The Legal “Fast Track” and Feminism

This Careerist article about women who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1993 contends that women who step off the law firm “fast-track” have been derailed and may be “anti-feminist.”  This is startling news to me, a 1999 graduate of Harvard Law School who stepped off the fast-track.  I’m as dedicated a feminist as ever, and far from feeling derailed, I’m happier than ever.

The thesis of the article is that “some of the brightest [female] legal minds in the country” can’t or choose not to hack it on the legal “fast-track,” generally because they prefer to focus more on their children and feel they can’t do both.  The article bemoans the low rate of Harvard women who are partners in firms and calls it “astonishing” that 60% of the women who graduated Harvard Law in 1993 have “dropped out of the fast track.”

I am more astonished that more men haven’t left the law firm “fast track.”  At mainstream corporate law firms, the fast track is an outdated, inhumane, pressure cooker system, and I just can’t believe that many of the men on that track aren’t wishing they could hop off themselves.

I got to where Chen wants women like me to be: I made partner (although I did it at a smaller and far friendlier, more humane public interest firm).  And then I gave it up.  I am now a part-time independent contractor for the same firm and spend the rest of my time writing, for one reason: that is what I want to do.  I work from home, I’m doing what I love, and I have never been happier.  And it had nothing to do with my kids or work/life balance: I don’t have kids, and I’m working more now than I ever have before, but I am doing it on my terms.

My experience suggests a couple problems with Chen’s thesis.  One is her implication that the “feminist” goal should be for more women to succeed (i.e., rise up the ranks to partnership) in the legal system as it exists.  The other is her suggestion that women are leaving the fast track because it isn’t possible to give it your all while also raising children.  As to the first one, women have the opportunity now to redefine success to encompass not just money and status, but also happiness, creativity, even self-actualization.  If we can pull that off, it will benefit men, it will benefit non-lawyers, and it will make for a happier nation.  As to the second, many women have multiple reasons to leave the fast track, and many men do too: maybe they discover that practicing law is not what they want to spend their lives doing, or maybe they tire of the competitive and stressful law firm environment.

Still, there is no arguing that being fully present for your children while sprinting the law firm fast track is at the very least a challenge.  That alone proves that there is something rotten at the core of the law firm business model.  As long as it forces parents to choose between working and raising their children, it is anti-feminist, because it will almost always be the mother who leaves the workplace (which is a whole other phenomenon that merits its own discussion), and it will almost always be the father who misses out on his kids’ childhoods.  It’s not the Harvard women who are anti-feminist; it’s the business model of the major employers in our profession.

2 thoughts on “The Legal “Fast Track” and Feminism

  1. Christine Cooper says:

    Fun blog, Piper. I am in love with Colbert, and I don’t want to have his baby.

  2. Arnie Pedowitz says:

    I read the Chen article and felt that it was written more to elicit a reaction than for substance. While it may be a positive thing for there to be more women in the legal profession I am not sure that it is fair to call the women who have chosen not to be active in it “antifeminist.” I likewise agree that Chen’s analysis was rather shallow.

    I practice law so that I can empower those who would otherwise be taken advantage of. I practice law because the challenge of the dispute and the character of the players interest me. I practice law because it suits my personality. I practice law to provide for my fiscal needs. At the end of most days I am happy for my involvement though I may have other less positive thoughts about what a judge has done or how a situation has resolved.

    The practice of law is not for everyone and often ones work/firm/corporate experience will determine their continuing interest. Likewise, it is important to remember that many men have serious problems with respect to how they interact with women. And, with men constituting the majority of lawyers, and the majority of lawyers in power, it should come as no surprise to find that women in general may have to endure far harsher working conditions than do the average male.

    There is nothing wrong with someone opting out of the law and no generalizations should be drawn from that. You do not have to justify your actions or your decisions to strangers and your friends should not be making you feel like any explanation is needed. Please comfortably do what you wish.

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