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ABA President, Scorning 'Work-Life' Balance, Abandons The Profession's Women

Laurel Bellows

There have been 136 Presidents of the American Bar Association. Five of them have been women, including this year's President, Laurel Bellows, who has caused quite a stir among women attorneys by calling the idea of work-life balance a "fraud." 

When asked in a recent interview how women lawyers can "go on vacation or take a break to spend time with family" - how they could achieve "work-life balance" Bellows said the answer was "easy."

It's "not achievable." 

Adding fuel to the fire, Bellows went so far as to call "work-life balance" a "fraud."

Addressing women of child-bearing age, Bellows warned that taking time off for children could all but destroy their careers - advice given to me and a substantial percentage of my law school classmates more than thirty years ago. 

"Don't have children until you make partner," we were advised. "The firm will assume you're not serious about your career." Instead, my husband assumed I was not serious about our marriage. By  the time I was eligible for patnership, seven "apprentice" years had turned to ten and I was single. 

Not wanting young women lawyers to make the mistakes I did (make new ones, please!) I've been working with hundreds, thousands, of women who have dedicated their time, energy, experience and wisdom to removing the institutional barriers that keep women out of equity partnerships and circling the drain of the wage gap even when they manage to capture the gold ring of firm ownership.

This is a plea for Bellows to rethink her position as a leader not only of America's lawyers, but as a woman leader in a profession in which institutional barriers to women's retention and advancement are acute. 

Work. Life. Balance.

Following the stream of commentary arising from Bellows' pronoucement (on which she's double-downed) it occurs to me that no one has done what every law student is asked to do on their first day of classes.

Define your terms.

Bellows, like many a rainmaker male and female, loves to market, to self-promote, to make a lot of green from every relationship she enters into. Read the article again.

She's happy!

She doesn't believe she's sacrificing anything. She likes her life and she either doesn't see the unnecessary  barriers women face or she's chosen to ignore them. That's great for Bellows personally. It's just not great for the woman leader of lawyers where the professional wage gap between male attorneys and the few women who survive long enough to beccome equity partners is 60%. 

Define Balance

In women's circles, "balance" refers to the ability of women to raise a family and have a successful career at the same time. When asked how she accomplished the feat that men are never asked to describe, at least one successful woman replied "I have a brain and a uterus and I use both.

Men are faced with "balance" questions as well. They're just not assumed to have them.

Many a marriage is destroyed and children deserted because a man succumbs to the kind of workaholism that the legal profession has valorized to the detriment of all its knowledge workers.

I've long asked why the best and the brightest, the most well-educated, are rewarded with wage slavery, no matter how well compensated that slavery might be.

This decision, then, to turn all of our energies to work, is a highly idiosyncratic and personal one. At twelve years of practice, my own life was seriously out of "balance." Balance to me did not involve children and family. I was suffering from a material/spiritual imbalance and laboring in the adversarial system did not help me find a way back to what I loved.

I was in a position more like the men than the women were because I had no family responsibilities and, for part of my career, was married to a man who had assumed most of the "home" duties of shopping and clearning, of picking up the clothes at the dry cleaners and managing our social life - the theater and symphony tickets, the dinners with friends, the vacations and rock concerts.

There was, of course, institutional and implicit bias around me and within me that I believe made my career slightly more difficult than the men's, but not much more difficult, because I'd essentially become a lawyer with a wife.

To cure my own idiosyncratic spiritual imbalance, I signed up for a fiction writing class at UCLA extension where I re-found "my" people - the one's who not only read but who were moved and exalted by the use of language to describe the human condition.

Not long after that, I stopped drinking, a serious problem for me and for a massive number of people in the profession.

Balance restored.

Institutional Barriers 

So, work-life balance is different for everyone and everyone has to grapple with it at one time or another. Lawyers in particular - independent, fierce, adversarial by training, working in the hot cauldon of conflict day after day, week after week, year after year, ambitious and often with something to prove to themselves or others - all need balance - emotional, spiritual and relational.

What women lawyers mean when they talk about "balance" is finding a way to remove unnecessary burdens that make the balance question much, much harder for them for no particular reason other than history.

The law firm structure and the way it accounts for time and makes its money was created in the Mad Men era when lawyers were all men. And they generally had wives. And those wives made it possible for those men to devote nearly 100% of their life energy to their work because their wives gave their lives balance.

What Do We Need?

The primary help women need to compete on a equal playing field with men is childcare. The United States continues to lag behind most other first world countries in failing to provide working women with affordable child care. We've been agitating for this since the Second Wave Women's Movement hit American shores in the late '60s and early '70s.

While hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into the project of prohibiting women from controlling their reproductive lives for love of the fetus, no similar funds have been poured into the well-being of the post-fetal human being. 

Bias

I guarantee you that Laurel Bellows' early career was dogged by overt, institutional, hostile bias. Women of her and my generation did not mention bias because it was career suicide. In many firms, it still is. When women of my generation graduated from law school we entered into the the age of Bias Denial.

Gen-X entered the profession during a recession and contraction of the legal market. They too had to do anything they could to land a job. So they joined the conspiracy of silence about bias as well. 

Only now are women beginning to talk about bias again and its corrosive effect on women's careers. We need to do more of that.

Women's Initiatives

"Follow the money" and you'll quickly learn what law firms value. That would not include the women's initiatives that are mostly bait and switch operations put in place to lure the brightest young women law students into the AmLaw200.

"Look, we've got a woman's initiative; you won't find that being a woman will make your job more difficult than your male peers at this law firm."

I have a friend who was recently told that the women's initiative at an international law firm with profits per partner north of $2 million a year had a budget of only $5,000 for the entire year. And you can bet your bottom dollar that participation in the leadership of that women's initiative is not a step in the direction of firm leadership.

Personally, were I in a law firm today, I'd think twice about even participating in a woman's initiative because they are widely reviled and ridiculed. Because, among other things, most male attorneys at the top of the power structure don't believe in gender bias; don't believe there's a wage gap; and think that women - even if they graduated at the top of their Ivy League Law School Classes and picked up an MBA at the same time - just want to go home and have babies because that's what their well-heeled wives did. 

It's like being an environmentalist in a firm full of climate change deniers.

And when the rare woman President of the American Bar Association joins the bias denier crowd, it's enough to make women give upon on the law altogether.

We Deserve Better

Women lawyers deserve better than this. And their law firms deserve better than this. These firms are wasting talent, incurring unacceptable costs of attrition, pricing themselves out of existence and headed for the same brick wall the GOP has been nearing by relying for its strength on white guys in a nation whose coloration and gender have changed radically since the days of Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver.

Rant over.

Please comment.

Comments (5)

Read through and enter the discussion by using the form at the end
Alexandria Skinner - April 11, 2013 11:12 AM

I'm with you 100%. Bellows does neither men nor women a service by failing to use her leadership opportunity to focus attention on the need for life balance in a profession that has a suicide rate five times higher than the general population.

Jill Pugh - April 11, 2013 11:57 AM

Well thought out piece, and you make important points. I was unaware of this position by the ABA President. Comments like hers are then used as weapons against the majority of folks who have experiences and results so different. Law as a profession has always lagged behind the rest of society in terms of its resistance to change. In modern times we also have the highest rates of depression, suicide, and chemical dependency - no coincidence when you look at the "traditional" law firm model.

This dovetails with the swirl of commentary and controversy over the comments and policy changes from the new head of Yahoo! - ignoring the reality that the majority of responsibility of caring for children and aging parents and keeping a home "running" falls on women. What I particularly hate is that this is still a "women's issue" - it should be a topic of discussion and concern for new male AND female attorneys. I have been a lawyer for almost 20 years and I am the rare species who still loves what I do. But, I just became a mom to a newborn at age 44, and can see that how I have always practiced law has to change. And at least I have the luxury of making that choice since I am a sole practitioner.

Karen Goodman - April 11, 2013 12:41 PM

Amen to your comments Victoria. We need women lawyers to change the practice of law not simply master the law firm practice in place for the past 40 years.

Paula Marie Young - April 11, 2013 8:23 PM

I liked her position on gun control. She responded in a way I respected after the Sandy Hook shootings.

Roger Moss - April 12, 2013 1:17 PM

Laura Bellows' comments are tragic and atrocious. As Jill pointed out, within the legal profession, the incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction, bipolar and other disorders are estimated to be five to eight times greater than other professions. Some studies show upwards of 50% of lawyers suffer from one or more of these illnesses. My source on these points is the Cal Bar's lawyer assistance program.

Narcissism, malignant self-absorption and denial are central to these maladies. And when they are present, everyone nearby gets infected.

So Bellows' repugnant comments may be seen to reflect a pervasive culture of illness in our profession, one which allows the climate-deniers and other neanderthals of both genders to flourish. With predictable results for reasonable, progressive initiatives of all kinds.

Unfortunately, shooting back won't solve the problem. But the more those of us who seek "emotional, spiritual and relational" balance hang and act together, the sooner holistic change may emerge. Count me in.

Thanks, Victoria, for another courageous and spot-on rant.

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