Ami Parekh is a 29-year-old joint J.D.–M.D. candidate graduating from Yale Law School this May. In her first year at Yale, she got involved with Universities Allied for Essential Medicines; the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law and Ethics; and the American Constitutional Society.
But she does not have time for those activities and the late-night meetings they entail any more. These days, she leaves the Law School every night at 5 p.m. to pick up her daughter from day care.
Parekh’s choice to focus on her family is uncommon among her fellow law students, and representative of an issue discussed over the weekend at a Yale Law Women conference. The conference, “Opt Out or Pushed Out: Are Women Choosing to Leave the Legal Profession?,” brought together about 60 law professionals and students — at least 50 of whom were women — to discuss the difficulties of juggling family and a legal career.
“Many women — and I’m saying specifically women — do feel forced to choose between work and family,” said panelist E.J. Graff, a journalist and senior researcher directing the Gender & Justice Project at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. “The workplace is constantly a more hostile environment for mothers than fathers.”
Conference participants analyzed parental roles, desired institutional changes and arguments made in a 2003 New York Times Magazine piece by Lisa Belkin, which claimed that a woman’s decision to leave law is personal, not a result of a systematic flaw in the legal profession.
Katherine Wilson-Milne LAW ’09, who helped plan the conference, said the drift toward “opting out” is indicative of a “weird reversal of the feminist trend that started in the ’60s.”
Law firms primarily pay lawyers by billable hours, Wilson-Milne said, a system that forces difficult choices on men and women with families. Lawyers take advantage of the system by spending long hours at work. Lawyers with young children cannot do that, Wilson-Milne said, because they must go home to care for their families.
In response, some law firms have offered employees flexible hours, which allow lawyers to work from home part of the time. Other firms allow lawyers to work four days a week instead of five to accommodate families. Ironically, Wilson-Milne said, these accommodations can be especially pernicious for women.
“It ghetto-izes women’s positions in these professions,” Wilson-Milne said. “If only women are taking flexible hours, you create a stereotype that only women are not going to be there at work, that are going to be using these flex hours, which basically re-creates the stereotype of women’s work.”
Panel discussions focused on how to improve the situation for female professionals, who make up about half of law students and law professionals but only about a fifth of partners at law firms.
“We hope that we can discuss the issues and have some though-provoking conversation,” Jennifer Broxmeyer LAW ’09 said. “I agree with the viewpoints expressed so far, but don’t think there is a clear solution. There needs to be both societal and institutional changes across the board for women and men with families.”
The conference’s keynote address was delivered by visiting lecturer Nancy Gertner GRD ’70 LAW ’71, who serves as a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Massachusetts.