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 At mainstream corporate law firms, the fast track is an outdated, inhumane, pressure cooker system, and I just can’t believe that many of the men on that track aren’t wishing they could hop off themselves.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