I am a woman who left the law
I graduated with honors and landed an associate position at a respected, multistate law firm. I practiced for several years, then quit. I am one of the many female attorneys who show promise but never achieve “success,” leaving many asking “Why?”
For me, there were four reasons: licensure barriers, gender expectations, lifestyle and general dissatisfaction.
My husband and I married one week after we both finished graduate school. His medical career left no choice—he had to move wherever he matched for residency and fellowship. He also owed three years of active military service. I either could live apart from my spouse for a decade or take multiple bar exams to scrape together a career. I chose the latter.
Thanks to licensure barriers, my career advanced sluggishly, delayed by short-notice moves, studying for exams, waiting for results and finding new employment time after time. Although the Military Spouse JD Network facilitates legal careers for military spouses, it did not make progress in time to assist me. Furthermore, there is no help for nonmilitary moves.
We lived in four states in 10 years, never staying anywhere long enough to earn reciprocity. My special requests for reciprocity were denied, although I could piece together the requisite years of practice from multiple jurisdictions.
Today, the Uniform Bar Exam is improving licensure flexibility, but it also was too late for my benefit. Fresh law school graduates can pass the UBE and immediately practice in a number of jurisdictions. That’s a slap in the face to seasoned attorneys who have passed multiple bar exams and practiced in multiple jurisdictions. Rather than outright denial of licensure, why not allow temporary apprenticeships to ensure the fitness of attorneys who have experience in other jurisdictions? If female attorneys are more likely to have a spouse who is the primary breadwinner, they may be disproportionately burdened by jurisdictional barriers.
Gender expectations were the second factor. At my private firm, the married female associates often had the same concern: Domestic responsibilities fell upon us. Our spouses didn’t necessarily force them upon us, but when responsibilities interfered with our spouse’s work, their employer often asked: “Can’t your wife do that?” We had to match the billable hours of our male counterparts while also accomplishing domestic tasks that their spouses often handled. Which spouse made more money didn’t matter.
This is a problem with employers and with the gender roles in our homes. Women have a seat at the table, but we’re still expected to set it first. When you consider our total sphere of responsibilities, we often have to work harder to reach the same goals as male attorneys.
The more attorneys-turned-stay-at-home moms I talk to, the more I realize that some women prefer this division of labor. They always knew that family would take priority over career. Some never loved the law in the first place or attended law school for the wrong reasons. Some didn’t realize the law was a bad fit until they practiced. Often, young families either cannot afford domestic help or don’t want it. My husband’s career was more demanding, lucrative and inflexible. It took priority.
Lifestyle was the third factor. When female attorneys have children, the problem with gender expectations is compounded. Opposing counsel once asked me: “When are you going to go home and have babies?” My supervising partner defended me. I often recalled his support after I did “go home and have babies.” It didn’t matter that my resignation was prompted by the combination of military orders and childbirth. I betrayed the generation of women before me who struggled for opportunities. I proved opposing counsel right. I perpetuated the negative stereotype that female associates just have children, then leave. Family is a risk for female attorneys.
I was raised with the naive perception that lawyers could make a comfortable living, change the world and still be home for dinner. My father was a government lawyer, home for dinner each night and at every extracurricular activity. In my experience, that is simply unrealistic. You cannot have everything——not if “everything” means being at every dinner and every event. You must compromise.
I realized my husband would rarely be there for either dinner or extracurricular events. My children deserve at least one parent, particularly when my income is unnecessary. Lifestyle matters.
The fourth reason I left the traditional practice of law was general dissatisfaction. I practiced big firm law, feeling the pressure of the billable hour and discovering I was a fungible good. The law was as much a business as a profession, requiring networking and marketing. Unfortunately, I went to law school to avoid using my business degree.
Next, I was an assistant district attorney. I learned that you must keep the public happy, although they have neither complete facts nor the legal education to analyze them. There were insurmountable caseloads with little pay and poor funding. There weren’t even tissues to offer weeping victims, just a half-used roll of toilet paper on the conference room table.
Perhaps female attorneys are no more dissatisfied than male attorneys but simply more likely to have the financial freedom to change their career path. This privilege, if it exists, is a blessing and curse, leading to greater female attrition.
Today, my primary job is parenting three young children. I am also an adjunct professor of criminology at a local university, and since 2012 I have practiced law pro bono, part time and remotely through Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Lawyer on the Line Program (and other pro bono opportunities).
Remote, limited-scope practice may be one solution to prevent female attrition. Unbundled practice can help female attorneys maintain their skills, facilitate a return to traditional practice, and allow schedule flexibility. By limiting the cost to clients, such practice also could improve access to justice.
I applaud successful female attorneys. They are proof that women can do anything. My pro bono work helps people who truly need it. I have human connections. I am appreciated, and I have career flexibility. Remote practice allowed me to hurdle jurisdictional barriers. The trade-off is that I will never achieve conventional success, but I am no failure.
To those women who stray from the conventional path: Don’t beat yourselves up. We have to choose our own paths. Real freedom is freedom from condemnation, no matter what choice we make.
A woman’s place is wherever she pleases.
In a truly egalitarian society, a woman’s value will not be measured by her ability to reach the traditional, male definition of success.
I love the law, and maybe I didn’t abandon it after all. Maybe I’m just traveling the scenic route, headed toward my own definition of success.
Hilary Moore graduated from Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law in 2005. She practices pro bono for Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Lawyer on the Line program and for Blue Ridge Legal Services, located in her hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her practice primarily focuses on Medicaid and Social Security disability. When she is not practicing law, she cares for her three young children, keeps honeybees and teaches criminology as an adjunct faculty member at Eastern Mennonite University.
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