Women Lawyers Have a Right to Choose Their Paths
By Susan Smith Blakely • January 29, 2020•Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
"Lean in" as a career strategy never has appealed to me. I have been saying that and writing about it for more than a decade. The reason is that many women do not have the resources of a Sheryl Sandberg to "lean in" and go directly to the C-Suite or the corner office.
Many women cannot afford the in-home childcare with multiple caregivers and the arsenal of hired help for everything from grocery shopping, to carpool, to pick-up at the dry cleaners, to travel planning for exotic family vacations. Rather than giving many women an edge, "lean in" makes many women feel like failures because it simply does not work for the circumstances of their lives.
I prefer "step back" to "lean in" --- particularly for women lawyers, whose daily work regimen typically requires unrealistic numbers of billable hours and a high bar for new client development to ascend to the top of the profession. I address a lot of this in my book, Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer, and I have been speaking about it for many years.
It is not that I do not admire those women lawyers who are able to take direct and uninterrupted paths to the top or that I do not understand the importance of them being there. It is that I know that those aspirations are impractical for many women lawyers at certain times in their lives, and I want those women to understand that decisions to "step back" at certain times are very understandable and A-OK.
"Step back" has been in the news recently. Hopefully, "step back" will work better for women lawyers than it has for Harry and Meghan. However, consider the differences and why the Duke and Duchess of Sussex did not experience the soft landings that they apparently had hoped for and had anticipated.
Harry was to the manor born, and service to country that involves crowns and scepters is serious business. Parachuting out is not considered an option and is rarely ever done. Edward gave up the crown, and it was not such smooth sailing for him or Wallace Simpson.
The concept of "stepping back" as it relates to royals and to women in business was recently explored in this article published in the Washington Post. As pointed out in the article, "Step back is the language of control."
And women lawyers must take control. They must understand personal definitions of success and take pride in the strength it takes to dare to be different.
"Step back" is supported by many women lawyers, who have "stepped back" on the path to partnership and leadership and have come back strong to achieve very prestigious careers. Most of those women will tell you that they do not regret their decisions to take a step back, whether for purposes of childcare or elder care or caring for special needs family members. Or whatever circumstances turn up in their lives and challenge them.
There is not just one plan. There is YOUR PLAN.
It is the plan that works for YOU and is flexible enough to allow for directional change based on the changed circumstances of your life. Because life is life. It happens. And you are up to dealing with it.
So, go out and deal with it. Take control. Exercise your right to choose, and have pride in your choices. You will find it exhilarating and a source of empowerment.
And beware of the feminists who are trying to make you feel ashamed of your choices with their narrow view of choice.
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 third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.
Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.
Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight, Lawyerist.com, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman, Law.com, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business. Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business 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" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016” 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 is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy. For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.
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