Lawyers who quit, and other stories

What with the election and all, we’re a bit behind on “Can’t have it all” manifestos. Fortunately, a lawyer (and mother of two young children) threw some grease on the fire recently by quitting her big DC law firm with an email to her colleagues that recounted a rather rough day, hour by hour. (That link goes to Lisa Belkin’s post about it at the HuffPo; scroll down to see the time log in all its glorious detail).

A short recap: She was woken up by her baby in the middle of the night, spent 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. dealing with her kids and traffic to daycare and work, worked from 9:20 a.m. to 6 p.m. on various lawyerly things, was late to pick up her kids because she didn’t have approval to send an email to a client until 5:50, the kids screamed in traffic on the way home, she fed everyone chicken nuggets, then lost the battle with her husband over who had to do bedtime duty. After she got the kids down at 9, she fired back up the computer, fell asleep at her desk, got back up close to midnight to finish, took a shower and then went to bed at 1:30 a.m. She wrote to her colleagues that she was leaving because she was unable to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family.

I sympathize with the bad day. I’ve had a few like that. There was a particularly ripe one a few weeks ago where I had two big project deadlines hanging over me — one of which definitely needed a lot more work to be done. After being up until midnight working, I woke up at 5 a.m. with a screaming baby. Because my husband was out of town, I was on kid duty with the baby and then the older two until 9 a.m. when our nanny showed up. I worked rather feverishly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., when she left. Then I had kid duty from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., at which point it was back to work. On days like that, I resent the time it takes to shower. Fun stuff.

But I’m not sure that quitting one’s job is the obvious answer to a brutal day. In our culture, where we’re still not entirely comfortable with women having big careers, it’s a narrative that seems to make sense. “Working” is the thing that’s out of place, so “working” is always the suspect variable. The narrative goes something like this: “I had a bad day at work and at home. That must be because it’s impossible to combine career and family. Therefore, I need to quit one, and I can’t really quit the family. So the job has to go.” But to someone with a different perspective (like, perhaps, this woman’s husband???) reacting to a bad day or a string of bad days (note the REPEAT on her email) by quitting one’s job might seem like a non sequitur. Here, for instance are some other narratives one could employ:

1. I had a bad day…and therefore I had a bad day. Some days are awesome and some suck. Such is the human condition. There is no further lesson to be gleaned from this. This tends to be my feeling on such things. Also, I know for a fact that one has awful days as a stay-at-home parent of two young children, too, even with no paid work to muck things up. The stress is different, but it’s very much still there. From 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in her former job, our lawyer heroine could at least go to the bathroom by herself.

2. I had a bad day…and therefore we need a childcare situation that eases my burden. This lawyer was getting two young kids ready in addition to herself, and driving them to and from daycare. Hiring a full-time nanny could be roughly equivalent, financially, to having two kids in daycare. The difference is that the kids wouldn’t have to be ready by the time she left. She could spend time in the morning just hanging out with them, rather than racing to get them ready. She also wouldn’t have to spend the time in traffic with them. The nanny could feed the kids and give them a bath, so family evening time could be more relaxed. Good childcare is expensive but so, incidentally, is quitting one’s job.

3. I had a bad day…and therefore my husband needs to step up his game. It seems a little unfair that our heroine was getting the kids ready, bringing them to daycare, picking them up, making dinner, and doing the bedtime routine. It’s not like her husband was in Paris. It’s clear from the time log that he was there. And he was home by 7:45 p.m. when the argument over bed/bath ensued. One never knows what the situation is in a family (perhaps he was the “on” parent the entire previous week while she was traveling?) But it is certainly easier to combine career and family if one’s partner is doing a reasonable chunk of the work. 

4. I had a bad day…and therefore I need more control of my time. Maybe she could have negotiated for this in her current role. Maybe she could have been more explicit in her work parameters. Maybe she could have asked to work from home 1-2 days a week and skip the traffic. After all, if her alternative was to quit, what did she have to lose by asking?

5. I had a bad day…and the reality is that I didn’t like my job anyway. Our heroine is certainly not the only unhappy lawyer in this world. Some of these unhappy lawyers are moms, and some aren’t. If you love what you’re doing, it can feel fun to fire the computer back up after the kids go to bed, not like some punishment imposed on you. The work is what you’d want to be doing anyway. If that’s not the case, then maybe you’re not in the right job. Motherhood provides women with a socially sanctioned reason to quit, but when we use that excuse for what is really a different matter, we just make things harder for women down the road.

On a side note: I love the genre of resignation emails. Some are matter-of-fact (here’s where I’m working next; here’s how to reach me). But others attempt for eloquence, trying to sum up one’s contributions and thanking everyone involved. Others are fascinating passive-aggressive attempts to insult the people at the company one is leaving. I saw one once from a person who was looking forward to leaving because this person could now focus on the priorities of God, family, and work — in that order. Hmmm….



27 thoughts on “Lawyers who quit, and other stories

  1. I always wish they’d do a follow up 1 year later, and see how much the woman they profiled likes her new life. Personally, I find a day at home with the kids far more stressful and harder to handle on disrupted sleep than I find a day at my job. Of course, that is part of the reason I kept my job when I had the kids. I know that there are plenty of other people who feel differently- my own mother, for instance! But I sort of wish someone would do the follow up, much like they do the follow up stories on people who quit their corporate jobs to start a pottery business or whatnot, and a year later have realized that their dream life is a lot harder than they anticipated.
    I like your alternate narratives. I’ve had some really crappy days, too. And I’ve had entire weeks and months where my schedule just seems impossibly tight. I won’t lie- I’ve thought of quitting my job. But in my dreams I don’t quit to stay home with the kids. I quit to start my own company, or go out on my own as a contractor, or something like that. What keeps me from actually quitting is that I know full well that the lives that sound nicer/easier in my dreams would be just as hard, if not harder. So instead, I talk to my husband and we try to rebalance things and get through the crunch times. Because they aren’t all crunch times, at least not for me.

    1. @Cloud – yes, it would be interesting to see a year later follow-up. Having little kids is stressful, whether you’re in the workforce or not. I think there’s a lot of grass-is-greener thinking going on.

  2. I don’t know any women who LIKE their jobs who quit because of kids, so I see point 5 as the most relevant issue. At my former employer, Hewlett Packard, under the CEO who is now gone for ethics violations, the unofficial policy was “We’ll make everyone work 50 hr/week plus travel and those who don’t, we’ll lay off.”

    If the dads could quit, they would too, and in some families they do. HP treated men and women about equally poorly for those years, and job security there is still nonexistent.

    But putting up with corporate bureaucracy and minimal job security to provide your kids with food, housing, clothing, heat and health insurance is different from being in the same situation for $2.82/hr after taxes and childcare.

    1. Ah, the ramifications of being the primary or secondary earner in a family. I believe it was the author of that “Get to Work” manifesto who said the worst choice for women who wanted to combine work and family was to marry a man who earned just slightly more than you did. If he earns a lot more, then presumably he’s earning a lot, and you can afford to outsource things, or else he’s reached a point in his career where he has more flexibility. If he earns slightly less, then he’s the secondary earner whose paycheck we always compare to the cost of childcare and marriage-penalty taxes.

      1. That sounds pretty logical. I think women with healthy pregnancies or average-or-above fertility may underestimate the effects of pregnancy complications, especially with multiple pregnancies/losses and fertility treatment on one’s career trajectory. Unfortunately, those issues affect 10-25% of all women and so shouldn’t be ignored in the “which spouse” analysis.

  3. Before I was enlightened to these alternative narratives, my reference was a trip with a high-energy saleswoman. We left about 6 A.M., and she said she’d been up at 1:30 AM because, besides getting ready for the trip, she “had to vacuum.” After she offered me some kind of energy pills (caffeine?), which I declined, she told me that her husband did not cook, she had to get up early on Sunday to get her kids to church (no evening service?), and other things and made herself sound like a martyr. That experience, plus other blanket “men don’t help out around the house” statements by moms, made me skeptical about a woman’s ability to have a family and a big career.

    But the more I’ve thought about that trip, I’ve wondered, Why in the world was that woman up at 1:30 A.M. vacuuming? With the big bucks she and her husband were making, surely they could have hired a housecleaning service. She may have had OCD, but this story is similar to other stories I hear from mothers…which brings me to my second question: How universal is the “men won’t help out at home” claim?

    1. @Susan – vacuuming at 1:30 a.m. sounds more OCD than anything else. I am not sure I subscribe to the “men won’t help out at home” narrative. I’m sure some men don’t, but I think preferences play a big role here too. If a man (or woman!) doesn’t feel daily vacuuming is necessary, why should he/she be held to half of someone else’s standards? I think these standards are best negotiated together, then split. If one party has higher standards than those agreed upon, he/she is welcome to do more, but should think of that activity more as a leisure pursuit.

  4. I agree. I “retired” from my job this past July. I had more than one bad day, I had a series of them, and discussions with my boss about changing some of the working conditions that led to them went nowhere.

    When, financially, it became possible for me to quit, I did. I was planning to leap into something else almost immediately, but for various reasons, did not end up doing so. Then I got sick for a month and a half. I’ve found this time “off” to be a lifesaver. If I’d been trying to start a new job or career while being this sick, I would have failed.

    I’ve had several people, and in fact men more than women, tell me they wish they had a similar chance to take some similar time off from working.

    1. @Karen – it is interesting to go from a structured work environment to something different. While I haven’t ever really taken time off from work, per se, when I started freelancing, time felt very very different. It was an interesting feeling – but now it feels normal to wake up and not have to be somewhere on a work day at a set time. I really look forward to hearing what sort of career or new direction you plan to pursue when your mini-retirement ends.

  5. I think saying that society isn’t comfortable with women having careers is an easy scapegoat and almost entirely untrue (there will always be those stuck in the past). I have grown up and been surrounded by women bosses for my entire career and no one blinks an eye at a women in a high position – it is no different than a man in that position. I think it is an easy scapegoat used instead of addressing the issue of women trying to be that amazing Wonder Woman that can be everything! My mom died prematurely because she tried to be everything and the best on all fronts and didn’t relinquish some control when it became too much. No one person can be a full time parent and have a full time career, man or woman, give and take must occur on both sides for it to be possible.

    1. @Jordan – thanks for your comment. I’m not sure how one defines a “full time parent” vs. a full time career. The average full-time worker who is female puts in 35-40 hours a week, per time logs. It is quite possible to spend 35 hours on work related matters and 35 hours on family matters. Then you still have — in the 168 hours we all have per week — 56 hours to sleep, and 42 hours for other things. In reality, parents of all stripes spend a lot fewer hours than that actually focused on their kids (again, per time logs).

  6. I love this post.
    Anybody see that move xxx this waltz with michelle williams (who isn’t married and has only 1 kid but probably doesn’t have it easier than the rest of us) takes the what about that grass on t he other side view of marriage… honestly laura’s writing her on the day of the lawyer made me laugh it looks like me most days and I thought corp lawyers worked more than small business owners — do think how much you like your job has something to do with how willing you are to quit…
    agree with 1 and 2.. think that to get 3 you need to be the boss or not the 20th person down the corporate ladder at a huge corporate law firm — aka win the womens’ vote not talking about abortion but by making more women entrepreneurs or bosses, not the20th onedownat a big company etc. —
    For No. 3… haven’t had much looking willing that to happen myself.. sometimes it happens but not sure that that one is as easy as the others to do… and yes I’ve seen the “I married better than you posts so deal” but think the are not right on .. women do more that is the reality what can we do about it…

  7. to the comment about marrying a guy who makes sightly more than you or to the 2.82 an hour … honestly this is more the conversation I think conservatives needt o have with middle and upper middle women if they want to keep the woman’s vote… drop the obsession with abortion and start talking about what life is like in america for a woman who has an education but marries a guy who makes slightly more than she does…. for whom “the choice” talked about here is to earn $50-75 or 80K doing something she loves only to see 50% of it go to taxes and the other 25% or so go to childcare.. not much of a “choice” is it…

  8. Love this post. I remember thinking “what happened to the woman’s husband?” when I first read this. I am sure that there might be legit reasons for her to be handling the load that day but it still puzzled me.

    I often think to myself when friends say they’re quitting because their income = day care or nanny, why don’t they calculate the huge loss of future income? At one point the kids go to school so that huge expense is temporary. Most likely you won’t be able to get a job that pays as well as the one you left. Also, even if you “only” make $1,000 or $5,000 ‘extra’, that extra could be invested for retirement.

    Even though I can understand the allure of staying home and having more time with kids, I do think that the real reason often isn’t even about income; it’s about hating the job in the first place and wanting a way out.

    1. There really aren’t that many good ways out of a bad job. If motherhood is a socially acceptable one, why not use it?

      1. @Karen – I worry about the collateral damage. I think there are so many obstacles to women’s progress already, and so when people use motherhood as a reason, that makes younger women think they’re telling the full truth — that it’s “impossible” to combine a career and family — when the broader truth is that perhaps someone didn’t like the job, had the financial ability to leave, and did.

        1. How often are we dishonest about career prospects on the positive side? I’m in the Society of Women Engineers, and I wonder why we don’t tell young women that well over half of female engineers leave the field due to its inflexibility and divorce rates are much higher for women who remain employed than for comparably educated/married women who don’t.

          It’s not clear how much of the difference in divorce rates is because employed women feel freer to leave a marriage and how much because of more fighting over household chores/unplanned business trips by both partners.

    2. @OilandGarlic – I agree on the folly of using point-in-time analysis. If you keep working, your income will most likely rise and over time your childcare bills will fall. So if you like your job, even if you’re only earning $2.82/hour after taxes and childcare (or whatever the number was, above), that’s fine. Because if you quit, you’d still be living on just your partner’s salary anyway.

      1. also a woman’s willingness to leave her job probably is directly related to whether or not her mother stayed home etc. as the child of a single parent no way no matter how much i love my man I’d opt out of earning… but for many women this is still their narrative… would love to see research on this..

        1. From the research I’ve seen (and can’t cite), a woman’s decision also depends heavily on whether her husband’s mother stayed home and his opinions about that.

          One of the depressing things I’ve observed over ~15 years in engineering is that women who remain employed are much more likely to divorce than women who don’t, assuming similar husbands. For one of my colleagues, the divorce was related to her husband’s decision to take yet-another new job. This one was in Fairbanks, Alaska, where she couldn’t readily get a job. In a more traditional marriage, she would have just moved with him anyway, but she wasn’t willing to.

          So her kids grow up without a Dad, and she has the stress of single parenting, because her husband is unwilling to compromise. This is not uncommon among driven, professional men. And women (often younger) still are willing to marry them after they’re divorced from the first wife, while the first wives often remain single.

  9. I loved and agreed with all of your ‘alternate endings’. I have zero issue with women who choose not to work outside the home; I admire them in many ways as staying home with my kids while retaining my sanity is not a skill I possess. I take GREAT exception to these types of stories being help up, as they sometimes are, as “proof” that women cannot succesfully be both mom and employee.

    As a working mom in a dynamic career (that I love), I manage my household, my husband, and my children, multiple calendars, schelping to appointments, school functions and events, afterschool activities, AND manage to attend online classes for my 2nd Masters degree all while training for a half marathon!

    I am repeatedly met with people who tell me they work 60 hour weeks and don’t have to time exercise…my thought, as it was with the subject woman of your article, is that they need a copy of ‘168 hours!’.

  10. I don’t understand why we’re second guessing this woman’s motivations. It wasn’t like the Slaughter article where she wrote an article – this email was “leaked” to the press.

    What if she really, actually wants to spend more time with her kids and house? Why is that not ok? Not everyone who has the means to “outsource everything” WANTS to.

    I could hire a night nanny to wake up with the baby 3x a night, but I don’t have any desire to do that.

    I prefer the HuffPo’s analysis that there’s something wrong with our work culture rather than pointing out all the things this woman is supposedly doing wrong.

    For the record, I don’t think doing house chores at 1am is OCD. Some people are calmed by having a clean house, or need to complete a task with a clear endpoint. And if you have insomnia or are already awake, maybe 1:30 is a fine time to do those things.

  11. Also, some people would not want a nanny instead of daycare. We chose center-based care specifically so our kid could interact with others her age, and also because if someone calls in sick, it’s not a mad scramble to figure out who’s going to care for the kid. Also good daycares have things like breaks, etc so if someone is getting frustrated, they have a way to get backup, etc.

  12. I’ve gotta say, my first thought was, “you are fighting and fighting with your husband and now you think it is a great move to become totally economically dependent on this guy????”.

  13. When we spent a year living in a city we had playdates with many SAHM. The ones who were consistently miserable had been lawyers before having kids, and it sounded like they were even more miserable prior when they were lawyers. We had to wonder that maybe they would have been happier still working, maybe part-time even, but someplace other than one of those high powered law firms that sucks your soul. But it seemed like the only way they could justify leaving the high paying high status job was for a higher calling, but they still had those student loans, so the husband had to work extra and they were always stressed. A cautionary tale for would-be law students, I guess.

  14. I am so late to the party here, but so glad I came. Thank you, thank you ARC for saying so many of the things that I want to say. I am an attorney and I immediately empathized with this woman’s story. As I read Laura’s post (which I thought was great by the way), I couldn’t help thinking that it’s very presumptuous to think that a resignation letter or a blog post could do any more than barely scratch the surface on the layers of complexity of the resigning lawyer’s life or what went into making a decision. As I read the post, I got the impression that the conclusion was that this woman somehow made an irrational, heat of the moment decision when it’s more likely that she has been wrestling and considering her situation over an extended period of time. I know I do. In fact, I am struggling with the same decision myself and I earn twice as much as my husband! I also work for a great company and have a boss that gives me reasonable flexibility (she has two children the same age as mine and totally gets it!) It’s not just about finding a career/job that you like. I liken it to the same thought process or strategic planning that companies, particularly successful ones do, in determining the best way to channel their resources. Companies who intend to thrive, appreciate the fact that sometimes it’s necessary to pursue certain service or product lines over others simply because that type of strategic focus allows an organization to excel at what it does (think Steve Jobs philosophy). Strong organizations resist the temptation to spread their resources too broadly until their core service/product is stable and thriving. For me, the core service line starts with me and my sanity/emotional stability. Therefore, it is important to structure one’s life in a way that’s meaningful to you. The financial situation is not always the only important part. I say if you feel like the plane is going down, it’s time to find your own oxygen mask before tending to others. Unfortunately, putting your oxygen mask on first may momentarily prolong the suffering of the person next to you who needs help, but with oxygen you can focus on how you can best serve the needs of those around you from a place of strength. I commend this woman for acting courageously in light of the tremendous fear and unknowns that stood before her. Having walked away from a job under similar circumstances, I know that drastic change like this can also open the door to a path that may never have been revealed otherwise. It’s about what works best for you and your family. That’s not necessarily the same as what works perfectly.

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