From the Multnomah Lawyer - Lawyers at Work, Caregivers at Home: Fostering a Profession that Makes Space for the Labor of Love

Persistent gender inequity in the legal profession can’t be attributed exclusively to straight-up sexism; part of the explanation is our field’s failure to accommodate parenthood. Even as family roles have become more flexible and LGBTQ families are more common, women still tend to be deeply engaged in the unpaid caregiving work of the family, whether that’s childcare, caring for an aging parent, or supporting a loved one with an illness or disability. As I talked with other lawyer-caregivers in preparation for this article, I heard that for many of us, the closest we can come to “work/life balance” is when neither our employers or our children are satisfied; when we feel we are equally underperforming in both our work and home realms; “balance” is the mid-point in a perpetual tug of war.

In a career track that seems to demand an all-or-nothing commitment, the simple reality is that we are often forced to choose, and as a result, our profession is losing too many talented women. Contrary to gender equity gains in other fields, the legal profession as a whole is becoming more dominated by white men, especially at the top.

  • The ABA plans to release a report this summer documenting a mass exodus of mid-career women from the legal profession.1
  • Women have represented half of graduating law school classes for two decades, but still make up just 20 percent of equity partners in law firms.2 Women of color are 24 percent of associates but only eight percent of partner track attorneys.
  • Women law firm partners are paid an astonishing 53 percent less than their male counterparts; a wage gap that has grown from 32 percent in 2010.3 A recent ABA study indicates that women lawyers of color report even more signifi cant pay equity barriers as compared to white women.4
During my year as MBA President, I want to focus on how we can make our profession more accommodating of the caregiving responsibilities that most of us navigate outside of our workdays. Most people have children (86% of women ages 40-44 are mothers),5 but even people without children may need to care for an aging parent, or a family member with an illness or disability. “Caregiving” encompasses all of these manifestations of the unpaid labor of love that consumes our lives outside of work.
“Begin from the proposition that we cannot survive, as individuals
or as a nation, without caring for one another.”
-Anne-Marie Slaughter6
1. Retaining Parents Makes Good Economic Sense
As many of us can attest, mothers are kick-ass workers - we are organized, we are unflappable, we are perpetually willing to challenge assumptions about the volume of what can be accomplished in a day. When you understand children, you understand people, and that emotional intelligence is an asset in the workplace. Parents are also valuable because they are generally in their mid-career prime. They are the pipeline to leadership. It’s both healthy and economical for an organization or firm to retain staff who are experienced, but not close to retirement. Research also shows that gender-diverse work settings tend to be more productive and to have healthier workplace cultures. Finally, turnover is costly.

2. Changing Economic Realities
I have three children, ages 6, 10, and 16. When the oldest (my stepson) was six and I was pregnant with our daughter, my husband and I bought a big house with my mom and her partner, who has been involved with my family for 40+ years.

My husband and I both work about 35 hours per week and I worked half-time for a few years when our kids were young. With the two live-in grandmas, and our reasonable schedules, I am grateful for the family time that we have. But, the absence of work schedule stress tends to correlate with the presence of financial stress. Group living and free childcare has allowed us to make ends meet with a nonprofit salary, but at times, just barely.

What really worries me, however, is that my journey as a young public interest lawyer raising a family was likely much easier than what’s in store for newer lawyers and those without the family resources that I’ve leaned on.

New lawyers are entering the profession with an unprecedented amount of educational debt. Meanwhile, the rising costs of housing, childcare, and health insurance outpace salaries, especially in nonprofit and public defender positions or solo practice. These economic hurdles impact access to justice because public interest careers are less viable across the board, and even further out of reach for lawyers who reflect the diversity and life experiences of the clients that they serve.

All of these challenges - the financial stress and the demands of parenting - are made worse by the fact that we don’t talk about them. We worry about reprisals at work if we disclose how consuming our parenting obligations are, and we worry about maintaining a façade of prosperity in a culture where one’s professional appearance and reputation is predicated on the trappings of wealth.

3. What Can be Done?
This fall, the MBA, in partnership with OWLS, will release a survey aimed at gauging the current workplace climate for lawyers who have caregiving obligations at home. We’ll ask about the practical realities (not just aspirational policies) around family leave, flexible schedules, part-time work, vacation, and expectations of working outside of regular business hours. We hope that the results of this survey will help inform career choices and provide leverage to lawyers who want to advocate for improved practices in their workplaces.

Researchers have established that “slapping an alternative work schedules policy onto organizations designed around overwork does not work.”7 Without new models, such efforts only lead to “flexibility stigma” (which yields undesirable assignments) and “schedule creep,” (or full-time work for part-time pay). We need creative shifts in how our workplaces are structured and incentivized. In the meantime, whether we’re mothers, fathers, or caretakers for elderly parents or a loved one with a disability, we can start by being transparent and unapologetic about our caregiving roles. If we value this work and we applaud one another, we can help raise the stature of caregiving and prove that we, as caregivers, are a worthy investment for our employers as well as our families.
1 ABA Commission on Women in the Profession:
2 2018 National Association of Women Lawyers Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms:
3 Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup, “What the Partner Pay Gap Tells Us About Bias,” National Law Journal, 2016:
4 ABA Bias Interrupters Project:
5 Claire Cain Miller, “Th e US Fertility Rate is Down, Yet More Women are Mothers,” NY Times, 2018:
6 Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Th e Failure of the Phrase ‘Work-Life Balance,’” The Atlantic, 2015:
7 Joan Williams, “Don’t Leave When You Leave,” Huff Post, 2106:

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