“The Opt-Out Revolution,” an article which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on October 26, 2003, by Lisa Belken, is generally credited to be the first major article examining the ‘opt-out’ phenomenon. The article has spawned multiple responsive articles and books, some praising and some lambasting Belken and the ideas presented in her article. (The article is available in its entirety at
The women Belken interviewed and profiled were Princeton graduates and members of a book club - admittedly white beneficiaries of top-tier educations (generally with graduate degrees,) married to successful, equally educated men. (As one might imagine, many of the critiques of the article begin with the limited sample of women, and their highly privileged situations.) The women’s professional backgrounds were varied, but lumped together by Belken under the umbrella of high-powered fast-track careers.
When the glossy New York Times Magazine arrived on my doorstep, the article struck a particular chord. At that time, I was a new associate at a large law-firm beginning to wonder how I could possibly manage to balance my career, my marriage, and the children I hoped to have in the next few years. I was curious about these women who, in my mind, had thrown their careers away.
Looking back, I now find it interesting that three of the Princeton book-club members quoted in Belken’s article are attorneys. (She never reveals the total number of book-club members, but one can reasonably presume it was a relatively small group.) Belken did not comment on the (perhaps) disproportionate representation of lawyers profiled in her article, or compare the situation of the attorneys with the women in other professions. (Belken focused primarily on comparing attitudes of women of differing generations.)
The very first book-club member quoted in Belken’s article is one of those three attorneys. True to lawyer form, Karen Browkaw is discussing the definition of a particular term: success. ”I don’t want to be on the fast track leading to a partnership at a prestigious law firm,” Ms. Brokaw is quoted as saying. ”Some people define that as success. I don’t.” While Ms. Brokaw never actually defines success, we learn that she had left the ‘fast-track’ to stay home with her three children.
The tipping point in Ms. Browkaw’s decision to opt-out was a bumped-up trial date which required her to spend three months working fifteen hour days, seven days a week, while simultaneously nursing her baby daughter – who was not yet sleeping through the night. When Brokaw’s trial date arrived, the judge postponed the case – to go fishing for two weeks. Later the judge postponed the case indefinitely.
“Finally, when the case was pulled from the calendar, I did a lot of soul-searching,” Ms. Brokaw is quoted as saying. “My life, my home life and my new family life were at the mercy of other people’s whims. The judge had chosen to go fishing. My partners [at the law firm] had chosen not to place my request [for a part-time schedule] on high-enough priority.”
Eventually, Ms. Brokaw decided that while the ultimate goal of becoming partner would reward her financially, she felt it would actually make her day-to-day life worse. So, she quit. Her story ends with Brokaw saying, ”I wish it had been possible to be the kind of parent I want to be and continue with my legal career, but I wore myself out trying to do both jobs well.”
The next lawyer Belken introduces is Vicky McElhaney Benedict. Ms. Benedict’s career path is described as quite different from that of Ms. Brokaw – practicing law for nine months before leaving her law firm to work in a university development office. Ms. Benedict then quit that job while on maternity leave with her first child. While this career path would be disappointing to the majority of women lawyers I know, Belken quotes Ms. Benedict as saying, “Even before I became a mother, I suspected I wouldn’t go back to work.” She describes her decision to follow her then-boyfriend, now husband, to a different city at the very beginning of her career, “because I knew that the long-term career was going to be his.”
The third and final lawyer introduced by Belken refuses to be identified. She is a litigator whose firm – unlike Ms. Browkaw’s – actually had granted her request to work ‘part-time.’ We quickly learn that the ‘part-time’ track is not a panacea. This attorney rhetorically asks, ”How do you litigate part time? It’s supposed to be 10 to 5 — at a law firm, that’s part time — but lately I’ve been working until 4 a.m. because I have a project due. It’s the type of job where if something’s due, you work until it’s done.”
Ms. Brokaw, on the other hand, comes across as a bit more defensive of her decision. Belken quotes her as saying, ”Don’t make me look like some 1950′s Stepford wife.” She emphasizes that in the years since she had left her law firm, she had helped found the Atlanta Girls’ School, and had also raised a successful challenge to a bridge that was to have spilled its traffic into her residential neighborhood. ”I use my legal skills every day,” Browkaw reportedly states. For her, using her degree is clearly very important, but her compensation need not be monetary. Instead, for Ms. Brokaw, adequate compensation consists of living her own definition of ‘success’.
The anonymous attorney doesn’t specifically state her level of job satisfaction at her ‘part-time’ job – for which she presumably receives ‘part-time’ pay – but reading between the lines this reader, at least, assumes that she is not pleased with her situation, yet sees no alternative to remain a practicing lawyer.
So, what conclusions can we draw from Ms. Belken’s now eight-year-old article? I conclude that in regards to the reasons mother-lawyers ‘opt out,’ things haven’t changed very much. Some mother-lawyers such as Ms. Benedict (although in my estimate, this is a very small minority of mother-lawyers) enter the field assuming that they may practice law, but knowing that while their children are small, they will stay home. They also assume that staying home is only a phase. “This is what I was meant to do at this time,” (emphasis mine.)
Some mother-lawyers such as Ms. Brokaw struggle along, striving perfection in juggling job and kids until they realize that: the juggling will never, never end; that their ‘work product’ – both at the office and at home – is suffering in quality; and that the juggling will only get harder as they advance into more responsibility at work, and/or have a second or third child.
Other mother-lawyers, such as Ms. Anonymous, try to cut back, but find that it is impossible, and so they toil along, with fear of negative repercussions at work if their true feelings are revealed and a sense of unhappiness in their day-to-day lives.
Because her article did not address mothers who choose to work full-time in high-powered, fast-track careers, we don’t have an example of why or how those mothers get along, or how ‘happy’ they perceive themselves. (More on that at a later date.) Similarly, because her article did not focus specifically on mother-lawyers, we are not presented with suggestions for improving work-life balance in the law.
As for me? I relate most closely to Ms. Brokaw. I was plagued by the very real fear that it was only a matter of time before my juggling resulted in dropping a very important ball. I was either going to (a) commit malpractice, (b) leave a child in a snow-bank, (c) have a nervous break-down, or (d) all of the above. I was betting on answer (d) – clearly an unsustainable path.
And, like Ms. Anonymous, I’m no longer sure that it is possible for the practice of law to be ‘family friendly’ due to its very nature. (Again, more on that later).
What about you?
What are your thoughts on Belken’s article?
Over the next weeks, I will examine some of the stand-out books and articles that followed Belken’s initial foray into the world of ‘opting-out,’ hopefully teasing out how they may apply to the legal profession, and to mother-lawyers specifically. I hope you’ll join me.