Waste Not, Want Not?

One of my female law professors told me that out of her group of female friends from law school (Harvard, Class of 1996), she’s the only one still working. At first I was just depressed. I mean why am I busting my butt when chances are I’ll probably just abandon the law in ten years time? My second reaction was to be pissed—not at social forces or institutions that influence these women’s life choices, but at these women! These women were gobbling up precious spots at Harvard Law School, which could have gone to other women who actually planned to practice law. Opportunities for women’s advancement are still precious commodities; they are not to be wasted, I thought. I often feel this tension between wanting women to have free choice and not wanting them all to make the same choice. Of course it can be argued that if women are all making the same choice, then maybe it’s not so “free.” Linda Hirshman has proposed forcing women who receive government subsidized education, pay back those funds if they subsequently drop out of the paid labor market. This presumably would balance out the social forces that influence women’s decision to drop out of the work force in favor of child rearing. Hirshman argues, I think, that overwhelming numbers of women are not all making these opt-out choices in a totally free decision-making environment—they are influenced by stereotype, unequal domestic burden sharing, etc. Some of this rings true: I hear a lot about the guilt working-mothers’ feel about not raising their own children. You don’t hear a lot of dads lamenting similarly. Maybe making staying home a more expensive proposition would combat this. But I suspect money isn’t enough. I also wonder, do the stay-at-home lawyers feel their own guilt. Do they know I’m mad at them? Do they know I think they’re wasting something? Do they think they’re wasting something too? If there is opt-out guilt then educated women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t (guilty at work and guilty at home). The pessimist in me fears this is the case for many women. And you know what? Maybe that problem is my fault, because my reaction to a story about a woman lawyer leaving practice in favor of child rearing is to judge them. Like most negative judgments about other people, mine can probably be chalked up to insecurity. I’m in law school. I’m working hard. I want to feel that I’m making good choices for myself. And every time another woman chooses a life I’m not building for myself I feel the need to make sure I’m still on the “right” track. I don’t think I’m the only one that does this. As long as women are trying to justify their life choices in relation to others’ we will be divided in the fight to achieve our own goals. What we really need is one another’s support. I have often heard the feminist credo: the personal is political. Most recently I’ve heard it said of Justice Ginsburg, who maintains her lone perch on the bench, despite personal circumstances that might compel others to retire. But not all women are crusaders, and I have to remember that no matter what my own choices are, I can’t ask them to be.



I have to say I have the exact same reaction when I read/hear about women not continuing with their careers after obtaining a degree.  The article I discussed in my earlier post was all about how women at Yale for undergrad were deciding as early as freshman year that after they graduated they would be stay-at-home moms.  And the same arguments popped into my head:  initially, why are these women taking the spots of others who want to go to Yale and use their degree towards something, followed closely by the guilt at having at that initial reaction, and the nagging feeling that I should just be happy that women are able to go to elite colleges, and should be free to choose whatever path they want afterwards. It’s hard for me to remember that not every woman wants to work, and that if some choose to stay at home and raise their families, sometimes that’s by choice, and not by societal pressures pushing them in that direction.  I guess I just feel so strongly that I paid for this education and have worked so hard for it that to (in my completely biased, judgmental opinion) throw it all away just doesn’t make sense.  I think having had a working mom while growing up also helps shape my opinion…


While I understand the concept of being frustrated when people want out, I think a lot of what is lost is the idea not that we want women to advance in the legal profession (though we do), but that we want them to have the choice to do so.  And we also want the choice to stay home and raise children.  I love law school and I love working.  I am not sure I want to stay at home.  But I also resent the idea that I somehow owe my peers something because I went to law school and took a break to raise kids.  Many people change professions and don’t face this kind of stress.  And I would argue that one can make equally as good a use of an education in using it to raise your children to be successful contributing members of society.  And while I totally I appreciate this post, I think women need to stop resenting each other for their choices.  Women who work and hire help are scorned as putting their children second.  Women who stay home are criticized for opting out and not using their education to the fullest.  For me, the largest part of being a feminist is to advance choice and to support each other so that we have all of these options available.  And it’s sad to me that they are not.


I think this subject is very difficult. I appreciate this post but have to add echo the “let’s not judge each other” comment posted here.  Here’s the thing, it is impossible to know how you feel about being a mom until you are one.  I find it very plausible that women who are successful young childless professionals do not intend for some seemingly-small thing like a baby to take over their life and de-rail their career train.  But it happens. Life after a child is nothing like life before. We can’t be tempted by the idea to punish women,financially or otherwise, for changing their minds.  In my opinion, the last thing we need to suggest is that we further trap women by their decisions made before they had all the facts.  The key facts are how being a mother will effect her and how her partner (or absence of a support structure) will be effected. Additionally, while society has come a long way as evidenced by the 50+% of students at top schools being women, we have a lot further to go.  Society still judges women that leave the workplace to take care of their kids, even for short periods of time.  I think many executive level professionals view staying home with the kids as “quitting” the profession or “taking the easy way out” to stay home.  Who wants to hire a quitter or a lazy person?  (Of course I disagree with those labels.) Here’s the challenge that I pose to working women—don’t judge!  When you have the opportunity to help a woman re-enter the workforce after staying home with the kids give her the chance.  Give her the chance to use her education and skills so that she can escape from the guilt being layered upon her by those that think she wasted her education or stole their spot at Princeton just to end up driving the kids to soccer practice.  As it stands right now, the choice to stop working to raise the kids is often a permanent decision, one that can’t be reversed because of the biases (and value judgments) of those that never stopped “working”.


I’ve already commented to this post but I can’t get it out of my head.  The issue of stay at home or go to work is really personal for me and something that I’ve been struggling with for the past five years. Maybe me sharing a little personal experience will contribute something to others that are also struggling with this or are pondering whether it will be a struggle for them in the future.  So, here it goes… I am embarking on my second career, the law.  I was extremely successful at my previous career, swifting climbing the ‘corporate ladder’, if you will, one of the young leaders pinpointed to rise to the top levels of the company some day.  After seven years, my life came to what I perceived as a crisis.  My spouse and I were both working about 80-85 hours a week.  We had a live-in nanny but we both rarely saw the kids during the week.  The difference was that I loved my job, or more specifically my career vs the specific field I was temporarily stuck in, and my spouse hated his.  Well, faced with the “crisis” one of us had to make a change.  I wanted him to resign but he wouldn’t.  This is despite the promise that he had made to me before we were married that he would be the one to stay home with the kids when it came down to it.  So… I resigned.  I decided to make a career change and attend law school.  Law school was something that I had wanted since I was a teenager.  I decided that law school would be a necessary break for me for three years and a chance to get in some real time with the kids while they were young.  I made the gamble that three years would change my spouse some how and he would “come around”. I had to resign straight to a very powerful person in my “company”.  This person is one of the top 100 people in an organization of over a million employees.  He chastised me.  He assailed my decision and flat out told me that I owed it to the “American people” to stay in my job.  You see, I was in the Army and I had gone to West Point.  How could I do this, the general asked, when I had taken up one of a few spots at one of the most prestigious colleges in America. He asked me how I could do this to the Army. He told me I was a quitter.  He told me that I was selfish.  He insulted my law school choice and insinuated that I would be a failure.  He told me that my decision was final and reminded me that I would never be welcomed back. I thought what that leader did to me was terrible.  See, I already felt horrible about my decision.  I already felt the guilt that he was trying to lay on me.  I already felt sad because I was leaving the career that I truly loved and that I felt I was meant for in this world.  I wondered if he realized what he was saying to me.  I wondered, in my head, “didn’t he hear me when I said that I have two small kids”?  It was a horrible way to leave the organization.  It took away any amount of personal pride I had left from the good job I had done for the Army, for the American people.  I wasn’t going to change my mind no matter what he said to me—talking to him was a step too far along to turn around even if I wanted to. Now, my husband has come around.  He resigned from the Army after my first year of school and promises again to support my career.  I can’t say that I don’t resent him a little for waiting to make the decision that I asked of him one year earlier.  Also, I am now convinced that being a lawyer is just as good a fit for me as was my previous career.  I still resent the harsh judgment that I faced when I decided to “take a break” and attend law school.  I still resent the fact that one man could take away so much from me with his criticism of a mother’s choice. So, again, don’t judge a woman’s choice until you have to face it yourself.  We can work for institutional and cultural changes that will give women real choices and real solutions for dealing with what life throws her way.


I was a law review board member at a “top 10” law school and then practiced corporate law at a prestigious New York law firm for several years before having children. I have been at home full time as a parent since my first son was born in 2000. Personally, I do not feel that I am “wasting” my education.  (I still have my education, after all.)  Nor to I feel guilty about my choice.  It is my choice and it works for me.  Of course, nothing is perfect.  But—on balance—I feel like I am on a good path.  I used to work long hours for generous overall pay (perhaps less generous hourly pay).  Now I work long hours for, well, no pay. Among the things that I have been able to do since leaving a large law firm is volunteer for not-for-profits that have really benefitted from my help. (It seems to me that if one were to dig a little deeper into what those Harvard JDs have been doing since they left the “formal” practice of law, it would be clear that the world has probably greatly benefitted from their skills and training in many “uncounted” ways.  And, assuming they’re out raising great kids, the world will continue to reap those benefits in the years to come.) One perspective that you miss when you are on the “working and childless” side of this divide is that women are judged for all of their choices.  Just as you note that women who leave the workforce are judged, women who have children and choose to continue working are also judged (sometimes, in my view, even more harshly) for not doing enough for their children. My sort of longer-view perspective from my law firm days is that technology has played a role in extending the work day and creating an unhealthy balance for those who work in these jobs.  I remember a fairly senior partner in my firm recalling a trip to Australia he and some other attorneys from our firm took to work on a transaction decades ago, when his children were young.  They were there for two weeks and took along their families.  On evenings and weekends they enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime vacation with their families and colleagues, and during the normal work day, they completed their highly compelling transaction.  Today, this would be a much briefer trip (if, indeed, it was not completed via conference call, fax machine and FedEx), this time would be spent more or less 24/7 in a conference room, with the commute to and from the hotel peppered with BlackBerry “updates” and frantic voice messages. As much as I loved my law firm job while I was doing it—I was definitely ready to “opt in” to the next great thing that came along. 


First of all, thank you so much for being brave enough to post this.  While I understand that every decision is personal, I thought I was the only person who secretly resented women who left the workplace to be stay-at-home moms.  It seemed every time it happened, I had to work that much harder to prove I was worth the risk of hiring.  It wasn’t necessarily better for the working moms - the ones I would have to cover for at work, stay late for so they could pick up the kids, cancel my social engagements to take the last minute business trips which they couldn’t go on because of childcare issues.  Then, I would watch the women with kids get promoted because they were “networking” at little league games and ballet practice.  I think part of the resentment comes from not being seen as a successful woman unless you are doing it all with a husband/partner and kids.  Overall, though, I think we can all support each other even if we have different views on the subject.  It’s not about judging or not judging, but about being able to share even those feelings we are ashamed of, in hopes of finding support.  The fact that I sometimes resent the women who are working just as hard at a happy life as I am bothers me terribly - I don’t want to resent or judge anyone.  But I am so happy to know that I am not the only person who feels this way.  Recognizing these feelings in myself allow me to realize when I am making assumptions based on my resentment rather than facts, and forces me to reevaluate my position.  I’m sure self-realiztion and support is much more the goal here than judgment.

Sandy Slaga

I feel compelled to share my story. I’m 50 years old and graduated in 1983 from St. Louis University, a good, though obviously not a “top” law school.  We moved to the Chicago area for my husband’s job, a jointly-made choice since we had moved to St. Louis in order for me to go to law school.  I worked as a solo for a year before experiencing a miscarriage, health issues and then the birth of my son in 1988.  My daughter was born the following year.  I stayed home with my children for the first couple years and then began working part-time and then full-time for a small firm in a small city here in the Midwest. After practicing for 10 years, during which time my mother died from pancreatic cancer, in 2000 I chose to leave in order to care for my terminally ill father as well as be home with my children.  Dad died 19 months later.  I then chose to remain at home. My children are now a senior and junior in high school.  I may choose to return to law.  I may not.  Life is full of choices, personal and professional.  Who is to judge another’s choices?  Unless one has truly walked in another’s shoes, on what basis can one judge another? Perhaps underneath the feelings about those women who choose to leave or take a break from law is a struggle with the uncertainty of current choices.  To those young women I would say, give yourself permission to follow your heart.  


I also am 50 years old—a 1983 law graduate.  I find it interesting that a woman would ever say that another woman wasted her time by not practicing law after graduation.  That was a typical male remark of the 1950s and 60s (regarding women who came to college to get their MRS. degrees).  I thought we had moved beyond that. I have worked full time since graduating from law school—but for the US Government.  Working for the government allowed me to pursue a career as an attorney, and at the same time, have children, volunteer in the classroom, be a cub scout leader, be a girl scout leader (7 years!), run my own website (, etc.  I worked part time for a few years when I had small chidren, I pioneered flex place for my agency, and now I have been back to full time for more than 13 years.  Yes—the trade off was money. But the reward was time. And the work is still incredibly interesting, even after 18 years at the same agency.  Working for a law firm isn’t the only way to practice law.  In addition, I don’t think you should count people out because they take 2, 5, or 20 years off to raise a family.  The average life expectancy for women is close to 80.  That leaves a lot of time to use that degree.  And let’s be honest.  A law degree is never wasted.  You use it every day, whether you are “working” or not.


This is an interesting subject for me, because as a first year attorney, I see a lot of my law school classmates—both male and female—becoming disillusioned with the choices they have made to go to law school and to practice at law firms. This is a life that pays well, but that is not designed to lead to personal happiness or fulfilment. With law firms continually raising their annual minimums, it seems that the practice of law is becoming less satisfying and more time-consuming and stressful. So, when I read Jessie’s blog entry, I didn’t wonder why so many women leave the practice of law—either to stay at home or to pursue other career options—but why so many men don’t. Many of my newly-minted attorney friends wonder what they can do to make their work lives happier and less stressed. While none have quit working altogether, I have noticed that the women are more likely than men to consider transitioning to jobs outside the legal sphere, where there is less stress but perhaps less “prestige” and less money. I think social pressures to be good breadwinners prevent men from putting their personal happiness before other job-related considerations, such as salary and security (both of which law firms can offer). But until (if ever) the legal industry achieves a better life/work balance, I can’t truly fauly anyone (male or female) who leaves the legal professional in search of something more satisfying, be it staying at home or working in another industry.

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