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Women Lawyers Opting In

Used to be that once woman lawyers jumped off the career path, like Hansel and Gretel, they never found their way back. But in some small ways, that scenario may be changing, as more and more professional women are choosing to return to work after spending several years out of the work force to raise children. The trend, referred to as "opting in" is described in this New York Times piece by Lisa Belkin entitled After Baby, Boss Comes Calling (5/17/07; hat tip to Denise Howell).

The article reports on many of the resources now available to professional women who seek to return to the work force, such as refresher courses and networking groups that weren't available even as recently as five years ago. Moreover, there's been a sea change in employers' attitudes: With high-skilled talent in demand, firms are actively targeting women who've left the work force for jobs. And even law firms are opting in:

The law firm of Heller Ehrman, for instance, created a group called the Opt-In Project, which has spent the past year studying the way the firm does business. At the end of the month, the group plans to unveil a proposal to abandon the idea of billable hours that is deeply ingrained in the profession. “We can’t afford to keep losing all these people,” says Patricia Gillette, founder of the project. “The way we currently reward spending more and more hours at work makes no sense in a world where people demand balance.”

Still, Belkin herself remains skeptical, as do others in the blogosphere. Belkin writes:

So I am too jaded to believe that this small handful of trendsetters will bring transformation overnight. They will not change the fact that too many employers still look at a résumé gap as a disqualifying mark; or that women who leave and return pay an average 18 percent salary penalty compared with those who never pause; or that men feel constrained from asking for flexibility because it carries a stigma; or that the only way to eliminate the stigma is for men to start to ask.

At The Conglomerate, Christine Hurt questions whether you can ever really go home again after having left:

Putting aside biases against employment gaps and the priorities reflected in opting out of the work force, how much does the work change in five years?  I left Skadden nine years ago to go into teaching.  My section isn't even called the same thing.  Does it do the same thing?  Would I be able to hit the ground running?  And forget about me, someone who has been in academia and at least following my industry from a distance.  What about a parent who has been rearing children and occasionally reading the WSJ?

Likewise, Belle Lettres is skeptical that this is really a trend:

But I can't say I trust such anecdotal evidence--just because a few elite firms are changing their policies, or just because there is a "many" or "most" shift in public opinion about work/life balance doesn't mean that there's really a change coming. I hope there is one. But I'll believe it when I see it--or rather, the empirical data and a pro-worker amended statute.

Maybe opting in is a real trend, or maybe it's just an exaggeration, based on a handful of anecdotal stories as Belle Lettre suggest. And perhaps there are, as Hurt writes, barriers to re-entry. But at the end of the day, who cares? By highlighting the very possibility of opting in, difficult or limited in scope as it may be, we make women realize that there's a chance for second or third acts if they're willing to work hard enough for them. And that may be enough to inspire a talented woman (maybe even another Sandra Day O'Connor, who also left the work force to raise her children) to return to the law.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on May 18, 2007 at 07:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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