Saturday, June 23, 2012

Balancing Career and Family - Just Go Wth Your Gut

In the last 29 years, I have represented a lot of women in discrimination cases.  Not one has mentioned to me that she is having a hard time balancing work/life issues.  By the time these women get to me, they are just trying to survive.  However, we professional women constantly bemoan the perceived career/family balancing issue, not realizing how fortunate we are to have both families and careers. 

Since I started the practice of law, women's roles have changed. For crying out loud, Title IX is 40 years old.  I am at the Missouri Association of Trial Lawyers convention and there are more women on the board than ever, in this still male-dominated field.  A friend of mine is now head of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers and I know women who have headed the trial bars in Ohio and Indiana.  I am sure there are many more. I am watching a dynamic woman talk about SUV rollover cases.  The plaintiffs' trial bar has been one of the last bastions of testosterone domination, and, after practicing in this area for 29 years, I can finally see a real influx of gutsy women taking risks and trying cases. 

Yet, after all this time, what is leading the New York Times most e-mailed articles page is an article talking about how hard it is for women to balance careers and families, reminiscent of the discussions prominent during my lawyer puppydom.  What is going on?  Men have had careers and families for years, but I suspect many of them may have neglected family in favor of career.  

I long ago thought about this issue, balancing a desire to be a trial lawyer and my need to be the best mother I could be, under the circumstances I chose.  When my son was born in 1978, I wanted to stay home and be a housewife, but my husband and I decided that we could not afford it. I was working as a claims representative at the Social Security Administration, a job that I had come to detest and I was just 26 years old. Around then, I also decided to see if I could get in law school, and, lo and behold, I did.  Even though we thought we could not afford my becoming a full-time mom, when I got into law school, I quit my job and did not earn money for the first year.  We survived.  Priorities. 

My son was a year old when I started law school.  Many fellow students questioned how I could be a mother and devote enough time to study.  Actually, it was easy.  My husband worked evenings and I had to pick my son up no later than 6:00 p.m.  What I did was arise at 5:30 a.m. To get to the law school to study all morning and I always left school by 5:00 p.m. sharp.  I studied all day on Sundays, when my husband was home from work.  What did I give up?  Mainly, I gave up going to parties and the local law school watering hole. It was not a hard decision to make, either to spend time partying and neglecting my son, or to spend precious time reading to, playing with and enjoying my darling baby.  As law school progressed, I took my boy to school with me and he made friends with my classmates.  One of the first time I remember my son grappling with gender issues was when he declared, "Boys do laundry and girls study." I was careful to dissuade him of his observation.  I replied,"oh, boys can also study."

At the time I graduated, I had decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer, and my son was four years old.   My family was important to me, so on my resume I included being a wife and mother.  In retrospect, I see how I misjudged the mindset of male trial lawyers at the time. Time after time, in interviews, the man questioning me said, "How do you expect to be a trial lawyer and a mother, too.". Having never been a trial lawyer before, I really had no response.  What I did was start my own firm and after a couple of years I joined a small firm where I could bring in my son and attend to both of my passions. 

In 1984, my husband and I made another life-changing decision, to have another baby.  And this time, in 1985, we were blessed with a little girl.  From the time she was a couple of weeks old, I brought her to my office while I worked. When she was in child-care, I decided to do what has become in vogue today, I expressed breast milk during the day for her consumption later. Back then, there was no special room to use and no motorized pumps. Dutifully, I went into the bathroom with my manual contraption and strengthened my hand muscles manually seeking to provide nourishment for my baby.  When my daughter was three or so years old, I brought her to work with me. She heard the lawyer in the next room on the phone.  "Who is that," she asked me.  "That's Mario. He's a lawyer," I replied. She looked at me incredulously, "A boy lawyer???"

Through the years I took my kids on business trips, to depositions, to court. I remember when, to my embarrassment, Tony Orlando's lawyer had to tell my daughter to be quiet in a deposition, and the other lawyer's remark was merited. Back then, I went with my gut and took my kids where I wanted to take them. I didn't care what the other side thought.  My job is not to placate opposing counsel.  I did what I thought was best. 

In 1995, Marie Gockel, my law school buddy, and I set up our own firm.  The day we moved in, all of us, our husbands, our kids and our employees were there, helping to assemble the furniture and arrange the offices.  That day, my daughter discovered the intercom on the phones. Throughout the day, her voice rang through the office, "Clean up in aisle 6, clean up on aisle 6." Everyone chuckled. My kids are grown now.  I think they survived me being a trial lawyer just fine. 

I read the articles in the New York Times bemoaning the difficulties in getting ahead and having a family. The author proudly states she left a high level job in Washington to be home with her teenage boys and work as a college dean.  She had been in her Washington job, away from her families during the week for two years and finally decided it was more important to be in the same city with her minor children.   Well, duh.  I don't think either a mother or a father can be an involved parent when living in a different city from one's children. Not a hard decision in my view. 

Most of this parenting/career stuff requires merely going with your gut.  If your employer wants you to act "like a man" and work 100 hours a week, quit. It's not worth it, for men or women.  The issue is simply understanding who you are, what you want, and not being bullied by others with screwed up priorities.  If a job requires all of your time, it is not worth the effort.  

Of course, when I was preparing for and in trial, my family would say, "Don't talk to mom, she's in 'trial mode.'" However, trial mode only happened a couple of times a year.  During trial, I had to tune out everything else.  You cannot be a good trial lawyer any other way, in my opinion.  I missed my son's first day of kindergarten because I was in trial.  But, if you add up the number of days I was in trial in any given year, it would probably be considerably less than a month. That is the family sacrifice I made to be a trial lawyer. However, most days I was there as both a mom and a trial lawyer, and it worked out. 

So, my advice to young women, and men, who want to balance careers and families, is go with your gut.  You don't have to work for monsters in order to feel professionally fulfilled.  You don't have to be the best housekeeper or work the most hours.  Just go with your gut. Trust yourself. 

1 comment:

  1. Lynn you hit the nail on the head! I read that article as well and was impressed with her whining. So unbecoming of a university professor and former Washington wonkette.