Opting Back In: Not As Easy As You’d Hope

Eight years after Lisa Belkin's article on the burgeoning Opt-Out Revolution, Ruth Franklin outlines some scary statistics about moms now trying to opt back in.  Her piece, The Opt-Out Problem We Don't Talk About, discusses both women who may still be married but now want to re-enter the job marked (like the former Big Law lawyer who took nine years off and then could only find a job as an unpaid intern) and women who now find themselves unexpectedly divorced and struggling to make ends meet years after opting out.  As you might imagine, opting back in is only more problematic in the current economy.

This problem has another dimension for women lawyers who opt out because law, more so than many other professions, has such a steep learning curve with no real substitute for actual time spent practicing law.  You start as a law firm associate and slowly work your way through case after case, building contacts and knowledge that only years of work can bring.  If you're a trial attorney, you build similar skill sets in voir dire and oral arguments and familiarity with trial strategies, witness preparation, and various motions and hearings. 

In fact, this slow climb up the legal ladder prevents even lawyers who have never taken time off from moving from legal job to legal job.  After even a few years, lawyers are often pigeonholed by their experience into one legal track (i.e. a contract attorney may not be able to successfully become a U.S. Attorney, and a longtime Legal Aid attorney may not be able to get a job in the IP department of a big law firm).  If you want to transition from one type of law to the other, you may have to take a big demotion to work your way up through mastery of different legal skill sets.  Basically, you almost need to know exactly what kind of lawyer you want to be from the day you graduate from law school in order to achieve your professional goals--not exactly a lot of flexibility at the start even without trying to take a few years off.

On the one hand, given that mastering legal practice is so dependent on actual hands-on experience, it makes sense that lawyers who have not worked for several years may not have the best employment prospects when they attempt re-entry.  Franklin's article is therefore not shocking: taking time off work has professional consequences.  The real problem is that women are still more likely to be the ones to opt out and disproportionately face these consequences, which are compounded by other issues like wage disparities.  As Franklin notes: "If men continue to out-earn women in virtually all occupations, as a recent report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research demonstrates, and society continues to push mothers to stay at home, then it’s little wonder that women continue predominantly to bear the financial cost of divorce."

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