When ABA President Laurel Bellows speaks about work-life balance, she does so from experience. She has practiced law for over 30 years, has four children and four grandchildren and has been a leader in her local and national bars. When her boss (Joel Bellows, who she would eventually marry and partner with) sent her on her first job, he sent her to “womens court” to represent defendants typically facing shoplifting or prostitution charges. From there, she built a reputation as a fierce advocate for her clients, whether they were working girls or CEOs, and developed a special focus on women and the law. In fact, she has made gender equity in the profession a hallmark of her ABA presidency.
All of which makes her recent comments about work-life balance and advice to those taking a career break to raise a family that much more puzzling. In a video interview with attorney Julia Williams, reprinted on the ABA Journal site, Bellows dismissed the work-life balance debate as fraudulent.
“The answer is so easy. [It’s] not achievable,” she says. “I think it’s actually a misrepresentation. Talking about work-life balance is fraud.” Bellows continues, recalling when her firm was just her and her husband, every day was a workday and there were no vacations. “What happens when you think you have the space [to go on vacation] and that fabulous client calls, the new one … this could make your practice for the year. Do you take that call, bring that client in, postpone your vacation for a day?” She and her family didn’t take a lot of vacations when they started out, but now, with an established office and support staff, they do. “No, I’m not off my Blackberry, and yes, I do take my computer with me, and I’m wired wherever I go.”
Bellows also issues a warning to those who take time off to raise a family, that such a break can derail a promising career. “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,” she explains. “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.”
We appreciate real talk regarding women in the profession, especially at a time where many point to diversity initiatives and claim all is well. However, instead of talking about the way things are and how individuals need to adapt to the reality of the profession, why not recognize that the profession needs to change the way it conceives of a legal career? Let’s start a conversation about how we can structure the profession to value the work-life balance instead of billable hours and the bottom line, and place value upon individuals who pursue other interests, like taking time off to volunteer, raise a family, or pursue advanced education.
If Bellows needs to know how to successfully “do” re-entry, look no further. Milspouse attorneys know a thing or two about re-entry; we do it every two years or so. We arrive in a new location, with new licensing procedures and new legal communities to network with. To make it work, milspouse attorneys are putting into action the very things Bellows advocates to those taking a career break — keep a hand in the profession through unique work arrangements Our members are working with big firms to provide legal support services, building freelance practices, and opening virtual law offices. But these opportunities are limited by the very structure of success that our profession values.
The truth is, the opportunities for successful reentry are limited only by our profession’s values. Bellows states the obvious condition today. However in the military, you’re taught not to identify a problem without also identifying a potential solution. For military spouse attorneys, “don’t leave your job” isn’t an option, and yet we’re still thriving. We look for a solution. What this article by the ABA President means for our organization is tremendous. After all, if we can adapt to cycles of leave and re-entry, and teach others how to do it successfully, we can pave the way for all those other attorneys who chose to take absences. We can be leaders.
Work-life balance isn’t a fraud. It’s just forthcoming.
Let the Military Spouse JD Network help you build your career skills at our Making the Right Moves event May 22 in Washington, D.C. Connect with military spouse attorneys, learn job skills unique to your military life, and celebrate service with Maj. Gen. William Suter (Ret), Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the D.C. legal community.