Imagine a world where most women lawyers could function like the lawyers in this recent article in the NY Times about a women-owned law firm that allows parents to be parents. Imagine a world where women lawyers could have schedules that allow work from remote offices in their homes and time to prioritize the needs of their personal lives and their children without being judged and without the necessity to answer to a higher authority about their choices. Yes, just imagine. It is very innovative and entrepreneurial, and I applaud the women of the Geller Law Group in Virginia who have put together a model that appears to work well for them.
The New York Times article struck a chord with many of my readers. In all the years that I have been writing for women lawyers, I never have received more enthusiastic mail about a single article or report than I did after this article was published. At first read, the law firm model described in the article can appear to be a kind of panacea for the work-life struggle experienced by so many women lawyers, and I am sure that is why it is getting such positive reviews.
But, we need to be careful in assigning too much importance to this new practice model as it relates to all women lawyers. The New York Times article leaves many open questions, and you need to think about them before you make a major career decision that could easily change the direction of your practice for years to come and long after the childcare days are behind you. It is not the answer for every woman lawyer. Here’s some background.
The reality is that most women lawyers practice in law firms that are not “all in” on the parenting priority for lawyers –men and women alike — and that, in the traditional law firm setting, we are far from experiencing what this article has us imagining. However, that does not mean that we have not made great progress on these issues in traditional law firms, because we have. There are more part-time women partners than ever before, and the availability of alternative work schedules is de rigueur in most large law firms today. However, we still have a long way to go.
So, if women lawyers facing work-life challenges are swimming against the current in most traditional law firms, the question is whether women should start leaving those traditional settings in droves and jumping into models like the Geller Law Group. Emphatically, I say no — not without a great deal of prior thought.
Start by asking yourself why this model doesn’t work in most law firms today. Part of the reason is demanding areas of practice and challenging work. But, many women lawyers want to continue to work in their practice areas of choice and continue to do challenging and interesting work. They do not want to change practice areas and concentrate on work that does not interest them as a trade-off for flexible schedules and telecommuting. It is too much of a sacrifice for them, and maybe it also is too great a sacrifice for you.
As the article points out, most litigation is not conducive to the law firm model described because of the scheduling demands alone. The same is likely true of merger and acquisition work, antitrust practice, immigration practice, tax law and other practice areas that are especially complicated and outcome sensitive and can quickly morph into unexpected demands that are deal breakers for parenting responsibilities. Sure, there are areas of practice that can and do work under the model of the Geller law firm, but those practice areas may not be of interest to you and may leave you hankering for more.
That’s the rub, and it is why this alternative to traditional law practice is not enough. We need more. We should be working toward a solution that has increased general application in the profession, and traditional law firms need to address the issues and make a broader array of professional choices available to women lawyers during the critical childcare years.
This is a theme very close to my heart and soul as a woman lawyer, and I do not want to see the women in our profession shortchanged by solutions that require all of the giving and sacrifice from the women and let the law firms off scot free. That is why I challenge law firm leaders to prioritize retaining and advancing the considerable talent that women lawyers represent in my new book, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, to be released soon. It is time that the law firms participated with the women lawyers in these critical solutions.
And there are other things to think about. What about compensation? From the New York Times article, we learn that the women at the Geller firm are compromising a lot of salary for their more “manageable” situations — a lot of salary. Should women have to make sacrifices of that magnitude? And what about the isolation that results from no actual offices and little interaction with colleagues? At least one of the members of the Geller firm left over this issue.
Do these things matter to you? Think about it before you leap into radical career change. Ask yourself what your long term goals are as a lawyer and whether those goals can be met in a model like the Geller firm. The time you take to thoroughly evaluate your situation and circumstances will be time well spent.