The Legal “Fast Track” and Feminism

This Careerist article about women who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993 contends that women who step off the law firm “fast-track” have been derailed and may be “anti-feminist.”  This is startling news to me, a 1999 graduate of Harvard Law School who stepped off the fast-track.  I’m as dedicated a feminist as ever, and far from feeling derailed, I’m happier than ever.

The thesis of the article is that “some of the brightest [female] legal minds in the country” can’t or choose not to hack it on the legal “fast-track,” generally because they prefer to focus more on their children and feel they can’t do both.  The article bemoans the low rate of Harvard women who are partners in firms and calls it “astonishing” that 60% of the women who graduated Harvard Law in 1993 have “dropped out of the fast track.”

I am more astonished that more men haven’t left the law firm “fast track.”  At mainstream corporate law firms, the fast track is an outdated, inhumane, pressure cooker system, and I just can’t believe that many of the men on that track aren’t wishing they could hop off themselves.

I got to where Chen wants women like me to be: I made partner (although I did it at a smaller and far friendlier, more humane public interest firm).  And then I gave it up.  I am now a part-time independent contractor for the same firm and spend the rest of my time writing, for one reason: that is what I want to do.  I work from home, I’m doing what I love, and I have never been happier.  And it had nothing to do with my kids or work/life balance: I don’t have kids, and I’m working more now than I ever have before, but I am doing it on my terms.

My experience suggests a couple problems with Chen’s thesis.  One is her implication that the “feminist” goal should be for more women to succeed (i.e., rise up the ranks to partnership) in the legal system as it exists.  The other is her suggestion that women are leaving the fast track because it isn’t possible to give it your all while also raising children.  As to the first one, women have the opportunity now to redefine success to encompass not just money and status, but also happiness, creativity, even self-actualization.  If we can pull that off, it will benefit men, it will benefit non-lawyers, and it will make for a happier nation.  As to the second, many women have multiple reasons to leave the fast track, and many men do too: maybe they discover that practicing law is not what they want to spend their lives doing, or maybe they tire of the competitive and stressful law firm environment.

Still, there is no arguing that being fully present for your children while sprinting the law firm fast track is at the very least a challenge.  That alone proves that there is something rotten at the core of the law firm business model.  As long as it forces parents to choose between working and raising their children, it is anti-feminist, because it will almost always be the mother who leaves the workplace (which is a whole other phenomenon that merits its own discussion), and it will almost always be the father who misses out on his kids’ childhoods.  It’s not the Harvard women who are anti-feminist; it’s the business model of the major employers in our profession.

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3 thoughts on “The Legal “Fast Track” and Feminism

  1. Christine Cooper says:

    Fun blog, Piper. I am in love with Colbert, and I don’t want to have his baby.

  2. Arnie Pedowitz says:

    I read the Chen article and felt that it was written more to elicit a reaction than for substance. While it may be a positive thing for there to be more women in the legal profession I am not sure that it is fair to call the women who have chosen not to be active in it “antifeminist.” I likewise agree that Chen’s analysis was rather shallow.

    I practice law so that I can empower those who would otherwise be taken advantage of. I practice law because the challenge of the dispute and the character of the players interest me. I practice law because it suits my personality. I practice law to provide for my fiscal needs. At the end of most days I am happy for my involvement though I may have other less positive thoughts about what a judge has done or how a situation has resolved.

    The practice of law is not for everyone and often ones work/firm/corporate experience will determine their continuing interest. Likewise, it is important to remember that many men have serious problems with respect to how they interact with women. And, with men constituting the majority of lawyers, and the majority of lawyers in power, it should come as no surprise to find that women in general may have to endure far harsher working conditions than do the average male.

    There is nothing wrong with someone opting out of the law and no generalizations should be drawn from that. You do not have to justify your actions or your decisions to strangers and your friends should not be making you feel like any explanation is needed. Please comfortably do what you wish.

  3. Gillian Kotlen says:

    Hi Piper! Both your post and this article really made me think. As a newly minted lawyer with no family of my own to “tie me down” or rather make me responsible for someone else’s life, I find Chen’s article kind of myopic in why women sometimes don’t say in the game.

    First of all, as a graduate of a school other than Harvard (where in fact most lawyers don’t graduate from) Chen’s article fails to address the careers of female lawyers, who don’t go to the white shoe law firms, but are equally successful and rise up the corporate ladder, etc. What about the women who attended lower ranking law schools who start their own firms, clerk in state courts, work as counsel to businesses, insurance agencies, non-profits, the list goes on. Her article is dealing only with financial success, as opposed to career fulfillment. What I get from what she is saying is that because these women left the large law firms and declined partner tracks and perhaps make less money, they are less feminist. That’s just not true, which I think you agree. I think if you asked many women and men if they would take less money and have a better quality of life, but could still provide for their families, they would jump at the chance. It’s harsh to say someone is less feminist because she chooses a different track, may be it’s more? Like being more punk rock, because you do what goes against punk ideals, even when punks are against everything!

    This article as well as your post also made me consider the fact that in many ways, it’s still a “man’s world.” I realize this isn’t really addressed in either, but perhaps food for thought for another post. As a young female lawyer, with many peers navigating their careers at law firms of all sizes, government agencies or just looking for their first jobs, I still think young men have an easier time. First of all, I don’t care about sports, I can’t talk about them, I don’t know about them, I don’t watch them, I don’t do them. Well, I’m an avid skier, but hardly water cooler conversation with the male partner. I realize many women can discuss sports and many men cannot. However, I think it becomes an issue for other women like me who can’t connect with older male attorneys. I think it’s just another road block to moving ahead. I also think young males are given more leeway in the legal profession, as with many professions, to make off the cuff or inappropriate comments or joke or “let their hair down.” Perhaps this is why some women just drop out of the rat race; it’s not a rat race they are interested in. I’m really just positing here, but do other older females agree? Was it like this for them when they were coming up? I guess, Chen fails to address the other side of the equation with any real sincerity, all she says is that it is hard. She fails to really ask what we all learn in the first week of law school…WHY?

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