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The writer relates conversations she's had with attorney friends and colleagues about the most-read article in Atlantic history.

Another incendiary article about women ‘having it all’

Earlier this month, a friend of mine from D.C. emailed me to say “I can’t wait to hear what you think about the Atlantic article.” I, immersed in drafting a brief, had no idea what she was talking about.

After two more friends mentioned the article, I decided that my cultural relevance depended upon googling the issue immediately. A quick search for “the Atlantic article,” uncovered the piece in question. Everyone was talking about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” I rolled my eyes; another depressing article about women and the difficulties they have finding work-life balance.

Over the next month, however, the article kept coming up. At my book club, our book talk quickly transformed into a thoughtful discussion of the Atlantic piece. At a recent happy hour conversation also shifted to the Atlantic article. Female colleagues emailed the piece around our office, and law school and college friends called to discuss.

Among my young lawyer friends, in particular, the piece resonated. While Dr. Slaughter may not have all the answers, she apparently has her finger on the pulse of a question consuming many young lawyers’ thoughts: why is it so difficult for female attorneys to “have it all?”

In case you haven’t read the article, I’ll briefly summarize: Dr. Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, describes her struggle to balance raising two children with working in the Obama administration. At the end of two years, Dr. Slaughter left the administration and returned to Princeton determined to write a self-exposé: she wasn’t able to be both an effective mother and a high-level presidential advisor. Her article explores why and suggests solutions to solve the problem.

I’ve spoken with multiple female attorneys who disagree with several of Dr. Slaughter’s conclusions and assumptions. Many, however, also noted that the article reflected their own experiences. While I have no answers, I thought it might be interesting to summarize the conversations I’ve had with attorney friends and colleagues about the article.

1. What does it mean to “have it all?” Perhaps because we’re lawyers, we’re particularly adept at challenging the hypothetical. Several of my lawyer friends criticized Dr. Slaughter’s definition of “having it all,” which she appears to measure by a set of objective criteria that include having children while thriving in a high-powered career.

Friends of mine without children, as well as friends who have taken time off from the law to stay at home, cringed at this definition of “having it all.” When Dr. Slaughter notes that two of the three female justices of the Supreme Court don’t have children (and implies they were unable to “have it all”) she’s doing women everywhere a disservice.

Dr. Slaughter actually arrives at this point herself at the end of her article when she cites The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. According to Slaughter, the number one regret is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Of course, everyone must decide for themselves what “having it all” means. At this time in my life, I “have it all,” when I’m engaged with and excited about my work, my professional contributions are valued, and I have time to walk around Lake Harriet with my husband and our Goldendoodle. If a Saturday starts with a croissant at Patisserie 46, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Yahoo’s new CEO and expectant mother Marissa Mayer may have a different vision. I recognize that my definition of “having it all,” may change throughout my career, but offering a one-size-fits-all definition of “having it all” for women professionals seems inappropriate and counterproductive.

2. Okay, everyone should define for themselves what it means to “have it all.” That said, is there something about the legal professional that makes it particularly difficult for women to balance work and parenting?

While Dr. Slaughter isn’t a practicing attorney (although she does have a J.D.), her article repeatedly mentions the particular problems that women attorneys face trying to balance work and raising children. She cites one of these problems as a culture of “time macho”: “the cult of billable hours afflicting large law firms across the country and providing exactly the wrong incentives for employees who hope to integrate work and family.”

Dr. Slaughter acknowledges that long hours are necessary and often unavoidable. She suggests solutions including shifting our “office centered” work culture so that women and men can work from home, videoconferencing in for important meetings as needed. She draws a distinction between good (permitting individuals to teleconference in for important calls) and better (scheduling important calls during school hours).

Since the beginning of time (so it seems), articles discussing female attorneys and work-life balance have bemoaned the role of the billable hour. A friend of mine, who now works in-house, cites the billable hour as a principle reason for her decision to quit firm life. Dr. Slaughter may have nailed the problem — does that mean we should give her solutions a try?

3. Why should we care? The legal profession (litigation in particular) has proved particularly challenging for women. When you look at the numbers, it’s depressing: at the nation’s largest firms, women represent only 15 percent of equity partners — a percentage that hasn’t budged in 20 years.

Women I spoke with appreciated Dr. Slaughter’s practical argument as to why our profession should care that women leave in droves throughout their 30s and 40s. At the very least, Dr. Slaughter notes, when a woman leaves a firm, the firm loses the money and time invested in her.

Beyond this immediate loss, however, Dr. Slaughter cites research indicating that “increased flexibility correlates positively with job engagement, job satisfaction, employee retention, and employee health.” Firms with work-family policies apparently reap economic benefits as well with “higher perceived firm-level performance” among their industry peers. It’s nice to see an article discuss the benefits that accrue to everyone when we address these issues.

At this point, most commentators usually try to wrap up an article with a pithy summary of what it all means. Sadly, I have no idea. I look around and note that there aren’t as many senior women partners as female associates in our profession. I know lots of moms who struggle to balance the demands of careers with family life. Dr. Slaughter suggests ways we can all work to change this reality. I don’t know if her suggestions will work.

Sometimes, however, a great article doesn’t offer us answers, but simply wrestles with tough issues. In this respect, I think Dr. Slaughter’s article was great. I look forward to continuing her discussion with my peers, friends, and colleagues into the future. Right or wrong, I’m glad she’s got everyone talking.

Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010 after clerking for the Honorable James M. Rosenbaum of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at SDunlop@greeneespel.com.

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