After I left Big Law, and when I started my career as a freelance lawyer, most people made the same assumption: I left because I am a mother to young children. This seemed to be a foregone conclusion and I have to admit, I just went with it. It was an easy, ready-made explanation that no one seemed to question. We have all read the stories of women leaving private practice “in droves”. But when I chose not to correct this assumption I felt like a fraud. I had an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not only was I letting down my fellow women lawyers, I was confirming the stereotype that mothers can’t “hack it” in Big Law.
The truth? My exodus from Big Law had little to do with the fact I was a mother (well, at least on my part it didn’t - but that is a whole other blog post). There are many reasons why I am a freelance lawyer. I am an entrepreneur at heart and love being my own boss (many of my friends know I was exploring ways to start my own business long before I became a mother). While I love the law, I was no longer finding much joy in the type of work I was doing. Likewise, I think that life is too short and I don’t want to live it at the office. I enjoy solving legal problems, but I also want to run the business.
Being a mother obviously plays a part in some of these reasons, but to be clear, it was not “the” reason. Do I like having the flexibility to pick my kids up from school and go to their concerts and soccer games? Of course. Am I spending more time with my children? Yes, and that means a lot to me. But, I also like the fact that I can work either at my office or at home or at Starbucks. I can also go the museum or art gallery on a Wednesday afternoon. I am still working very long hours but I am working the hours that I want to work.
I often wonder if I were a man, would people automatically assume that I left Big Law because I was a father to young children? Probably not, because a lot of people still think that work/life balance is a “women’s issue”. It’s not.
I have decided I can no longer remain silent. I will speak up the next time I explain to someone that I left Big Law and I hear: “You must be a mother.” “I assume you have young children?” “Will you go back to ‘real practice’ once your kids are in school?” “So you are ‘leaning back’ a bit while your kids are young?” I will say: “No, I am not leaning back. I am leaning the heck in.” I have started two successful businesses. I work long hours and I work hard. I am an entrepreneur, lawyer and business woman. I am my own CEO, executive assistant, web designer, and writer. I am not taking a “break” from my career, I feel like I am finally starting it.
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.