Wallflower is a 3L at NYU School of Law
It's hard to imagine any law student making it out of law school without being bombarded with talk about the extended hours attorneys work and the difficulty many have in maintaining both a happy home life and a successful career. Long hours, stressful working conditions, and having little time for social lives are challenges most attorneys face. In my experience, however, the work-life balance issue is most often discussed as a problem that primarily affects women or parents, and in my opinion, this does a disservice to all attorneys.
During my 2L interview process, seven of the eight firms with which I had callback interviews emphasized how woman-friendly the firm was. At these seven firms, I had face time with female partners; at one of them, two of the three partner interviews and all of the associate interviews were with women. Also at these seven firms, I heard about policies regarding flex-time and part-time opportunities (brought up without prompting from me), pro bono programs, and mentoring programs for female attorneys.
What bothered me about this emphasis – or perceived emphasis – on my sex was not that firms are trying to recruit and retain female attorneys. Considering the discrimination women in law firms have traditionally faced, that firms are now actively trying to recruit and retain women is a laudable goal. Although attempting to show me that ample opportunities are available for women by giving me face time with more women than men was painfully obvious, I appreciated efforts the firm made to emphasize career opportunities. Providing information on the number of women partners, on advancement and promotion, and mentoring programs are positive ways firms can indicate they support women in the workplace.
What bothered me, and continues to bother me, is the likelihood that male candidates did not receive the same unsolicited information about flex-time opportunities. Anecdotal evidence may not be worth much, scientifically speaking, but none of my male law school friends said they had similar interviewing experiences, whereas the majority of my female law school friends did. Female candidates are receiving different kinds of information than male candidates: information focused not on the deals they'll learn to make or the cases they'll learn to litigate, but on how they'll be able to work from home or work less. To me, this is evidence of the persistence of that same old tired and outdated perception that women are less focused on their careers than men, and that what female attorneys – but not male attorneys – really want is to spend less time at the office and more time with their families.
The idea that work-life balance is a women's issue is not a view shared only by some isolated members of large law firms. At NYU last fall, an attorney spoke on the struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. That the sponsoring group brought in a male attorney to speak on this issue, rather than a female, was a choice lambasted by some students on the school-wide list serve. One student suggested that a married male attorney would have no trouble maintaining a work-life balance, since he would focus on work and leave home and child care to his wife. Such an argument perpetuates the other side of the “women are more family-oriented” stereotype: the stereotype that men care only about, or primarily about, their careers, and are uninterested in involvement at home and with their families.
Work-life balance is not solely a women's issue. Nor is it solely a parent's issue. Characterizing it as a women's issue does nothing more than reinforce the outmoded ideas that women care less about their careers than men and that men are less interested in family life than women. Characterizing it as a parent's issue cheapens the value of the childless person's home and social lives, as though the out-of-work commitments of the person without children are worth less simply because they don't involve offspring. All attorneys – male and female – want interesting and challenging work assignments. And all attorneys – male and female – want time off from work, time to watch a movie with friends, to play chess with their daughter or Scrabble with their son, to cuddle with their lover, to just turn off the damn Blackberry and relax for awhile.
The struggle to have a happy home life and successful career is not isolated in any one class of attorneys. The issue is not about women or men or parents; it's about the brutal hours all of us face, and how to cope. If work-life balance is seen as only a women's problem by those in management, it perpetuates outdated ideas about women in the workplace. When we, women, allow the problem to be seen as primarily a women's problem, however, we ignore the similar issues faced by men and alienate a class of valuable allies in the fight for all attorneys to have a healthy balance between work and out-of-work commitments.