Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Marriage and Career Advice for Women Lawyers

I'll be out on vacation much of this month so will be re-posting some of the gems from the last three years.  When first published on April 26, 2010, this post generated the most comments I'd ever gotten on my blog.  Be sure to read them, too.  

It's been a while since I've become incensed at some trivia published in The Recorder, but last Friday's column by Sabina Lippman on Closing the Rainmaker Gap really hit a nerve. I simply must vent.

Ms. Lippman starts out in a promising fashion by summarizing some well known facts—that women lawyers drop out of private practice at a higher rate than men, that the further up the food chain one goes in law firms the fewer women there are, and that women with children are far less likely to be represented at the highest income levels than men with children, or even women without children. She discusses a number of possible rationales, but sadly gives some credence to the bizarre marriage advice trumpeted by Linda Hirshman, a "former trial lawyer, law professor and author of "Get to Work".

Hirshman's thesis, as described by Lippman, is that women lawyers:

• should tell their male life partners (what we used to call husbands) before getting married that they will keep working after having children,

• should negotiate an agreement to a 50 percent division of labor for housework and childcare—and to turn aside suitors who are not on board, and

• should marry men who are their income-earning peers, so that the inevitable "how are we going to do this" conversation doesn't have an obvious verdict.

What a convenient way to leave the responsibility for insidious discrimination at the foot of the victim. Wow. I can see male partners and comp committees everywhere feeling quite excused for any part they might play in the lack of progress by lawyer moms in their firms—it's really the fault of the woman for not negotiating a better package with a more suitable spouse who would allow the wife to put work before family so that she could be a rainmaker.

The logical extension of that theory of course is that all lawyers who want to be rainmakers should marry spouses who make less, and will be willing to sacrifice their careers for the rainmaker wannabe. Oh, wait, the men have known that for years, that's why most of those who have children also had stay-at-home wives when the children were young. Women need to be given the same career advice memo the men got: get yourself a good wife. In fact, working moms have long known that what they really need in order to meet the dueling demands of career and family, is a loving, reliable, devoted helper.

That's all true, but it should not be used as an excuse for the legal profession that has ALSO limited rainmaking opportunities by maintaining the other impediments that make up the glass ceiling: fewer mentors, an old boys network, social clubs and structures that until very recently excluded women, patterns of prejudice that kept women from succeeding by punishing professional women for being too approachable (and hence not credible), or too assertive (and hence bitchy). And so on.

I hope young lawyers (men and women) everywhere will see the Lippman/Hirshman approach for what it is—an excuse to not work for more equitable opportunities for business development by women, and downright bad marriage advice.

My advice? Marry someone you love without regard to their income potential, work as hard as you can at your profession, treat your colleagues fairly and leave any environment where your peers aren't doing the same.

Ok, I feel better now. Hope you do too.


  1. Cynthia, not sure you gave that a fair read.

    1) I note initially that while I believe that (a) larger likelihood that men rather than women would be mentored, referred or inherit clients from more senior men; (b) less credit going to women for equal work; and (c) less aggressive rainmaking or seeking of opportunities or credit, I am going to focus the piece on (d)some other explanation. So therefore, not ignoring the other issues at all, just using my limited space to isolate one of them that's often less noted.

    2) I don't, in fact, state that all woman need to marry equal or lesser-earning spouses -- "If, on the other hand, male and female attorneys opted for alternative paths in closer to equal numbers" should have clarified that. My point is that women shouldn't "marry up" approximately as often as men, so that on average, we are marrying peers. Why would any feminist disagree? Why should women "marry up" at a higher percentage than men do?

    3) Where do I argue that a spouse should "allow the wife to put work before family so that she could be a rainmaker?" I argue: "Of course, time spent with children or pursuing philanthropic interests should not be sacrificed. But were these outside interests and responsibilities more equally divided between spouses... it is less likely that a female attorney would find herself on a “mommy track” that diverts, sometimes permanently, off the equity and rainmaking track."

    4) You state: "In fact, working moms have long known that what they really need in order to meet the dueling demands of career and family, is a loving, reliable, devoted helper." I agree with this.

    I appreciate your feedback. S

  2. Thanks for your comment! I think we probably agree more than we disagree, on the big picture.

  3. Thanks, Cynthia.

    I do agree wholeheartedly with your third to last para. Those factors are almost exactly why I left the practice of law in 1999 and found a career in which I could more easily be a rainmaker. In law, there were too many other people and factors besides my own abilities -- many of which you cite above. Of course, it's not impossible and many women do achieve it, who have more patience than I do.

    My goal in the article was to focus on aspects that women could (mostly) control. The factors you note can be influenced by women on the way up, but are largely in the hands of mostly-male firm management. Of course, the squeaky wheel gets the grease and we should keep mobilizing to change these things. But in my experience, the most convincing leverage (for lawyers, or any businesspeople) is money. A woman who, if she walked out the door, would cost the firm money, is going to get listened to. One who asks firm management to make change because it's the right thing to do -- well, YMMV but in my view she's going to get a pat on the head and an empty promise.


  4. Sabina, I TOTALLY agree with you on this! All that matters is control over a book of business. All the commentators on women in leadership would do women a great benefit by reminding them from day one that in private practice, that's the only ticket worth having. That doesn't necessarily make it a good thing, or even worth striving for. But there's no point in pretending that private practice rewards anything else.

  5. Hi, I've read your article and like it very much. I'd like to know if I can quote parts of it on my blog. I will post a link-back, of course. Thanks!

  6. Alice, sure, feel free to quote the blog. Be sure to look at Sabina Lippman's original article, too.

  7. Thank you very much for this article... I'm a Senior student at Penn Law, still didn't take the bar exam... I'm engaged (the wedding is in May, next year) and I'm a little bit afraid... but you gave me some confidence

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  9. Cynthia, this hits the nail on the head! Because really, the policies of big law hurt men/fathers just as much as women/mothers. Men do not demand the flexibility they need to care for young ones because they don't want to rock the boat, which leaves the fight up to women, who because of the status quo sometimes have no choice to either fight or leave the profession! I was told after taking advantage of a written part time policy at big law that I was not being given any of the good cases, because I might not be able to go to an all day deposition because of my child rearing responsibilities. When I pointed out my children had a father who also takes child care responsibility (also an attorney at another big law) I was told I couldn't "do that" to my husband. The fight isn't with our partners in life, the fight is squarely with our partners at the firm.

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  11. I just read this article. Thank you. Why wouldn't you marry someone you love regardless of income? Granted they due not have any major flaws and are a good fit for you-personality and moral/value-wise. I don't think a spouse should be a packmule or an accessory for your career. Wow. I'm glad my parents taught be better.

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