Susan Smith Blakely

Balance or Not?  What Women Lawyers Need to Know


Work-life balance is not easy.  Yes, I wrote an entire book about it, but that does not mean that I think it is anything but difficult and challenging.  I acknowledge that in the Prologue to Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business/Aspen Publishers, 2012), where I propose a new balance that puts more emphasis on self.  After all, if you do not take care of yourself, you will burn out early in your attempts to take care of others.

Case in point is an interview with a former CFO of Lehman Brothers that appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, May 1, 2016.  Erin Callan Montella spent twelve years at Lehman before being promoted in 2007 to Chief Financial Officer.  In that ascent, she immediately became one of the most powerful women on Wall Street.  Now, at age 50 and as the mother of a 14-year-old baby girl, Montella has written a book, "Full Circle:  A Memoir of Leaning In Too Far and the Journey Back."  From her interview, I believe that it might be a good beach read for you this summer.

First of all, I like that she is willing to address "leaning in" as it applies to a 100-hour a week perch --- not unlike life in the fast lane of Big Law.  Montella is a former tax lawyer, which was the foundation for her impressive climb to CFO, and her work at Lehman was similar to the Big Law lifestyle, with the exception, of course, that Lehman was on its way toward bankruptcy from its exposure in the subprime mortgage scandal during that time.

However, the parallels are instructive, and Montella's approach in the interview is measured and respectful of the opportunities she had and her experiences.  She takes responsibility for her own choices regarding work-life balance, and she does not blame it all on a workaholic industry.  She says,

"The big lesson that I am trying to communicate with my story is you can take it too far.  You can have a great career and make it the center of your universe.  That's what it was for me and did not lead to a happy outcome." 

Her observations about being a woman in a male-dominated workplace also rang true to me. 

"I have always understood that being a woman on Wall Street cut two ways.  There was a real positive to being unique with a different style.  That part of the equation is not discussed often, but it shouldn't be dismissed.  There's a lot of discussion of the negative consequences that are all too familiar."

Montella has now thrown herself into motherhood.  But, she also recognizes the imbalance of that decision.  "Putting 100 percent of yourself into your career for 20 years, then putting 100 percent of yourself into your husband and family after that is not some new definition of balance that I ascribe to.  I don't advocate this approach."

Lots to think about in that piece and, I am sure, in the book.  Let me know what you think.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law.

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit 

Write a comment

Please login to comment

Remember Me

Become a Member

FREE online community for women in the legal profession.



Subscribe to receive regular updates, news, and events from Ms. JD.

Connect with us

Follow or subscribe