At 4 p.m. each day, I stroll my one-year-old son to the nearest Central Park playground. While pushing him on the baby swings, I often chat with other mothers doing the same, exchanging children’s names, ages, and number of teeth. The conversation inevitably turns to what we did before spending afternoons blowing bubbles, singing “The Wheels on the Bus,” and preventing the ingestion of old leaves and puddle water.
“I used to be a lawyer,” I explain. And fairly frequently, the other mother says, “Oh, me too.”
These past-tense lawyers—women who leave large corporate law firms, often in conjunction with having children—are nothing new. Though women make up 45 percent of associates in private practice, they represent only 20 percent of partners, according to statistics compiled by the American Bar Association. And the National Association of Law Placement Foundation reports that two-thirds of female associates will leave their firms within five years.
As described in a recent report from the University of California Hastings School of the Law, the flight of women from law firms is explained in part by the failure of traditional firms to deliver the flexible schedules that mothers—and most lawyers in general—want. Unlike older generations of working mothers, Gen Xers and Millennials have more of an expectation that work can and should sometimes yield to family time and other commitments.“Many [corporate] lawyers are able to be home at 7 or 8 to put their kids to bed, but then they log back on and are working until midnight,” says Lauren Pearlman, an attorney and the owner of Pearlman Career Counseling. “Sure, it’s flexible, but it’s not work-life balance.”