Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The American Bar Association must never again victim-blame working-parent attorneys for the discrimination they suffer

The ABA Journal recently published a column by
Susan Smith Blakely, a career counselor and former law-firm partner, that does a gross injustice to every law-firm working parent. 

Her piece, titled, Are women lawyers paying enough attention to upward mobility?, argues that women lawyers are responsible for the limited opportunities their employers have fostered upon them. By focusing on family instead of firm, she argues that they have chosen their priority and should not complain when career advancement passes them by.
What works for women lawyers in the early years of practice may not work as well for them throughout their careers. And that is particularly true for women who choose to have children. There is nothing that can derail a career faster than the responsibilities of motherhood—ask any successful woman lawyer with children. It is a game changer that can cause very busy women lawyers to lose focus. …

As lawyer moms strategize about their career paths, they must be aware of the pitfalls. They must understand that the choices they make in their personal lives, no matter how praiseworthy, can impact their professional upward mobility. They must make time for success in their professional lives, as well as their personal lives.
This opinion is nothing more than victim-blaming the attorneys for the discrimination they have suffered at the hands of their employers. The only party responsible for punishing an employee for "the choices they make in their personal lives" is the employer, period. It's never an employee's fault that she is the victim of discrimination.

While the at-issue column focuses on working moms, my critique also holds true for working dads. I've heard a law-firm partner actually say, "Now that your wife has gone back to work, you should invest in a nanny so that you don't have to help as much with the kids." First, it's not helping, it's parenting. Secondly, no one should ever have to choose between their career and their family. One need not sacrifice the latter for success in the former. They are not, and never should be, mutually exclusive.

I am embarrassed that the official journal of my profession published this column. Moreover, it's editor's-note disclaimer—"This column reflects the opinions of the author, and not the views of the ABA Journal – or the American Bar Association. The ABA is deeply committed to securing the full and equal participation of women in the ABA, the profession and the justice system."—is not nearly enough. It should never have published this column in the first place, or its editor should have taken a much stronger position than, "We don't endorse this view." Yes you do, Editor John O'Brien; otherwise you would have exercised your discretion not to publish it, or to publish it with an actual stance against that for which it stands. Otherwise, publishing is endorsing.

As a profession, we must do better for our working parents. There is no job more important or difficult than parent. Let's not make it harder by making excuses for the law firms that treat these employees as second class.

* Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash