THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2010
Women in the Legal World
Life as a Female Attorney
n her new book, “Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know About a Career in the Law,” attorney and author Susan Blakely addresses the difficult work-life issues facing women lawyers, law students and pre-law students today and provides a concise road map to planning successful careers within this environment. Emily had dreamed of being a lawyer all of her life. She came from a family of lawyers, and, as a child, she loved milling around her father’s law office. She liked the smell of the leather-bound books, and she especially liked the days when her father took her to the courthouse with him to file a paper or to meet with the judge. Emily prepared herself well. She succeeded in high school, went to an Ivy League college, and attended a first-tier law school. She graduated from law school at the top of her class and was hired by a national law firm where she made a six-figure salary and had excellent opportunities for advancement.
SUSAN BLAKELY graduated from Georgetown University Law Center. As a practitioner with experience in private law firms and the public sector, she has viewed the legal profession from many perspectives, as an associate, counsel and partner, and as a chief of staff in the public sector.
Two years into Emily’s legal career, she resigned from the law firm, where she worked around the clock. She had no social life, no prospects for marriage, and she knew that marriage and family would be very important to her some day. She did not feel like she fit into what seemed like a man’s profession, and she did not know how to change that. She was riddled with debt from her student loans, and she felt that she had disappointed herself and her family. She told her friends that practicing law was not what she had expected. How could this have been avoided? What would have helped Emily to be better prepared for law practice? Hopefully, a book like this one would have helped Emily. This book is for young women in law schools and undergraduate colleges and universities across America who are considering careers in the law and pursuing those careers. It is also for young female practitioners who are passionate about their careers as attorneys, who want challenging and stimulating professional lives, and who also want complete personal lives without compromising their professional hopes and dreams. These are admirable professional and personal goals, but they often can be on a collision course. You are probably one of these women. By reading this book, you will have the chance to gain insight into the challenges of the legal profession for women and to learn valuable lessons from some of the most accomplished women attorneys in the business. The contents of this book can change your life by assisting you in planning a successful and satisfying legal career and helping you to avoid the pitfalls that can derail those plans. One of my contributors, a federal judge, has compared the book to Ariadne’s story in Greek mythology. You might recall
that Ariadne provided her lover Theseus reenter the profession if and when you with the skein of thread that enabled him choose to. to find his way out of the labyrinth after Women attorneys have these choices killing the Minotaur. It is my fervent hope today because law is not a man’s that this book will become your skein of profession anymore. Yes, it is still thread and will help you to successfully dominated by men, but women are very find your way through the challenge of much a part of the legal world, and modern law practice. concessions to women’s schedules and Learning the lessons included in this recognition of their unique roles in child book might not be equally important care and family issues has brought for all women aspiring to a legal career. about that result. We are far beyond the There are always the superstars who days when women could not get hired in have the right combination of attributes prestigious law firms or become memto help them rise to the top without bers of the bench. Women can choose the need for a book like this. We all to be in law firms or they can choose know them. They are the very brightest to be in the other myriad legal settings. and highest achievers at the best law They can choose to have flexible time or schools, who have been taken under the they can choose to work full time. Men wings of powerful and effective mentors are not keeping them out. However, for and who succeed, notwithstanding the women lawyers who want marriage and odds that normally affect women in the family and also want successful and profession. However, these women are satisfying legal careers, the choices are in the minority, and most of the women much harder than for men with similar who read this book will not have the aspirations. superstar profile. As a result, the book These are serious issues that require will be a valuable assist to most of you serious consideration. The discusin developing successful careers and sion and recommendations contained compatible personal lives. in this book will assist you in that You should not envy the superstars. endeavor. Reading the book will develop You should thank them. They continue to awareness that can make or break a open doors for all of us. It is the superwoman’s legal career and can turn what stars who prove themselves so valuable might be a disappointing experience to employers that they gain concessions into something much more satisfying. that would not be gained by the rest of In the end, I hope that this book will us under the same circumstances. Over have the effect of adequately preparing time, those concessions have proved young women for the realities of a legal to be successful, and employers have career and keeping talented women in become willing to address them for other a profession that has played such an women attorneys who are not necessarrole in my life and in the lives Women attorneys have choices ofimportant ily superstars. It is still a steep climb, my best friends at the bar. I hope but not as steep as it would have been that it will help women attorneys avoid today because law is not a without the superstars. The superstars the pitfalls that have adversely affected man’s profession anymore. have helped to open up many additional so many women lawyers of my generachoices for women in the profession. tion, who had few positive role models This brings me to, perhaps, the most and who encountered senior women in important message that I have to convey the practice who preferred competing to you. It needs to be one of your main with them to mentoring them. focuses as you read the book. It is about Choices, choices, choices. Keep that choices. My purpose is to inform you about the choices that you will face as your focus, and you will gain the maximum benefit from the discusin pursuing a legal profession, the importance of having well-informed sions that follow. The best choices are the ones that are made by you choices as your goal, and the imperative that those choices be your and for you, with adequate information and with an eye to the future. So, own-made by you and for you. In the end, it is all about choices and the let’s get on with it. There are so many choices! limitations of some career paths and the opportunities of others. It is Excerpted from “Best Friends at the Bar,” by Susan Smith Blakely. about safeguarding your career and keeping yourself in the legal arena Published by Aspen Publishers © 2009. Used by permission. Visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com/ to learn more. even while you are “off ramp” so that you will have future choices to
The Solo Practitioner: ‘Having It All’ Was a Fiction By Laura Oberbroeckling
went to law school because I had strong interest in public policy and wanted an intellectually challenging, financially secure career. Growing up in Dubuque, Iowa, during the farm crisis in the 1980s, I saw what dire economic conditions could do to individuals. A legal career fi t my interests and needs. My substantial educational debt made a career outside of a private law firm impractical, so after graduating from Harvard Law School, I started working at a general litigation practice in a Washington, D.C., law firm. I was fortunate to work with many good people, including mentors who delegated substantial responsibility to junior associates, such as me. I gradually shifted my practice from general litigation to health care litigation, and moved firms to make this shift, eventually focusing on health care law in general. Although my shift from a more litigation-based practice to a more general health care practice fi t with my early career goals, the shift really happened because I needed to move away from a practice with unpredictable hours and frequent travel, to one that allowed me to spend more time with my growing family. After making partner at a national firm and having my first child around the same time, I realized that I could not have it all. I could not have an active litigation practice and grow my client base and be
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active in firm administration without sacrificing a significant amount of time with my family. I chose to have children (they didn’t choose me) and I wanted to be a signifi cant part of their lives; I did not plan to outsource the tasks associated with raising my family to “good help” as more senior attorneys had advised years before I had children. It became quite clear to me that “having it all” was a fi ction — for men and women. As I was due to have my third child, and dealing with chronic health issues with my other two children, I decided to leave the large firm setting and focus on my family. I had already tried working reduced hours and gave up most of my non-billable commitments. I worked every day, but even with shorter days and limited travel I still felt that I was not dedicating enough time to either family or career; there was only so much of me to go around. I remembered an attorney telling me a story of his daughter’s school essay — she wrote that she wanted to be a client when she grew up. She knew that as a client, she would get her father’s attention. I did not want my kids to wish that they were my clients. When I explained my decision to leave the practice to clients, some asked if they could continue to work with me. At the same time, one of my colleagues, with whom I had worked at three firms, was leaving the large firm practice to establish his own small firm and asked if I could support his practice. At my clients’ suggestion, and with the option of continuing to work with my long-term mentor, I decided to establish my own practice and work from home, allowing me to be the primary caretaker for my children and attend to their health. As a result, I continue to have a satisfying career and fulfilling personal life. Instead of feeling like I was giving neither my career nor my family the proper amount of attention, I struck a balance that allows me to continue to have the
intellectual challenge of a legal career and provide quality legal services to my clients, and to be the kind of parent that I want to be for my children. My choices are not ones that everyone would or could make, and I have had to sacrifice many things along the way, including my role as a partner in a major firm, the bulk of my litigation practice, the satisfaction of collaborating with other attorneys on large matters, and, of course, the financial rewards of working at a large firm. But I have not had to sacrifice my happiness, nor have my children had to sacrifice theirs. I have been able to have a satisfying career and personal life in large part because of the amazing people in my life. My husband, also a lawyer, has always been supportive. My mentors (interestingly, mostly male attorneys) have taught me much about not only the practice of law, but also the need to retain your self-identity and values. My clients have been tremendously understanding about the odd hours I keep and the fact that they may hear the sounds of a preschooler vying for my attention at the other end of a conference call or that they may need to call back after I have made sure that my kids are home and have had their after-school snack. I have learned along the way that it is important to reevaluate career goals, and not to be afraid to make career path changes as career choices may (and probably should) change as your life changes. Undoubtedly my career path will lead me to bends around which I cannot yet see, but as long as I stay true to my self and my values, and continue to search for intellectually challenging work with people that I enjoy and admire, I will be proud to be a lawyer. And, perhaps most importantly to me, my children are happy and proud that I am a lawyer. My daughter has told me that she wants to be a lawyer just like me when she grows up; she did not say that she wants to be a client. I must be doing something right.
LAURA OBERBROECKLING is a solo practitioner in Gaithersburg, Md.
I worked every day, but even with shorter days and limited travel I still felt that I was not dedicating enough time to either family or career; there was only so much of me to go around.