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Debunking Some Work/Family Balance Myths (May 2005)


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Debunking Some Work/Family Balance Myths

Issue # 38
May 2005


...the meaningful question is neither "What do women and men want?" nor "What do families want?" but, instead: "In a much changed world -- one where women are fully valued as earners and men as carers, where employment arrangements enable workers to combine employment and parenting, where public policies provide critical supports and incentives for both women and men -- would women and men choose differentiated engagements in earning and caring, up through and including their children's teenage years?" In our view, the answer to that question constitutes a classic counterfactual; in today's socially constructed and highly constrained world, it simply cannot be answered. If public policies that support and facilitate a gender egalitarian earner/carer society were adopted, implemented, and sustained for a long period of time, we might be able to uncover what it is that women and men -- and families -- "really want" in relation to earning and caring.

Marcia Meyers and Janet Gornick [1]

A search on Google for "work/family balance" produced 160,000 results in 0.19 seconds -- obviously this is a "hot" issue and almost everyone has something to say. A recent spate of books, including Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety [2] and Mary Lou Quinlan's Time Off for Good Behavior [3] have captured the attention of readers and media and generated considerable controversy.

If you were ever to have the time to read all of these resources, would they make your life easier? Should you heed Sylvia Ann Hewlett's [4] warning that devoting your energy to establishing your legal career before you shift focus to family may leave you alone and childless? Might you be better off concluding that, although gender barriers in the workplace are a thing of the past, you'd be happier "opting out," as asserted by Lisa Belkin [5]?

Although I've been coaching attorneys in efforts to achieve work/family balance and gender equity in their personal lives and in their workplaces for many years, I've recently been receiving questions from college grads and individuals pursuing second careers wondering if they should even bother to enter the profession, given their understanding that life and a legal career are mutually exclusive.

To the extent to which there is an increasing sense of hopelessness and frustration about the possibilities for work/life balance in the law, I'd like to select from among the many myths I encounter and set the record straight on a few.

MYTH: There is no such thing as work/life balance in the law.

REALITY: A prominent woman lawyer for whom I have great respect made this assertion just after I'd finished giving a speech about how to work toward balance in your legal career. Her comments stopped me in my tracks - she was suggesting that holding out the hope for balance was misleading and potentially damaging. Could I have it all wrong? After all, she was the experienced lawyer.

After careful consideration, a re-examination of the research and conversations with friends and colleagues who also are experienced attorneys and experts on the issue, this is what I concluded: It depends upon what you mean by "balance."

"Balance" is not a state you can achieve. I liken it to a child's punching bag - it gets knocked down but, because it's weighted is the center, it always bounces back.

I've seen women attorneys achieve a flexible schedule that allows them to be as actively involved in parenting as they like without sacrificing their professional goals. But from time to time, when they get overloaded with work and spend less time at home, their carefully crafted balance is upset. Since life always has a way of interfering with our best conceived plans, this neither seems surprising nor catastrophic. After the trial is over or the deal is completed they take a moment to reflect, realize they've veered off course, and make a course correction.

I'm also convinced that balance cannot be measured from the outside. I remember a time in my own life when I received compliments for how well I balanced work, parenting, taking care of myself and being active in the community. The truth was that I felt extraordinarily stressed. My inner state was anything but harmonious.

In focusing on gender differences, we sometimes lose sight of the diversity that exists within each gender. I've coached mothers who happily work long hours and travel extensively but set aside time for long family vacations. These shared experiences become part of their family's narrative and keep family bonds strong. Their children do not feel neglected and these mothers are satisfied with the balance they've achieved.

At the same time I've coached fathers who long for more time with their children but fear the consequences of asking for a flexible schedule. They work just enough to meet their firm's billable hours expectations and make it home for family dinner on most evenings. They protect their weekends from the intrusion of work. Certainly, their lives appear to others to be far more balanced than many other partners at their firms. But they constantly worry that they are not contributing enough to their firms even as they long for more day-to-day involvement with their families.

Although most large firms have some kind of flexible schedule policy, many attorneys who've taken advantage of the opportunity to reduce work hours find themselves penalized for their efforts to balance. Frequently, the opportunities to do challenging work vanish, and therefore, so do the chances of career success.

But recently I've heard some encouraging stories from lawyer-moms working as associates in such firms. Working for (male) partners who value their own family lives, these women receive great work assignments. At the same time, these partners take care not to overload these lawyer- moms with excessive work that would tip the balance.

There are attorneys at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C. who have been promoted to partnership while working a reduced hours schedule. And for attorneys at this firm, "life" doesn't necessarily mean "family." The desire to pursue a musical avocation or to contribute to the community is treated as an equally legitimate rationale for a balanced- hours schedule.

Women State Supreme Court Justices have written to tell me that they've never worked more than three days a week. Most recently a new kind of law firm seems to be emerging - founded by lawyers who are as committed to service excellence as they are to work/life balance, these firms are demonstrating that they can be profitable and still support their attorneys' aspirations to have a full life outside of the law.

Can you have it all? At any one time, of course not. There are always choices and trade-offs. But there's a huge difference between feeling as if you have real choices to make vs. having to choose from two equally unacceptable options.

MYTH: Work/family balance is a women's issue.

REALITY: When workplace demands make it impossible to create a meaningful life outside of work, everyone suffers. Excessive work demands, chronic stress, role conflict and the absence of supportive connections both within and outside of the workplace are risk factors for burnout. Research indicates that the combination of a lack of control or flexibility and overburdening work demands present the highest risk for this state of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, disengagement and feelings of ineffectiveness. Burnout is associated with absenteeism, attrition, low morale, increased health care costs and poorer work products. Burned out individuals often become depressed and/or develop substance abuse problems.

The inability to sustain a reasonable balance between work and family has enormous social costs for families - and especially for children. In addition, overwork makes community service and pro bono work - long valued by the legal profession - all but impossible.

Current research indicates that both men and women want a reasonably flexible balance between work and family. Surveys show that increasing numbers of men would prefer to trade off financial compensation for time with family.

Furthermore, the graying of America means that increasing numbers of attorneys will be faced with the care needs of aging parents and other relatives in addition to children.

MYTH: Women are more natural "carers" than are men.

REALITY: Ever since the Industrial Revolution, when "work" moved from the home to the factory, men have been relegated to the workplace where they assumed the role of breadwinner while a "woman's place" was to protect the home from the "evils" of the commercial world. But these divisions are social constructions. Boys and girls may be socialized to fit within these norms, but that does not demonstrate that men and women have "naturally" different inclinations toward working and caring.

There is no unbiased way to test assumptions about gender differences in preferences for, or "natural" inclinations toward, caring vs. earning under current circumstances.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, mothers and fathers not only worked side by side in the field along with their children, but both parents cared for their offspring. In fact, during the early stages of industrialization, women and children worked in factories as well.

Child labor laws and nationalized education removed children from the factories, but unmarried women continued to work outside the home. Married women increased their participation in the paid workforce during World War I and this trend increased through the second World War.

The idealized image of the stay-at-home mom of the 50s is an historical aberration. Since then, women's labor force participation has steadily increased.

In 1970, 51% of couples remained in the male breadwinner model. By 2000, dual-earner families represented almost 60% of married couples.

With these changes has come an increasing conflict between the demands of family life and how legal work is structured. Both mothers and fathers suffer from this time bind.

The number of single-parent families headed by a father is increasing faster than any other type of family composition. In addition, younger men consistently report a greater desire to be actively involved as caregivers to their children than did their fathers.

Ongoing research about "shared care" [6] demonstrates how children can thrive and both parents can achieve their professional aspirations when mothers and fathers equally share parenting.

MYTH: The best lawyers are those willing and able to make work their number one priority, at all times and under all conditions.

REALITY: A shared reality facing the increasing number of dual-earner and single-parent families is that neither can rely on an unpaid caretaker to attend to home and family concerns.

The transformation from male-breadwinner to dual- career marriages has not been accompanied by changes in how work is structured. Limitless devotion to hours continues to be a proxy for competence and commitment. It is still the case that when work and family demands collide, women more often than men tend to decrease their involvement at work. But clearly this does not mean that the parent who remains at work full time is necessarily the more talented lawyer. With roughly half of newly graduated attorneys being women, how will legal employers recruit and "keep the keepers" without addressing fundamental assumptions and changing inflexible workplace structures?

MYTH: Legal work demands long hours.

REALITY: Studies of transformations in workplace and family demographics and changes in workplace demands consistently point to the economic motivations for employers to require employees to overwork. [7]

Overwork and the time famine primarily effect the most highly educated, professional workers in dual-career marriages.

The 40-hour work week was established in 1938 by the Fair Labor Standards Act under very different conditions than exist now. The professional and managerial workforce has grown significantly while the male breadwinner family has dwindled. Since employers are not required to pay overtime to professionals who work extra hours, requiring overtime is increasingly advantageous to employers concerned with profits. As the costs of benefits has risen, it is less expensive for an employer to supply benefits to people whose billings/hour far exceed their earnings/hour.

Many lawyer-moms tell me that the partners with whom they work suggest that the only route to success for them is to have their husbands stay home full time.

The idea that work can be restructured so that both parents can achieve a reasonable balance of work and family seems foreign and impossible. Normally creative people don't seek creative solutions.

This resistance to change is predictable; people tend to believe that the way things are is the way they have to be. It's easy to forget that the way things are now constituted a change from what came before.

There are a number of alternative work models all of which have been demonstrated to allow for the highest quality legal work and excellent client service. These include flexible schedules with no penalties for those who use them, job sharing, effective off-and on-ramps [8], telecommuting, and law firms with significantly lower billable hour targets.

Myth: Lawyers who work more hours are necessarily more available to clients.

Reality: Data collected by the Project for Attorney Retention [9] indicate that reduced-hours schedules rarely create a problem for clients. Lawyers working reduced hours can check email and voicemail on a regular basis whether they're in the office or out. There are no indications that clients care where the lawyer calling them back happens to be at the time of the call.

In reality, no lawyer serves only one client, unless they work in house. Lawyers who choose to work longer hours are likely to find themselves with even more work, which reduces the time they can spend with any individual client.

MYTH: Working mothers neglect their children relative to stay-at-home moms.

REALITY: Research indicates that working mothers spend approximately the same amount of time with their children as mothers who choose to be home full time.

Furthermore, there's no evidence that a working mother harms a child; similarly, children raised by multiple caretakers also don't suffer. In fact, children benefit when their mothers are satisfied with the balance they create between work and family.

According to many experts, the assertions that a "good mother" should stay home full time, or that only a mother's care benefits a child, or that working mothers neglect their children reflect efforts at social control more than any empirical evidence.

MYTH: Women who choose to have children have simply made a choice to limit their careers. It's their problem.

REALITY: The choices that women (and all parents) make are always limited by the social context in which the choice is made. As long as a person's ability and willingness to sacrifice everything for work is viewed as the correct measure of commitment and competence, then any parent - male or female - who decides to work less than mandatory overtime will sacrifice her/his career.

When the combined working hours of a couple exceed 100 hours/week, women often feel pulled from work. Socialized to be "caregivers," it's difficult for women not to feel responsible for the limitations imposed on family life by this degree of mandatory overtime. Clearly, defining competence and commitment in this way disadvantages women more than men.

But it's important to know that most of these women would prefer the flexibility to balance both family and work, rather than having to choose between the two. So often, the women who "opt out" have been pushed away from work - not pulled away by family - by the actions that arise from these workplace assumptions. Expectations that women are less committed to work and will leave anyway often lead to reduced opportunities for career success. In the absence of realistic alternatives, opting out may become a forced choice.

Furthermore, the notion that breadwinning fathers should not have to choose between work and family, but women - whose "rightful place is in the home" - must make this choice, is blatantly discriminatory. And as much as we'd all like to think that these ideas have faded away, many women lawyers still hear these messages all too clearly.

MYTH: Requests for changes in how work is structured are simply the demands of an "entitled" generation.

REALITY: Of course, all employees needs to demonstrate their value to their employer before requesting limits on their contribution. Some young attorneys may be guilty of failing to approach the issue with political savvy. But keep in mind that if legal workplaces were already restructured to allow for easier integration of work and family, these requests would not seem so "deviant."

MYTH: If women leave the workplace to stay home with their children, there's no valid reason to have an "on ramp" for their return.

REALITY: Recent research reported by Sylvia Ann Hewlett [8] debunks this myth. As she points out, the absence of on ramps results in a huge "brain drain" of talented women from the legal workplace.

Are male lawyers returning from military duty in Iraq finding themselves without jobs or with 20% or greater pay cuts? Certainly, this was not the case for most men returning from active duty after World War II.

MYTH: If you can't find balance in your current workplace, the legal profession is not for you.

REALITY: Many of the women lawyers who ask me to coach them begin with the assumption that all legal workplaces are the same, and that if they've been unable to get support for flexibility where they are, they simply need to change professions.

I often wonder how many talented women the profession loses due to this belief.

Some lawyers really do need to change professions -- not simply because of the inflexibility of their workplaces, but because their interests, values, strengths and work style are better suited to another profession. But many have not yet discovered the diversity of options within the profession. As I coach them to explore alternatives, they often find employers who value work/family balance as much as they do and offer opportunities to do interesting, challenging work and to achieve whatever level of success they choose. They realize that they didn't need to leave the law at all -- they just needed to leave an inflexible employer.

MYTH: Legal workplaces will never change enough to make work/family balance a reality.

REALITY: Many of the current regulations protecting workers once seemed impossible. Although the kind of work redesign necessary to make such balance accessible to all attorneys may seem impractical, history indicates otherwise.

My own personal belief is that the only way desired changes won't come about is if we all throw up our hands and stop trying.


1. Meyers, Marcia K. & Gornick, Janet C. (2003) Public or private responsibility? Inequality and early childhood education and care in the welfare state. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 34 (3), 379-411. Cited in Jacobs, Jerry A. & Gerson, Kathleen (2004) The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p.231.

2. Warner, Judith (2005). Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. New York: Riverhead Books.

3. Quinlan, Mary Lou (2005). Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives. New York: Broadway Books.

4. Hewlett, Sylvia Ann (2002). Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. New York: Miramax.

5. Belkin, Lisa (2003). The opt-out revolution. The New York Times, Sunday, October 26, Section 6, p. 42.

6. see The Third Path Institute at

7. Jacobs, Jerry A. & Gerson, Kathleen (2004). The Time Divide: Work, Family and Gender Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

8. Hewlett, Sylvia Ann & Luce, Carolyn Buck (2005). Off-ramps and on-ramps: Keeping talented women on the road to success. Harvard Business Review, March, 43-54.

9. Williams, Joan C. & Calvert, Cynthia Thomas (2004). Solving the Part-Time Puzzle: The Law Firm's Guide to Balanced Hours. Chicago: NALP.

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