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Lucas: In 2012, can women in the law really have it all?

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EidtPerspLucas-sigThe ranks of high-powered women who have fought the notion that it is impossible to have both a demanding career and a happy family seem to have lost a warrior.

International lawyer and Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2011, caught many off guard with her article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The article – the cover story in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine – has people talking.

It is not the work itself or even the amount of if that seems to get in the way, according to Slaughter, it is the way America’s economy and society are structured. She blames what she calls the culture of “time macho” that rewards those who work longer and harder than anyone else. And she says that the problem is especially acute in law firms where there is a “cult of billable hours” and office face time that provide the wrong incentive for those who hope to integrate work and family. “Having control over your schedule,” she said, “is the only way that women who want to have a career and a family can make it work.”

Slaughter came to this realization while working in her “foreign policy dream job” in Washington, D.C. Because her husband and two sons lived in Princeton, N.J., she had to live away from them during the week and commute home on weekends. The stress on the family was too much. She decided that when her two-year commitment was over, she would change her original plan to stay in Washington as long as her party was in power, and she would return to Princeton.

It was the reaction to her decision that motivated her to write. There were those who expressed pity that she had to leave her dream job, and others, somewhat to her surprise, were condescending, proclaiming there is no need to compromise. Suddenly, she said, the penny dropped.

“All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).”

She said that the minute she found herself in a job structure typical for many women in this country – working long hours on someone else’s schedule – she could no longer be both the parent and professional she wanted to be.

Slaughter cites the Supreme Court of the United States as an example. She points out that every male Supreme Court justice has a family; two of the three women on the court are single without children.

Just to be clear, she is not saying this is an all-or-nothing proposition. Slaughter remains a full-time career woman who teaches a full course load, writes regularly on foreign policy, gives 40 to 50 speeches per year, and does regular media appearances.

She says women of her generation “have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation.” But members of the younger generation have stopped listening, she adds, feeling that their predecessors “airbrushed reality” when they talk about having it all.

So here I sit, wondering what it is really like to be a woman – or a man, for that matter – trying to balance the demands of work and family in today’s law firms. Let me know if you believe it is possible to work long hours but still have a balanced family life. If your law firm or business is doing something innovative to support families, I’d like to hear about that, too! Email your thoughts to klucas@ibj.com.•

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