Last month I spent four hours looking for the perfect birthday gift for my daughter’s friend, a Korean American girl, who was turning 2. I researched all kinds of toys, books, and T-shirts, trying to find something that the child would love. An Asian baby doll was a possibility, but I hadn’t seen any in our local stores. When I finally found “Yang,” I thought I was set. Then I saw that she was $32, over the $25 price ceiling the invitees had been asked to observe. Plus, the optional mealtime set (bottles, bib, tiny spoons) seemed essential at $22. I was up to $54.
But after you’ve labored in the world of billable hours, you start to do those lawyer calculations. How much is my time worth? Should I spend another hour to save $30? I’ve already done the research and found the ideal present. I bought the doll and the feeding set.
Like me, a significant number of women lawyers with premium credentials stop working as attorneys once they have kids and devote their considerable skills to parenting and domestic tasks. In the fall, the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business published a study of Harvard University women undergraduates who pursue professional degrees that found that, of those who go to law school, 21 percent elect to stay home with their kids.
But when they do so, the qualities that enabled them to succeed in law don’t suddenly become dormant. Rather, the focus and intensity get directed elsewhere. They run parent associations, sit on nonprofit boards, and manage community activities. These women intended to step back from their high-intensity careers, but they can’t completely let go of their former selves.
Andrea Wolfe, a former big-firm litigator in New York, told me: “Sometimes I find myself at the kitchen table with pen, computer, and three notepads, summarizing and organizing the mothering tasks, while my 2-year-old pulls at my sleeve begging to play. But I can’t tear myself away. I create complexity where it doesn’t exist. But in the end, even if it’s not always ideal, it’s really important to me to be home with my kids.”
Susan Whoriskey left a big firm in New York ten years ago. She does legal work for nonprofits on a volunteer basis, but mostly she’s taking care of her home life. “The kids are in school for a big chunk of the day, and you make yourself busy because that’s how you’re programmed. You make giant to-do lists and pour yourself into projects that are not always necessary,” she says.
Even if every task isn’t necessary, for lawyer-moms, the need to accomplish can pervade every activity. Robin van Es, an attorney in Los Angeles who has been in and out of the workforce for the past nine years, talks matter-of-factly about the way a lawyer manages a household: “In my job, I was always striving for perfection, so when I had the time, why wouldn’t I do the same thing in my home life?” She recalls spending an inordinate amount of time shopping for a Halloween costume. “Why settle for the fairy wings that come with the costume when you know you can get something better?”
Much has been said about the difficulties for women of balancing law and family. But even a stay-at-home lawyer can create imbalance by overlawyering her home life. We’ve changed spheres, and the nature of the problems we confront has shifted. But we rely on the methods we know best to get the high-level results we still crave. We produce cupcakes in the same way that we ran litigations and corporate deals.
Kate Neville, an attorney who founded Neville Career Consulting to assist lawyers in career transitions, has a client base that includes stay-at-home lawyers looking to return to the workforce: “They come to me thinking that they have nothing professional to show for their time off, and I point out that running a school auction that raised $800,000 is the kind of job that other people get paid for.”
For some stay-at-home lawyers, managing a household can at times be unfulfilling. Perhaps that’s why most of them plan to return to work at some point. Harvard Law School just released a survey of its women graduates, suggesting that, of those who leave the workforce, only 22 percent don’t plan to go back.
And sometimes the best due diligence doesn’t pay off. When my daughter and I got to the party, the birthday girl already had a Yang doll. Another mother had been quicker on the assignment. Must have been a lawyer.
Elana Sigall teaches at Columbia Law School and Columbia Teachers College, consults for nonprofit organizations, and makes pretty good cupcakes.