Thursday, November 19, 2009

Life after law school, mama-style

For me, life after law school might not be as glamorous as I might have imagined when I was a teenager. I have been a mama to a little girl since I was 21. Between then and now, I have experienced a wide range of lifestyles: from near-destitute to wealthy to happily in-debt; from single mother to custody fighter to wife of an attorney-to-be; and finally from stay-at-home mother to perpetual law student (it will have taken seven years of starts and stops!) to law school graduate in the worst economy of our generation.

Maybe I am asking for too much but I still “want it all.” I want to see my daughter and my husband for most of everyday, have a small tribe of toddlers who will love me madly in my postpartum-free bliss, spend the majority of each day stitching sundresses and unicorn costumes, sleep for more than a few hours a night—oh, and I want to provide for my family and live out a few burning dreams and ambitions, too. Let’s not forget my husband, lest he think he’ll bear the burden of working 1900 billable hours next year and be an absentee parent to the Toddler Tribe. I want him to be part of the Have-It-All, too.

Having been raised by a stay-at-home mother who was also an eccentric artist, I have somewhat of a fanciful notion of where motherhood fits in the work-life balance. Motherhood is the trumping factor: When I should be writing memorandums, I am teaching my daughter to play guitar or helping her to make chandeliers out of foil for her princess castle built with sheer walls of mosquito netting. I seem to have no problem spending an afternoon crocheting a scarf and cooking dinner from scratch for my family, then staying awake until the wee hours of morning to work…and repeating the cycle a few times a week. No sitters, no nannies, no after-care—but a life built with a near obsession for hands-on motherhood. It’s what I grew up with, so it’s what I know.

But it sets me up for some heartbreak as a job-seeker. To be honest, I don’t like the world outside of motherhood all that much. I’ve lived it. It’s Working Mommy Land – rife with guilt and depression, and never quite the perfect balance of ambition, nurturance, and fulfillment. I want to be a lawyer, without my daughter ever feeling like I left the house. Is this just a pipe dream?

Finding the right work-life balance is particularly important to me as a mother. Having had full custody of my daughter since her birth, I have never quite adjusted to the 50% custody arrangement of the past two years. Trying to feel like a whole mother with only half the time has been impossibly difficult, and it makes me somewhat of a time-maximizing, multi-tasking, sleep-deprived nut: I confess that I am not a law school gunner, but I am a hopelessly devoted mommy gunner.

Can my devotion to parenthood survive the legal workplace? Do I have to choose the all-or-nothing route to being an attorney, or is there some kind of warm, fuzzy in-between?

Parenthood, workplace identities, and covering

Most people have experienced the pressure to conform to the working identity, a term coined by Mitu Gulati and Devon W. Carbado. The working identity is the identity to which we all consciously conform and perform in the workplace in order to earn respect or stay in the game. In addition, most have probably felt the need to cover, a term coined from Kenji Yoshino’s discourse on covering. Covering is the concept that we surrender our individuality as a necessary act of assimilation, as Yoshino describes in the following clip:

The idea of sustaining the working identity by covering can apply to parenthood in the workplace. Like people of color being pressured into “acting white,” I think it is safe to make the argument that mothers and fathers similarly feel pressured into “acting unattached” or “professional,” which implicitly discourages “family-focused” behavior. Parents are always at risk of revealing too much devotion to something outside the workplace.

The most common consequence that we fear from revealing our true identities is that we will be “found out” and lose our jobs or be demoted in some way. For instance, if a woman becomes pregnant at a law firm and embraces motherhood, she may involuntarily be put on the so-called “Mommy Track” at law firms. Covering and identity performance often require lying about home life or minimizing issues at home to avoid losing professional credibility.

In recent years, however, internet blogs authored by parents have opened the discourse on parenting into the mainstream, particularly the “Mommy Blogs.” There are even “law mommy blogs” that discuss the prevalence of Working Mommy Guilt or hilarities of juggling law careers and children. It has become both acceptable and controversial to be candid about the realities of parenting life, as the following clip on mommy blogger Heather B. Armstrong illustrates:

While it is a step forward to push the realities of parenthood into mainstream discourse, will there ever be a day when it is perfectly acceptable to confess that you are late to a meeting because your beloved child had an irreparable, gargantuan tantrum twenty seconds before you were about to leave the house? Will workplaces adapt to family life, or will professional expectations continue be the anchoring point of “work-life balance”?

The flex-time and part-time lawyer: do they really exist?

The concept of being a flex-time lawyer is becoming more of a reality in recent years, redefining the recent paradigm shift of the “power lawyer” mother and the stay-at-home dad. We do not yet know whether the recession will promise more part-time or flex time jobs, but there is a chance that such a poor economic climate could trigger major organizational changes.

Surprisingly enough, part time positions are available but under-utilized. Though nearly 98% of law firms say they offer part-time schedules, The National Association for Law Placement reported that only 5.4 percent of attorneys were working part time in 2007. (On a side note, nearly all associates (91.2%) and the majority of partners (71.2%) who worked part time in 2007 were women).

There are some downsides to flex-time positions and part-time positions, which have been dubbed as mommy-tracks in disguise. In a article on a “part time” female lawyer who became partner, an attorney mother describes the reality of her “part time” schedule at a corporate law firm as 6 A.M. to 2:55 P.M.—still totaling up to a 45 hour work week. According to the attorney, she justified prioritizing her family life by saying, “I am an A-minus attorney. But I am an A mother.”

In addition to the illusion of what "part-time" is, flex-time or part-time status may compromise pay and health insurance. I know an attorney who was asked to be partner, but asked if she could take a year of “part time hours” in order to spend time with her family, before committing to the partner position. When she was “part time” she said the law firm revoked her health insurance (because no part time employees received health coverage at the firm) and grossly miscalculated part-time to mean “4 out of 5 days a week.” Dissatisfied by the firm's unfair practices, she jumped ship from the firm and began an independent consulting company, instead of returning to full-time private law life as partner.

Where to find flex-time and part-time positions

Apparently, it takes some detective work and determination to find a flex-time or part-time attorney position. The first option is to learn by example, by researching attorney profiles on sites such as Ms. JD to see how others have achieved work-life balance.

Attorney and author Julie Tower Pierce has recently written a book called Staying at Home, Staying in the Law, which describes ways in which both women and men can work as lawyers with appropriate work-life balance or re-enter law after taking time off to raise children. Pierce also keeps a blog called Darling Hill, entirely devoted to the concept of flexible, part-time and contract lawyering – that even posts flexible attorney jobs currently available on the market.

The American Bar Association Journal reported that an increasing amount of young attorneys are redefining “the office” by “building reputations, then deftly leveraging their clout to get the flexibility they need.” The concept of part-time law practices for solo attorneys, freelance lawyering and family friendly law firms are also getting some press in the legal community.

If flex-time is not quite creating the proper work-life balance for parents, job-seeking parents might try to find companies or firms who have adopted a results-only philosophy. Culture X has developed a business model called ROWE (Results Oriented Work Environment) that allows an entire company to function without face-time requirements, such that employees work from anywhere, anytime – so long as the work gets done and employees stay happy. Developers of the ROWE model Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson have been advocating their results-only model with their book, aptly titled Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It.

Above all, it seems that parents in law school who are going the non-traditional route in the marketplace may have some extra work to do – but it is somewhat of a relief to know that “family-friendly” is becoming a “buzz word” in the legal community. It was a really long time coming, but it seems as though there are a few glimmers of hope that attorney parents may be a (baby) step closer to “having it all.”

1 comment:

Erin S. said...

Your entry made me think of this blog post I recently read: Little Miss Perfect--not because I think you're trying to be her, but because it addresses the pressures we all feel to do and have it all. I'm starting to think that "work-life balance" is a myth--a pretty fiction invented to convince us that if we do things just right, if we find that perfect balance, we will be able to have it all. And when we don't find it, we feel inadequate. So many working mothers I know are experiencing this struggle. And even though I'm not a mother and not necessarily planning on becoming one, I feel the pressure too.

I posted this as my FB status a few days ago: "You can't be everything or do everything. There will always be a sacrifice. The question is, what are you sacrificing--and is it worth it?" It's a difficult question to face, but I think it's an important one. Do I want to sacrifice my life for an illusion of financial/career success? More and more, I feel that I really don't.