Lawyer or Mom: Choose Only One?

lawyerContributed by Amy Impellizzeri (New York City)

As the confirmation hearings on Elena Kagan conclude, one question remains unanswered. What does Kagan’s nomination mean for American lawyer moms?

While the nomination of Kagan has been lauded as groundbreaking – setting the stage for three women sitting on the Supreme Court for the first time in American history – the nomination also marks the second time in about a year that President Obama has chosen a childless woman to replace a male justice on the Court.

That Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan are unmarried and childless has many commentators speculating about the choices women today must make in order to achieve heights in their chosen careers, particularly in the legal field.

Indeed, few American lawyers, answering honestly, would cite coincidence that both Sotomayor and Kagan are childless and highly successful lawyers. Most call Kagan and Sotomayor’s paths ones of personal choice. No doubt. But framing the relevant issue as one of choice between children and career leaves American moms feeling marginalized. American lawyer moms? Even more so.

Evaluating “Motherhood Versus Career Success”

The issue up for debate is whether women in law have meaningful choices at all, beyond “motherhood versus success.” It would be a shame if Sotomayor and Kagan’s careers continue to be held up as confirmation of that lone choice, accepted by many female lawyers as an industry truism. Take for example, Beth*, a 39 year old Wall Street law firm partner. Beth worked grueling hours and was awarded partnership at the age of 35 while still deliberately childless. Beth, currently on an extended leave of absence while raising her two young children, relates that her decision to put off starting a family until after she made partner was a conscious one. She believes very strongly that her partnership goals would have been impeded if she had started her family first. She also believes her goal of being a hands-on mother to two children under the age of 3 would be impeded if she resumed her legal career right now. “You just cannot do both,” Beth says emphatically.

The pressure to choose family versus success in the legal field was the subject of an interesting report released in 2008 by A Better Balance, the legal advocacy group committed to work/family issues as they affect families across the economic spectrum.

A Better Balance’s report entitled “Seeking a Just Balance” [PDF] was compiled from a survey of New York University law students. According to the report, seventy percent of respondents, including men and women, expected to make career sacrifices in order to have a satisfying personal life, but female respondents were more concerned than male respondents about how their decisions regarding work/life balance would affect their careers.

Respondents were overwhelmingly willing to trade long hours and so-called “perks” offered by top firms that are designed to keep associates at the office – such as car services and expensed dinners – for lower salaries. A Better Balance’s report concluded that law firms seeking to attract and keep a new generation of enthusiastic and talented lawyers should consider offering “stigma-free” perks such as extended family leave and slower partnership tracks for associates with family responsibilities.

The law student respondents from the 2008 “Seeking a Just Balance” report are now young lawyers who, reviewing all the press surrounding the Kagan and Sotomayor nominations, must indeed fear their voices remain unheard. The choice – at least in the legal field – is still framed in absolutes. High billables or personal life. Family or partnership. Motherhood or success.

Which ignores the accomplishments – and children – of many successful female lawyers, one of whom just so happens to be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lone mother on the Supreme Court at this point.

This framing of the motherhood versus success “choice” for female lawyers also dismisses the pioneer career of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Achieving the holy grail of a legal career, she was appointed as the first female Supreme Court Justice back in 1981. Justice O’Connor’s impressive resume included positions in private practice, in the Arizona state senate, and on the state appeals court. She was also a mother of three.

Justice O’Connor did leave the law, albeit temporarily, for five years to raise her young children from 1960-1965. A choice? Sure. A choice between career and children? Not at all. Justice O’Connor took a short hiatus from private practice after the birth of her second son and subsequently relaunched her legal career in 1965 by joining the Arizona Attorney General’s office.

Navigating Ebbs and Flows

And while not everyone can successfully navigate an impressive career with ebbs and flows that correspond with family responsibilities and demands, there are still women, even women lawyers, who can. Renee, a 33 year old mother of two who worked as a Wall Street litigator for nine years and is now Assistant VP of a major insurance company, thinks there are still Sandra Day O’Connor’s out there. “The kids, viewed as a potential roadblock to a career for some, are actually a reflection of a person who can do it all, who can persevere in any environment, and thrive under any circumstances.” In her own professional journey, Renee calls the bumps and distractions as necessary and real as stretch marks. “Anyone can have a perfect stomach if they have never been pregnant . . . and anyone can be a flawless professional if they do not have a tiny person waiting for them at home with perpetual, overwhelming, emotionally and physically all-consuming demands.”

Gwen, a 44 year old managing attorney with an international litigation support company, believes there are meaningful avenues of success for lawyer moms. But she does not believe for a minute that the sky is the limit. After spending over 12 years as a full-time Manhattan litigator and mom, Gwen became frustrated by what she perceived as a not-so-subtle ceiling for female litigators, particularly moms, and left for an eventual in-house directorship position with more power – and more flexibility. Gwen says that in her experience, outside the large law firm arena, there are more choices for today’s female lawyers than just success or motherhood. However, Gwen cautions, “if you really seek greatness, e.g., the Supreme Court, not so much.”

Likewise, in her recent essay, “Judging Women”, Lisa Belkin of the New York Times argues that the generational differences between Kagan and O’Connor are relevant. Belkin argues that for contemporaries of O’Connor and Ginsburg, for example: “Not much was given to or expected of women then, which created a paradoxical freedom.” Conversely for Sotomayor and Kagan’s generation of female lawyers, Belkin argues: “There would be no taking five years off to stay home with your children if you hoped for a seat on the Supreme Court.”

Well, why not?

Consider the respondents of A Better Balance’s “Seeking a Just Balance”. Men and women who represent a new generation of lawyers, lawyers who are more than a little concerned about work/life balance. Lawyers who seek choices beyond family versus career.

Consider also the lawyer moms who continue to take hiatuses from huge billables and grueling work schedules to raise their young children before returning with vigor to rewarding and successful careers. Carol Fishman Cohen, co-author of Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work, has made it a personal mission to bring recognition to success stories of women in all fields, including the legal field, who relaunch their careers after multi-year breaks. Cohen lauds the renewed careers of lawyer moms like Deborah Felton, who relaunched her career as Executive Director of a Massachusetts senior community center after a twenty year career break, and Sara Harnish, Assistant Director for Non-Clinical Trials, a regulatory compliance group, at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Of course, it would be helpful to give those hiatuses the same publicity we give the choices made by successful women like Kagan and Sotomayor.

In fact, some high profile successful relaunching lawyer moms have tried hard to keep their hiatuses under wraps. Lawyer mom Hillary Clinton campaigned for the job of first woman President on “35 years of experience,” boasting that she worked as the first ever female partner at the Rose Law Firm from 1977 until 1993 when her husband won the presidency. Yet, strategic leaves of absence taken during the times when daughter, Chelsea, was a pre-schooler, namely in 1982 and 1983 have been carefully described to avoid any appearance of resume gaps. During one eight-month leave from law firm life, when Chelsea was 2, Clinton worked on her husband’s gubernatorial campaign. And in 1983, when Chelsea was 3, Hillary temporarily left her desk at the Rose Law Firm, agreeing to Chair the Arkansas Education Standards Committee.

Additionally, Clinton reportedly billed (and consequently earned) less than other partners during her tenure at the Rose Law Firm, and yet Clinton didn’t exactly campaign on a platform of work/life balance or part-time parity for lawyer moms.

If she had, she might have gotten more of the female vote. She may well have gotten more votes from lawyer moms.

Then again, if we keep framing the choice as motherhood or the law, there will soon be very few lawyer moms left.

(*Some lawyer mom names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.)

Amy Impellizzeri is a lawyer, writer and mother of three. A corporate litigator, including ten years with a top Manhattan law firm, Impellizzeri is an advocate for work/life issues. Her writing has been featured on where her NY Working Moms column highlights successes and struggles of working mothers in New York Impellizzeri also authored “The Yearlong Sidebar” for ABA’s Law Practice Today and has been a contributing writer for, a green business website.