Resources Articles The "Family-Friendly" Workplace Is Inadequate

The "Family-Friendly" Workplace Is Inadequate

The Complete Lawyer
Volume 4, Number 2
March 2008

Ultimately, deep change, whether at the personal or the organizational level, is a spiritual process. Loss of alignment occurs when, for whatever reason, we begin to pursue the wrong end. This process begins innocently enough. In pursuing some justifiable end, we make a trade-off of some kind. We know it is wrong, but we rationalize our choice. We use the end to justify the means. As time passes, something inside us starts to wither. We are forced to live at the cognitive level, the rational, goal-seeking level. We lose our vitality and begin to work from sheer discipline. Our energy is not naturally replenished, and we experience no joy in what we do. We are experiencing slow death.1

I define a team as an enthusiastic set of competent people who have clearly defined roles, associated in a common activity, working cohesively in trusting relationships, and exercising personal discipline and making individual sacrifice for the good of the team.2
          -- Robert E. Quinn

In spite of having been a staunch supporter of “family-friendly” workplace policies throughout my career, I have modified my position. Over the past decade I’ve probably spoken with more than 1000 women attorneys and dozens of firms about the biases and barriers stalling the advancement of women in the profession. Stereotyping leads all of us to homogenize members of a group and one thing I’ve learned is that women lawyers have diverse wants.

Are there things that one could fairly say most women lawyers want? Given the stature and depth of understanding of the other contributors to this issue, repeating their descriptions of “the usual suspects” would likely be of little use to readers. And, since unlike most of the other writers, I am not a lawyer, why not offer my outsider’s perspective—the perspective of a psychologist observing the culture of the legal profession? Does this vantage point allow me to say what women lawyers really want? Probably not. But I do think it offers a view of some changes that might actually make things better for the lives and careers of many women attorneys.

Not long ago I received a call from a young woman partner in a small east-coast firm. On the surface Janice had what many male attorneys argue is an ideal situation for a women lawyer. She’d had good experiences and progressed well during her associate years. Both of her children were born since her elevation to partnership and her husband stayed home to care for them.

However, since becoming partner, she’d found herself increasingly isolated at her firm. Never having been mentored in business development, she wasn’t having much success in bringing in new business and each failure left her more demoralized. As a result, her partnership points and thus her compensation had declined steadily over the last few years. The senior male partners who had given her work when she was an associate were giving their work to associates with lower billing rates than Janice’s and were no longer willing to bring her into projects. Janice wondered if an in-house position might fit her better. Unfortunately, there was a paucity of local business with legal departments needing her practice expertise.

Janice felt particularly stuck as her family’s sole breadwinner. The pressure to become a rainmaker was coming both from her firm and her husband. He was reluctant to opt back into the paid workforce himself. He’d never really found his own career niche, so becoming a stay-at-home dad was less of a sacrifice than it was a default decision. But he’d become accustomed to the kind of lifestyle Janice had been able to create for her family as a partner in private practice. He did not want to make the financial sacrifices that would undoubtedly result from a transition to in-house practice. Janice tried to persuade him that although she enjoyed being a lawyer, she missed being more involved in their children’s lives. He argued that Janice was being selfish since her income was essential for the college savings goals they’d set for their children. He also reminded her that the decision to move to a larger house had been a shared reaction to feeling cramped with two young children in their former home and that her income was needed to pay the large mortgage they’d taken on. Janice tried to gently suggest that they could meet their obligations if he got a job but her husband was adamant that childcare costs would consume whatever he could earn and criticized her willingness to put her own wish for a more ideal job ahead of their children’s need to be raised by a parent rather than strangers.

The "Family-Friendly" Workplace Is Inadequate

As bleak as Janice’s dilemma might sound, countless other women lawyers echo many of the elements of her story. Senior male attorneys frequently advise their younger women protégés to have a “house-husband.” After all, a stay-at-home wife has always helped men advance. No doubt Janice would have benefitted from mentoring, especially in business development. Would the flexible schedule panacea have helped Janice? Probably not. Although alternative schedule options certainly have enabled some women to advance where they otherwise might not have, the fact that utilization rates still generally don’t exceed 5% attests to the ongoing stigma attached to them. The expectation that women who reduce their hours present a “flight risk” gets reinforced each time a woman working a flexible schedule “chooses” to “opt out.”

Often this happens after the birth of a second child. Many talented women struggle to make everything work, yet they end up feeling deficient compared to today’s “intensive mothering” standards as well as insufficiently productive, given that the billable hour remains the singular measure of productivity in most firms. They conclude that the complexity of juggling a career and the needs of their two young children is more costly than the diminishing returns. The vast majority of the women I coach (and of women attorneys in general) are members of dual career couples. It is at this ostensible “choice” point that many women defer to their husbands’ careers. The explanation is often that he didn’t have the same flexibility or he had more earning potential. My experience is supported by Pamela Stone’s research3: Somehow it seems to make sense to the majority of two-attorney couples to sacrifice her career.

In spite of having been a staunch supporter of “family-friendly” workplace policies throughout my career, I have modified my position. As currently practiced, they are, for the most part, superficial, piecemeal and ultimately inadequate to enable women lawyers to accomplish their most important goals.

The Goals Of Men And Women Attorneys Diverge

There is some research indicating that the goals of women attorneys may not be the same as those of their male colleagues. A 20044 survey of high-achieving men and women revealed gender differences in career drivers. Men indicated that they were most motivated by financial rewards and the opportunity to advance to positions of greater prestige and power. In contrast, women most wanted the opportunity to work with people they respected, to collaborate with others and be part of a team, and to “be themselves” at work. Women expressed a desire for access to flexible work schedules, but high quality and collaborative work relationships trumped flexibility.

From my “outsider” standpoint, collaboration and teamwork – in addition to flexibility - are what women lawyers most need. And, as difficult as it may be to imagine in the heroic, individual-achievement oriented culture of law, everyone—workplaces, clients, women and men—would benefit.

Teamwork Is Possible-Even In Law Firms

Is it possible? During lunch with a senior male large-firm partner, his newest partner and an associate (both women), they described their practice group’s approach to work. They are a diverse group—roughly evenly split between men and women, multi-cultural, married and single, with and without children. They all share two fundamentals: they enjoy their work and they value their lives beyond work. And they work as a team. I don’t mean “team” they way the term is usually used to describe a group of lawyers who cross-sell and go on client pitches together, or the grouping of attorneys who often compete for the same business but are grouped into practice “teams.” They are a team in the same sense that Robert Quinn defines a team in this article’s epigraph. Each client is introduced to the entire team and the team is responsible for the work of every client. When one lawyer wants to leave at 3:00 pm to attend to her children’s after-school activities, another picks up where she left off. The “night owl” attorney does the late-hours work while the “early morning person” takes over when her colleague is ready for sleep. Although the senior partner loves drafting, he recognizes that junior attorneys need the opportunity to do this work in order to advance, so he defines his role according to the ways in which he can best contribute to the team’s goals: business development and mentoring. They still haven’t worked out all the chinks, but they’re an extremely profitable team and they’re all pretty happy. And they are a breathtaking demonstration of what is possible, “even in a law firm.”

Still, this is only one part of the solution. Women lawyers are too often faced with zero-sum situations: work or family, her career or his. The “choices” made by women lawyers are constrained by the tenacity of traditional gender-role expectations in our culture. “Family-friendly” workplace policies, although necessary, will not remedy inequities at home.

The problem of the “second shift” first described in 1989 by Arlie Hochschild5 has been remarkably resistant to change. Women continue to carry the lion’s share of responsibility not just for home and children, but increasingly for elder care.6 Most of the time, husbands’ contributions continue to be viewed as “help.” Many of the women lawyers I coach complain that, although their husbands are willing to respond to requests to complete specific tasks, what they cannot delegate is the kind of psychological ownership that creates their experience of unremitting responsibility. In fact, women lawyers with stay-at-home husbands frequently have a similar gripe. “Why doesn’t he think to clean up the kitchen?” “Doesn’t he think about planning ahead for baby-sitters and play dates?” Besides, the “stay-at-home-husband” solution is often just another zero-sum formula that maintains all-or-nothing workplace norms.

Create A True Team At Home

How might things be different if husbands and wives (and other family constellations) became true teams? The senior male partner described above expects to train less-experienced team members. What if women provided their partners at home opportunities to gradually take on increasing task ownership? At a forum of male law leaders I attended, many of the men said they gave up trying to take on more responsibility at home because they could never do it well enough for their wives or grew weary of being micro-managed.

Challenging gender-role stereotypes at home is very difficult. Those of us used to carrying the load sometimes fear leaving critical responsibilities to less experienced hands. Perhaps we secretly harbor worries of becoming less necessary. There’s guilt to bear, as well, for failing to live up to gender-role expectations.

It wasn’t easy for women to take their places beside men in the workplace. At home, achieving real teamwork will require ongoing communication, challenging our own assumptions and biases, a great deal of self-honesty, patience, persistence, trusting relationships, making sacrifices for the good of the team and implementing the same teaching, negotiating and management principles women use with their children and in their jobs.

Flexible schedules grafted on to gendered cultures are unlikely to give women lawyers what they really want. To the extent to which male attorneys work “extreme jobs,”7 their wives often bear the burden through down-sized and often sacrificed careers. Part-time work must be de-stigmatized to enable both men and women to take advantage of it. Workplace flexibility must be defined to include career customization, not just short-term reductions in hours worked.8 A collaborative team approach to work would enable individuals to address the changing realities of their non-work lives while continuing to contribute to the overall goals of the team and the organization. The flexibility offered to both men and women by teamwork would create more options for couples to negotiate “shared-care” arrangements at home.9

Janice’s life would be better if she could function as a member of a genuine team, both at home and at work. Collaborative workplace relationships have been shown to increase engagement at work, which in turn leads to better employee health and higher organizational profitability.10 And if, in fact, the careers of women lawyers are more satisfying to the extent to which they have high quality relationships with respected colleagues, then creating more genuine teams may be a solution that benefits all.



1. Quinn, Robert E. (1996) Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series). San Francisco: Jossey Bass, p.78

2. Ibid p.161

3. Stone, Pamela (2007) Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home. Berkeley: University of California Press.

4. ISR (2004) Motivating Men and Women at Work: Relationships vs. Rewards, cited in Hewlett, Sylvia Ann (2007) Off-ramps and On-ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

5. Hochschild, Arlie (1989) The Second Shift. New York: Avon.

6. Harrington, Mona & His, Helen (2007) Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership: A Report of MIT Workplace Center Surveys on Comparative Career Decisions and Attrition Rates of Women and Men in Massachusetts Law Firms. MIT Workplace Center.

7. Hewlett, Sylvia Ann (2007) Off-ramps and On-ramps: Keeping Talented Women on the Road to Success. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

8. Benko, Cathleen & Weisberg, Anne (2007) Mass Career Customization: Aligning the Workplace With Today's Nontraditional Workforce. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

9. See Third Path

10. Rath, Tom (2006) Vital Friends: The People You Can't Afford to Live Without. New York: Gallup Press.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach LLC, a firm providing professional development, career, business development and executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers. Known for her expertise on issues of particular concern to women lawyers, her email newsletter, Beyond the Billable Hour™ has been reprinted by 25 different bar association publications and many other print and electronic legal publications. She has addressed the ABA, NAWL, NALP, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and numerous state and women's bar associations. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Rochester, received her certification in coaching from the MentorCoach™ program and currently serves on their faculty.


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