The Limiting Effect of Biology on a Legal Career

In private practice a lawyer’s reputation is built on the number of times they have done something: the number of times they have gone to trial, successfully settled a case, argued in a specific court, or argued before a certain judge.  Getting as many opportunities as you can early in your career shapes the opportunities and the clients you will have in your later years.  But for some female lawyers, this requirement does not coincide well with their own biology – the choice to have children and to prioritize the needs of their family.  While this is not true for all, the truth is the limiting effect of those choices can shape your ambitions and the general satisfaction you have in your job. This is the reason why one female lawyer I spoke to recently decided to resign from her law firm after 14 years to go in-house.  When she informed the partners at her firm, one of them asked her – what are we doing wrong? Why are we not able to retain our female lawyers? She didn’t really have an answer.  She didn't really believe it was the firm's fault.  She wasn't sure it was really about fault at all.  It was mostly just a perfect storm of life and career choices that she couldn't take back. 

She worked in a mid size regional firm.  Her husband is also a lawyer at a comparably sized firm.  She started as a summer clerk at her firm.  Her and her husband married the summer after her 2L year, and then proceeded to have three kids over the course of her career at her firm. 

Like the other women at her firm, she took 8 weeks of paid maternity leave with each child.  During one particularly difficult year (a young child with a health issue), she switched to part time practice.  The year she worked reduced hours, she had been practicing for 7 years.  The experiences she had in that year stood in stark contrast to the experiences of her husband at his firm.  She had written briefs (but not argued them), performed research related advice and counsel, drafted and reviewed contracts, and assisted with document review.  Her husband, in that same year, was traveling to depositions, preparing experts, arguing motions (that an associate had written for him), and had gone to trial. He was given the recognition of “Super Lawyer” in his state, and she was still just a “Rising Star.”

Looking back, she never considered the limiting impact of those choices.  She liked the firm she was working for.  They offered her flexibility and compensated her well.  She didn't complain about the type of work she received because it fit her lifestyle and made sense at the time.  She could work from home or leave early when a kid was in and out of doctor’s offices.  She was thankful that she was at a firm that allowed her to balance both. 

But that balance was at the expense of her legal experience.  She was not confident in a deposition, because she rarely took depositions.  She had argued only a handful of motions by herself.  Her relationship to judges was tangential – they knew her only because they knew her husband who regularly appeared before them.  She did not have her own book of business.  None of these things bothered her at first, but over time she couldn't quite place what she was feeling - this feeling of not being able to move forward.  

Ultimately, she knew she could never really feel at equal footing with her husband or with her male colleagues at her own firm.  And it was partly this that she just did not feel fulfilled by her job anymore.  So after 14 years at the same firm (2 summers and 12 years of practice), she decided to change paths.  When an in house position opened up with a firm client, she took the leap.  While she has no real regrets, she does wonder if she could have taken different steps to acquire the experience she should have had at her firm over the years.  


Claire Parsons

Thanks for the post, Kim. I might argue that it may not be “biology” that caused the limitation here though. I see it more of how families and the legal profession respond to biological realities. All lawyers have to make choices about how to balance practice and private life. Not all women lawyers who have kids have to make choices in this way. It depends on several factors though, including but not limited to support from the firm, personal ambitions/desires, family and friend support. The legal profession still has work to do in this area so thanks for the encouragement.

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