Heather Squatriglia

My own worst enemy? Choosing to practice family law was harder than it should have been

I am a woman who has chosen to enter a practice area that is dominated by women--Family Law (more specifically Juvenile Rights). As an older student (I'll be 37 in July), the whole reason I decided to go to law school was to work with youth in the juvenile justice system. I never considered this to be a gender specific area of the law (in the way that teaching and nursing have traditionally been women's professions) but apparently a lot of people do. I'm not really sure how I feel about that. Everybody hates to be stereotyped, especially when one is deeply passionate about a practice that just happens to be "typically female." And I'm not your typical law student by a long shot.

So I started thinking about why so many women choose to practice public interest law, and I started to ask the female lawyers I knew. One woman (not a lawyer, but a fellow law student) told me that women can afford to practice family law because they marry men who practice in large firms (the implication being that they are relieved from the responsibility of being the primary breadwinner). I chocked that answer up to inexperience and a particularly narrow view of gender roles. There is no question that public interest work often allows women to continue to work part-time while they raise their children, but many mid-sized and large firms encourage their employees to do that as well.

Most of the women I asked told me that public interest work draws on strengths that are traditionally considered "feminine": compassion, empathy and nurturing. I bristle when anyone talks about qualities as being specifically "feminine." I prefer to think of them as "human." But when I thought about why I chose to work with angry, violent and alienated adolescents, I had to acknowledge that I was motivated by these "feminine" qualities. I was also motivated by passion, a strong sense of justice and the desire to use my intellect--all traditionally "masculine" qualities. In fact, every woman I spoke to had similar motivations.

The more I thought about, and the more I spoke to women in the field, the more I realized that my discomfort came from within. I was the one who was stereotyping. I was the one who thought that I was pursuing a lesser calling because it was dominated by women. I was ashamed when I realized that. I resolved then and there to appreciate my accomplishments and my choices. I don't know why Family Law is dominated by women, and honestly I don't think it really matters. I am passionate about what I do and I have compassion for my clients. I am truly grateful to the women who have led me to understand that that is truly all that matters.

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