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Women in the Law

‘Talking about work-life balance is fraud’ says ABA President Laurel Bellows

Posted Apr 8, 2013 6:00 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Work-life balance? Fuhgeddaboudit. For ABA President Laurel Bellows, a visit to a restaurant or a vacation with family always includes a work component.

Bellows tells the Chicago Grid that she is “wired wherever I go,” including vacations. Even a meal at a restaurant can be a business development tool.

“There is no free time,” Bellows says. “Client development is a very time-intensive business. You can spend that time and have fun doing it. I used to bring my friends and my clients (who became my friends), we would go to manicures and we would go to plays. We would take our children on a play date or we would go to the Art Institute to see a new show.

“I was always on. There is no off. Joel, my husband, makes fun of me, because I go into the ladies room at a restaurant with my business cards.”

Interviewer Julia Williams, a lawyer in Chicago, asks Bellows how she manages her practice when she wants to go on vacation or take a break to spend time with family. She asks, “How do you do it? How do you do work-life balance and is it really achievable?”

“No. It’s not,” Bellows responds. “The answer is so easy. Not achievable. I think it’s actually a misrepresentation. Talking about work-life balance is fraud. Alright. It’s particularly fraud to young women or any, any age woman who thinks there’s somebody out there, they look at me and they say, ‘Oh, you don’t look that tired, how do you do it all, Laurel?’ That question assumes that I do it all. That question doesn’t take into account what it takes to get through a week—but loving it at the same time.”

Addressing taking time off to raise a family, Bellows says women should realize that significant time away could put them back at the first- or second-year associate level. “You don’t keep up with the law, particularly at the pace it’s moving, by taking three or four or five [years]—you lose your personal skills. You’re going to need to come into a practice, if you are able to do that, as a junior associate again, with that pay bracket and accept it."

“What I am seeing is women who are leaving the workforce with the assumption that they will be able to come back," Bellows adds. "We don’t have the ability to do re-entry well. There is no perfect guarantee that you can come back into the practice of law. In fact, I don’t know how you could if you were out of the practice five to 10 years.”

Bellows recommends instead that women lawyers who want to take time off should continue to work part-time. “If you take your fingers out of that pie completely, I don’t know how you get back in,” she says.

Bellows also discussed work-life balance during a Jan. 31 webcast, according to a summary posted at ABA Now. According to the summary, Bellows echoed the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom she had interviewed earlier in the day. “Destroy the myth that there is a balanced life,” Bellows said. “And that myth that you can have it all? You just have to redefine what ‘all’ is at the moment.”

Last updated April 9 to clarify the questions from Chicago Grid.

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