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Why do the women keep leaving? Sure, we all know the statistics — just 17 percent of law-firm partners are women, a figure that’s been stuck in the same place for years. And we know that in many ways the structure of law firms is about as practical for women with families as a diaper bag flung over the shoulder of a Prada suit and about as flexible as a toddler having a temper tantrum in the Safeway checkout line. But the reasons for women leaving the law are not always straightforward. Often they find themselves on a meandering path that brings them to places they never imagined in their early days — writing children’s books, wrangling cows, or leading visitors through an art museum. Of course, it’s not so shocking to see people make course corrections when they realize they’re better suited for other things. After all, folks tend to start their careers when they’re young and foolish. The reasons people go to law school can vary, but they’re often terrible ones: Maybe they want some sort of vaguely defined politics-and-policy job. Maybe they were the star of the debate team in high school. Or maybe they were just the kind of student who got top grades and wanted a profession but couldn’t stand the sight of blood. And then they start practicing law, and they realize, like many others, that they had no idea what they had signed up for. And they don’t much like it. It helps, of course, if they live in a household with more than one salary, so that they have a cushion while they’re figuring out the next step. The stories of these six women do not offer a full explanation, but they shed some light on why the traditional practice of law isn’t working for many women. They offer insight into ways that at least some of them might be lured back — and why some never will. HER STORIES •�Earlier in her life, Judy Pomerantz, 56, was a busy international trade lawyer, working for the Commerce Department in its International Trade Administration. But after about a dozen years, Pomerantz decided she’d had enough of the law: “I wanted to write, I wanted to do some art stuff, and I thought that I just want to do the stuff I want to do.” With her husband’s blessing (and the life raft provided by his job), she became a volunteer docent at the National Gallery of Art — a tour that’s lasted 18 years now. That experience pushed her into art in a more serious way, and she began writing weekly art reviews for newspapers. She also earned a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University, and today Pomerantz teaches fiction in Georgetown University’s Continuing Education Division. She’s had some publishing success: Her novella, On the Far Edge of Love: New York Stories, has just appeared in serial form in �lan magazine, which bills itself as “celebrating the good life in Northern Virginia.” Pomerantz “didn’t dislike” the law when she was doing it, she says, “but at the same time, I have not missed it for a second.” •�Debbie Levy, 50, actually began her career in journalism. But then she decided to try law school at the University of Michigan, although she says she didn’t go “with a very well-formed idea of what I was going to do when I became a lawyer.” Levy ended up at what was then Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (and which today is WilmerHale). “I have really good things to say about the law firm and judgmental things to say about myself,” she says. “I didn’t really think about what it was going to be like for me as a lawyer.” The truth was that although she was an “OK” associate, “I wasn’t completely in love with practicing law — that’s maybe the easiest way to put it.” While on maternity leave after she had her first child, she decided to move back into journalism, ending up at Legal Times. Eventually she wanted to spend more time at home with her school-age children, she says. She left the paper and started writing freelance articles focused on parenting issues and then books for children. Today, she’s got 14 books under her belt and three more in the works, including a middle-school novel and a book of poetry for children. She thinks she’s found her calling: “That’s the �door number three’ that I was meant to open.” •�Susan Green, 47, went to Yale Law School to defend trade unions. After Yale, where she helped run a campaign to organize clerical and technical workers at the university, she worked for a time as a union lawyer. She worked at the Labor Department. And then she started advising Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on labor issues. It was while she was in Kennedy’s office that she had an epiphany about legal work. She was helping lawyers from the AFL-CIO prepare a Supreme Court brief and watching them become more and more immersed in the minutiae of the case. She asked, “But where are the talking points?” Green realized that although these lawyers could parse the details of a case coming before the Court, they were missing the larger issues. “It just kind of hit me like a ton of bricks — that I had made a significant change in the way I looked at work, and it was basically overnight.” Green decided that instead of practicing law, her true place was in public-policy jobs where she could make those larger points. More recently, Green took some time off to help her elderly father and is now looking for work. •�Maria Ramos, 44, has an activist background. Her grandmother was a union organizer, and her mother was involved with the women’s movement and the Black Panthers. So, naturally, Ramos wanted to go to law school, she says, “to learn how to fight for justice.” By the time she was immersed in the study of law at the University of Pennsylvania, though, she realized that “law school has nothing to do with justice.” Even so, facing $60,000 in debt at graduation, she decided to take a law-firm job. She lasted exactly 50 weeks. “I really had hoped to stay for a year, and I couldn’t make it,” she says. “I was representing tobacco companies who were being sued for cancer.” Ramos moved around from job to job, working for a couple of months as a cowgirl in New Mexico, then living with her sister and writing “depressing poems.” Finally, she discovered her niche in helping organizations with dispute mediation and sexual-harassment training. Today, Ramos works a part-time schedule from home so she can spend more hours with her children, ages 2 and 4. “The thing that’s most important to me,” she says, “is my freedom and my independence.” •�Kate Neville, 40, has spent a good part of her career going on informational interviews and getting hired at the end of them. When she graduated from Harvard Law School, she had a law-firm job offer in hand along with a kind of restless interest in a potpourri of fields: philosophy, public policy, education, academia. She worked for the Democratic National Committee. She worked for nonprofits, government offices, and education groups. She taught. She did some management consulting. Today, she works from home as a management consultant, balancing her work with time for her 5-year-old twins. Thanks to a temporary stint at Georgetown University Law Center’s career center, she’s also realized that there’s a need for someone to help young lawyers figure out their options. The students would tell her that they didn’t want to join a big firm because they wanted to have a family. “I would tell them that a lot of public interest organizations work you to death, too.” But she did notice the dearth of resources to guide young people. Next month, Neville plans to start a consulting business for lawyers making transitions, both within law and from law to other fields. ABOUT THE HOURS •�Although many women who’ve left the law are loath to assign blame, Lauren Drake, 38, is quite clear that the structure of law-firm life drove her out. And she has one core complaint: billable hours. “I have found that the key to being a truly successful professional working mom is efficiency. I am a highly efficient worker, and I can juggle a lot of things at once,” Drake says. But law firms, she says, are designed not so much to complete tasks as to bill hours. “I felt that something I’m really good at is turnaround time, and I did not feel there was any reward for that,” she says. “The reward was more work. I didn’t see how I could ever get to the point where I was so good at my job that I could manage it all. The point was the hours.” Drake today works as a practice manager for the D.C. office of McKinsey & Co., an international consulting firm. It’s the perfect job for her right now. She works from home two days a week (her husband, she says, has a less-demanding but also full-time job), and the family has dinner together each night at 6. After the kids go to bed, Drake is often back on her computer. She loves the flexibility. “It works for me for two reasons,” she says. “First, I’m not working toward some artificial number. I have work to do, and I get it done. Second, my firm is extremely flexible with me and how I get my work done.” For Drake, the message is simple: If the legal world were set up differently, she might still be there. For now, though, “that’s not a satisfying way to live my life or to manage my career.” And although not every woman would stay in the law even if law firms offered on-site day-care centers, the option of working from home, and less pressure to rack up the hours, it’s still a message that law firms might want to ponder.
Balancing Act, a column exploring the lives of women in the law, appears in Legal Times each month. Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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