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What Counts as Experience for Women Who Wander Off the Partnership Track

If you've left the law to raise children, what counts as "work experience" when you seek to return? Is it part time work on a contract basis for other lawyers or teaching as an adjunct at a nearby law school? What about volunteer work for a nonprofit or reviewing vendor contracts for the PTA?

Columnist Lisa Belkin discusses that question in her piece "The Senator Track," where she argues that recent Senate appointee Caroline Kennedy's past experience on the board of the NAACP and the Commission on Presidential Debates, and authorship of books on privacy and the Constitution duly qualifies her to hold the Senate seat. Likewise, Belkin points out that much of the experience that Hillary Clinton touted in assuming the Senate seat and then running for president was that she had acquired relevant experience in her role as First Lady.

Of course, most lawyers (Kennedy and Clinton are lawyers, too) don't fare quite as well when they step off the partnership track. Belkin's article contrasts Kennedy's experience with that of Whitney Hoffman, who spent a year in practice before taking a "mom sabbatical" 14 years ago to raise her sons. Hoffman spent her time away from the law researching a book on public assembly law, serving on a charitable board and creating a bi-weekly podcast, yet she worries that if she seeks to return to conventional employment, she won't be able to articulate precisely what she is experienced to do.

 Belkin's point is that we need to:

[s]top with this talk of inexperience when we mean a range of experiences, many shaped by motherhood. The only way work will become more flexible for everyone, for all of us, is if the untraditional begins to count. Kennedys may not need that. But the rest of us certainly do.

Unfortunately, Belkin's examples don't necessarily prove her point. Clinton was an appealing candidate not just because of her outside credentials, but because of her marriage to a popular president. Likewise, Kennedy makes a viable choice for a Senate seat for New York because her political connections will help her constituents. In short, both Kennedy's and Clinton's "outside" credentials -- family ties, not their service on boards or charitable work -- are precisely what make them appealing.

Whether it's a job in politics, law firms or anywhere else, experience alone is almost never the deciding factor. It's always who you know and how much of a difference that you can make to a company's financial bottom line. If Caroline Kennedy had wanted to get a job as a partner at a New York law firm, no doubt she would have had an edge over a lawyer like Whitney Hoffman or any female lawyer who took time off, if only because Kennedy could attract business for the firm by dint of her name and connections. 

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on January 5, 2009 at 03:09 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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