I have been to many conferences and seminars on both work/life balance and being a woman in the legal profession. A tip that often gets repeated: Keep your family time away from the office “under the radar”. Don’t tell your firm or your clients if you are leaving early to pick up your kids, or taking them to the doctor, or attending a school concert. Basically, don’t mention you are a mother at all. Allegedly, men don’t do this (and why don't they? They have these obligations too!), so women shouldn’t either. Supposedly this is one of the reasons why women are being held back in the legal profession. Once again it is our fault.
I used to buy into this thinking. When I was at a large firm and had to leave early because my son was sick or I wanted to go to the mother’s day tea at his preschool, my ‘out of office’ message said I was in court or in a meeting. No one would question that and I somehow felt less guilty about leaving the office. I was afraid that if I admitted the truth my colleagues and clients would think that I was a ‘slacker’ and not dedicated to my job. (I think I was afraid because there already is this false assumption that women do more at home and therefore may not be as dedicated to work.)
Not anymore. Now that I have my own practice as a freelance lawyer I am completely honest with my clients. I will tell them that I can’t meet with them at 8am because I walk my kids to school. But I ask, can we meet at 9:00? Or I will tell them that I can’t meet on a certain day because I am volunteering in my son’s class, but I can meet the next day, or we can do a call that night. I always offer a close alternative time or day, or if the client’s matter is urgent I make myself available.
I now feel confident enough to tell my clients the truth. I know I am a good lawyer. I produce quality work and I always meet their deadlines. Whether I work at 2pm or 2am does not matter to my clients as long as I get the work done and get it done on time. And if a client or potential client somehow thinks less of me because I actually have a life outside of work, then perhaps I need to revisit having them as my client.
Would I feel this way if I was still at a large firm? I would like to think I have evolved enough as a person and a lawyer that I would, but maybe not. I hope the day will come when all lawyers (men and women) can embrace the fact that we are well rounded individuals with lives outside of the office and that this doesn’t make us any less dedicated to our jobs.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.