Do men and women leave their law careers differently? With so much recent attention focused on whether women should lean in, pull back, or leave Yahoo, I was glad to see this post in the HBR blog reminding us that work/family issues affect men and women equally – at least in theory. That aspiration to gender neutrality doesn’t reflect current realities, for lawyers and everyone else, in the sense that women in dual earner families spend more time on housework and child care than men. I’m not sure we need statistics on this, but they exist. Women lawyers face unique challenges in law practice, and everyone knows that they leave BigLaw in larger numbers before reaching equity partnership than men do. But are there differences in how men and women lawyers find their next careers?
My informal research, including hundreds of interviews in the process of writing Life After Law, shows that women often take longer to start their post-law careers after leaving practice than men do, often in tandem with taking time off for family reasons. That’s the genesis of the “off-ramping/on-ramping” issue that concerned women lawyers’ professional groups, starting in the mid-90s and continuing today. But the diversity of women’s post-law careers, and the magnitude of their success, is no less than men’s. Women usually come back from time off with a renewed sense of confidence and a broadened sense of potential. For more on this phenomenon, I can’t recommend the wonderful iRelaunch group strongly enough. Their site is here.
Men may be more resistant to leaving high-status and/or high-income jobs than women, at least initially, for a variety of reasons. They receive a stronger cultural message that their self-worth is inseparable from their job title, and they often have a less heterogeneous sense of self than women do. At least for now, it’s harder for men to justify leaving their law jobs for family reasons. To the contrary, they may feel that the income law provides is a better way of providing for their family than taking time to be with them. I can’t wait for more men to feel more strongly that they have a realistic choice about work/family balance, and about their own professional options. That’s one of the reasons I encourage everyone to have a frank and unbounded discussion about how they really want to live, and how much of their life they want to spend at the office. Work/family integration and maximizing career satisfaction shouldn’t just be women’s issues. It’s not in women’s interests anyway. Until the work/family debate becomes less gendered, women’s options will be much more limited than they can and should be.