City in which Carrie Bradshaw gets sick of buying gifts for friends who are getting married or having kids and decides to throw herself a "I'm Still Single Shower" so that her friends will have to return the favor.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 18, 2006 8:57:48 PM

This discussion is interesting, both for what it contains and what it leaves out. The word "choice," regarding spouses and jobs, is frequently invoked, as if to say that navigating the shoals of the big Work-Family issue is up to individuals, who can avoid crashing by making some damn smart choices. That's true, of course, and indeed is practically a truism. (Although I have to say -- call me a naive old fashioned romantic if you want -- I thought people married for love, sometimes even before they had firm career and family plan. Maybe we could incorporate some of this wisdom into LSAT prep???)

What is not discussed is the role larger societal forces play: the relative inhospitality of employers and government to helping citizens out here sufficiently. (And come on, the feminist law firm is a pretty rare bird.) There will, I suppose, always be a balance issue of some sort no matter what institutions do, but many of the difficulties can be significantly mitigated with smart public action and public policy. Ultimately, it seems to me, the personal choice issues operate only after we establish, as a matter of social policy, how tight the vise should be. The dilemma is deep down a structural one about which employers now feel insufficient pressure to address adequately, and about which government, through lack of affordable daycare and an insufficiently capacious definition of sex discrimination, among numerous other things, has demonstrated positive hostility.

So, Nicole, what should you tell your students? Not, I think, about what the content of their pillow talk should be. Rather, I think you should advise them to take to the streets.

Posted by: Anon.lawyer | Jun 18, 2006 8:08:21 PM

A couple of thoughts about the "who to marry" dispute: First, I don't generally consider marital advice part of my duties as law professor. I'd have to be pretty close to a student to impart wisdom on choosing a life partner. Second, most of the women who ask the balance question want to know how to guarantee TIME with their kids. A father's commitment to gender equality and to his wife's career doesn't help if what she wants is more time at home. I really think that the best advice is Carolyn's. Women need to think ahead and position themselves so that they can demand flexibility and get it. This might mean bypassing the big firm in the big city, developing a high-demand specialty, etc. And, our male students need to be encouraged to think about these questions earlier too. A dad willing to be at home with kids while his wife works is essential -- in my experience -- to career success. And, I might add, to raising kids who will help future generations work through the issues that continue to plague all of the professions.

Posted by: Nicole Garnett | Jun 18, 2006 4:38:19 PM

Ethan -- I agree with you (and Anon) that the challenge of "balance" is made easier (for both spouses) if that challenge is engaged (a) before marriage and (b) together.

I would want, though, by way of friendly amendments to your basic point, to suggest that it would be a mistake (and unfair) to suggest or proceed on the assumption that men who might, for various reasons, not think of themselves as political progressives, or who might not understand the content and implications of feminism in the way that most of us in the legal academy do, are going to be unsympathetic to their spouse's professional goals or to the balance challenge. And, I think it is fair to note that some men who regard themselves as feminists, committed to gender equality as they understand it, might not be particularly sympathetic or helpful (i.e., might not be more helpful than more "traditional" men) if their spouses think that, together, they both need to sacrifice professional success for the sake of children.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 18, 2006 4:13:10 PM


I think my point was mostly clear. Perhaps not so elegantly put, but I take it you got the idea. If you want balance, find a partner who wants the same. Anon makes a similar point. If you marry or partner with someone driven by macho or by ideas about entrenched gender roles, you aren't likely to be able to achieve balance all on your own. It may be that "feminists interested in gender equality" might still think it is a women's place to do all the homemaking herself; but I tend to look around and see that real feminists are much more interested in helping their partners achieve balance and are more likely to realize that they have to do some of that other work that is fairly poorly compensated (and indeed lowers your compensation in your other job) to help their partners have it all.

Bruce is undoubtedly right that we can't avoid selecting mates on looks and cleverness and the like. But Anon gets it again: partnering with someone is a choice. And it is important to take responsibility for that choice. If you really want a certain lifestyle, you have to make sure you partner with someone who can facilitate it.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 18, 2006 3:27:24 PM

I am an associate at a big firm, and I can say that there is definitely no easy answer. The suggestions offered above are good ones, but they don't solve the problem. I am married to a man who has a great university job and works maybe 30 hours a week, so he has plenty of time to take care of the house and our daughter. And he does. But that only gets you so far. I don't want my husband to raise our daughter alone. I want to be there too. So marrying a great guy with all the time in the world may mean that you have more time for the office, but it won't make you happy.

I absolutely agree with Carolyn that a law firm will give you much more flexibility if you do a really good job. I am good at my job, and my firm bends over backwards to make it work. But there is only so much they can do. It is really hard to be a good lawyer if you don't put in a lot of hours. That is just the reality of the practice. I am not saying you need to work 100 hours a week, but less than 50 and your caseload suffers. And working 50 hours a week with a family is hard, especially where the hours are unpredictable. Maybe there are some practice areas where it works, but litigation is not one of them.

Being a lawyer in a big law firm is a really hard career choice for family-minded people. Personally I am not sure it can work. At the end of the day, something will have to give. Either you will spend more time at the office than you want to, or you will go part-time and take the career hit that comes with it, or you will leave. I have not found another option. I envy you guys in academia!

Posted by: another anon | Jun 18, 2006 3:07:21 PM

These comments bring up annoying memories of me patiently listening to friends and co-workers who frequently rail against "society" or "men" or "women". In reality, the unsatisfactory situation that is the subject of their complaints is typically about 90% caused by their selection of spouse/significant other.

These people want to attain "balance x" with their life and they choose people who are clearly at odds with attaining balance x. This might come in the form of a workaholic who wants kids and a family marrying another workaholic who has no interest in setting aside their career for family; or, perhaps more simply, the person who wants a committed relationship and chooses a known cheater.

News flash - people dont change; at least not very often and then only because they want to do so. My point here - to the degree that I have one :-) is that you shouldn't go blaming society or the legal profession or the opposite gender for the decisions that you've made; most notably the decision as to who sits across from you at the supper table. The choice of significant other has incredibly important implications for you professional and personal life, but it can be one of least rational choices we ever make - yet, to poorly paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, who can resist the siren call (of looks, money, etc)?

Posted by: anon | Jun 18, 2006 2:02:31 PM

Obviously views on child-rearing is something you'd want to discuss pre-marriage, and I think what Ethan is suggesting is that there are a lot of heterosexual men out there who may consciously or subconsciously intend to share very little of the burden. (And I think what Rick is suggesting is that even some men -- or women, for that matter -- who describe themselves as feminists may be suffering from cognitive dissonance here.) So anyone concerned about these issues needs to suss them out in serious discussion with their prospective partner. But Ethan, I have to assume you're being a little facetious when you say people shouldn't select spouses based on "looks or money or charm or cleverness" -- I mean, no one ignores those qualities. Money, maybe, but even then job prospects are kind of related to overall personality.

Posted by: Bruce | Jun 18, 2006 9:55:38 AM

Ethan -- could you say more about what you intend with the scare-quotes around "provide" and "professional fulfillment," or what qualifies a prospective spouse as "feminists interested in gender equality", or why you are confident that "feminists interested in gender equality" would be more sympathetic, cooperative, supportive, and self-sacrificing than others when it comes to actually *balancing* -- together -- professional and family life (i.e., work and kids)? Thx.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jun 18, 2006 2:59:49 AM

Here's another idea: Tell women not to select spouses on looks or money or charm or cleverness -- but to actively seek partners that themselves anticipate needing and wanting balance. If you select spouses who want to "provide" for the family or dream of "professional fulfillment," chances are you may be stuck at home with kids. If you seek to partner with feminists interested in gender equality, you might find it much easier getting the balance you are looking for.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jun 17, 2006 3:57:36 PM

Here is what you should be telling your female students: to take charge of their careers NOW and figure out ways to be indispensable. It is not hard to balance if women put themselves in a position where they can call the shots. What does this mean? It means that women law students who don't yet have kids should start focusing on making a name for themselves, on tossing out seeds that they can harvest after their kids are born. Women law students should be writing in articles, in anticipation of finding a job in academia if practice proves too rigorous. They should be making contacts so that they can generate business for their firms even while they're home on maternity leave.

What's ironic is that when it comes to legal and business issues, balance is where women excel. If a client asked a woman how to achieve a strategic goal, chances are that she would come up with an array of options far more comprehensive than a man would (sorry for gender stereotypes here). But when it comes to planning for family and themselves, women get all soft and are reluctant to assert themselves.

Here's an article that I wrote on this, Treating Family Like Business.
This is what women should do to achieve balance.

Carolyn Elefant

Posted by: Carolyn Elefant | Jun 17, 2006 2:06:23 PM

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