Sarah Villanueva

Too Legit to Quit: Renovating the Big Firm Model for Mr. and Ms. JD

I started at my "big" firm job this last October.  (I say "big" in quotes because I'm in Portland, Oregon, not New York City.  Size is relative.)  My husband had a two-year head start at his big firm, while I did a two-year judicial clerkship.  We were feeling pretty damn good.  What was not to like?  We had both finished at the top of class, got top jobs--at a time when jobs were getting hard to come by, though not yet as impossible as they soon would be.  We were ready to start our careers and the rest of our lives.

Then, during the first two weeks at my new job I somehow ended up going to three different panels that discussed work/life/family balance.  I'm not sure how it happened--apparently October is that kind of month. 

What was the big theme at all three discussions?  You cannot have both spouses/partners/significant others working at big firms if you want to have a family.  Or a life outside of work.  Or be happy. 

Awesome.  We weren't feeling so great after that.

I reject your reality and substitute my own.

We all know the statistics.  More and more women graduating from law school, but, for our purposes, basically the same amount of men are in the power positions.  Men, and for the most part white men, are still the partners, judges, congressmen, presidents, CEOs, etc.  I find it depressing, frustrating, and scary.

Please don't get me wrong.  I know we--as in women--have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time.  And I am ever more appreciative and awed by the women who came before me.  They have given us all so much and our lives are infinitely better because of their struggles. 

All I'm saying is:  we're not finished yet.

We all know work/life balance is hard.  And we don't all have to work at big law firms and we all (for goodness sake!) should not.  There are other ways to have a family and a career:  smaller firm, government job, house-husband/partner, etc.  But let's be honest.  The positions of power, where real change is possible, are at those big firms.  I’m not just talking changing the legal profession.  I’m talking about change at a deeper level, equality at a deeper level.  Money is power.  And both are at the big firms.

We need to figure out a way--or at least make it easier--to have more women stay at the firms long enough for more of them to make partner and to shift the balance of power.  And that is not going to happen if we have either spouse choosing work over family.  Family is important and should win that fight (at least most of the time).

Side note:  When I say “family,” as well as “men and women” or “husband and wife,” I’m using short cuts.  I think these problems persist and hold our culture and the legal field back whether you are single, gay, have 6 kids, or never want kids.  And I also realize that not everyone wants two working spouses.  And that is okay too.  I’m not judging anyone.  I’m just saying that this discussion needs to happen at more levels.  Okay, back to your regular broadcasting...

These are my underlying assumptions (complete with over generalizations):

(1) The big firm structure was created and developed during a time where men worked in the office and women worked at home. 

(2) The billable hour structure was created and developed during a time when men worked and had a woman at home taking care of the house, children, dinner, and the community. 

(3) This was not a structure that predicted both men and women being in the work force and raising a family. 

Today, when both spouses try and work at big firm or “power” jobs, it gets hard, and one of them ends up going part-time and putting their career on hold.  And let’s be honest.  It’s usually the woman. 

My thesis:  The big firm structure will greatly benefit, as will the rest of the legal field and society, if both spouses can succeed at the office as well as at home.  Women--as well as men--want to see their families, have time to help their community, and do great work at the office. 

How do we do this?  I don’t know yet.  But I’m going to take the next 12 months, through this column, to explore the options.  And I need your help.  What have you seen being done that excites you?  What have you seen that is beyond frustrating?  What questions do you want me to ask?  Who do you want me to ask them to?  We will explore these issues together.  I can’t promise you we’ll come up with an answer, but sometimes just asking the questions is worthwhile. 

2 Comments

Desiree Moore

Sarah,
This is wonderfully written (entertaining, too) and I look forward the discussion that follows.
Best,
Desiree Moore
@greenhornlegal

donnalap

Sarah, 
Love your brainstorming.  I’ve been wondering a lot about this as well.  
In 2011, I have been part of a successful (thus far) experiment where attorney/moms banded together and were able to get the pro bono work they couldn’t easily get individually. (http://www.westcookprobono.com—we developed a model which makes it easy for us and for the nonprofits.)  It struck a chord.  We now have over 35 active attorneys.  Ever since, I can’t stop thinking about how this could transfer to the private sector.  
In the pro bono situation, we decided to lower the hurdles on our own.  However, we did so keeping the needs of the nonprofits with whom we wanted to work in mind. 
So, my questions are—what are the private sectors’ concerns/needs?  What are the clients’ concerns/needs?  And then, throwing ours in there, what models can we come up with?  What’s already out there?  Are they attracting the talented new grads that the old guard wants?  Is the old structure so profitable for those at the top that they have no real incentive?
I think it’s up to us to think of new ideas and forget about how others should change. 
More to think about.  I look forward to reading more of this conversaton.  Donna Peel

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