I Want a Child But I’m Worried About My Job

Q I’m in my second year as a large firm associate. My husband and I want to have a baby but I’m worried about how much it will affect my work, status, and promotion within the firm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be something talked about among other associates and partners, though I’ve only just recently tried to keep my ears open for clues about the firm’s general attitude. One female associate said it’s a “partner killer” while a male associate said, in somewhat vague terms, that I could have it all—part-time work, stay on partner track, lots of sympathy from everyone.

Basically, I’m wondering if there is a good time to get pregnant and have a baby while working in a big firm. I am 28 and want to have a baby before I’m in my early thirties. My husband is not a lawyer. Any thoughts?

A Sure. Get started. Trust your gut and do it. But, some serious caveats about me and my advice.

I’m not what you should consider in any way an expert on birthing a baby while holding down a big firm job. During my days in BigLaw, most if not all of my male lawyer colleagues resented women who went on maternity leave. Just being honest here. We were, for the most part, young, brash, and entitled, and believed it was possible to become partner so long as you worked long hours, did solid work, took small vacations, and didn’t complain. Kids were not in our sphere, and successful male senior partners took the attitude that any brood that you managed was to be enjoyed on “free weekends.” Kids were to be unseen, except for the obligatory family photos in the office.

That was my reality. Now let’s see if I can provide my inexperienced take on yours, though I’ve supplemented my knowledge by asking around, consulting with working law firm moms, and doing a bit of reading.

First, for what it’s worth, here’s what a study among academics found for having a child while also trying to get tenure:

Our most important finding is that family formation negatively affects women’s—but not men’s—academic careers. For men, having children can be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career killer. Women who do advance through the faculty ranks do so at a high personal price: They are far less likely to be married with children than are their male colleagues.

Substitute academic careers for big firm careers and faculty ranks to the firm and I have a hunch it’s the same. A hunch, mind you, but why would a law practice geared toward partnership be much different than an academic track geared toward tenure?

The fact that babyhood “doesn’t seem to be something talked about” isn’t exactly a great sign for your future, but then again I’m not aware of many—if any—large law firms in which baby talk is a regaled topic among its lawyers. At least not openly. From my days in BigLaw, the typical talk related to what our wives (or, more accurately, the partners’ wives) were doing at home with the kids.

Times, I hope, have changed.

Getting pregnant and having the baby isn’t really a big issue in a lot of law firms these days. After all, most everyone will be happy for you, at least initially happy and supportive. It’s what happens when and how you return that counts. How accommodating will the firm be? Is there on-site daycare? Can you breastfeed or pump without feeling like you have to hide? What’s the attitude of taking time off when you need it? How realistic is the firm in your leaving by 5:30 everyday, or earlier? Can you advance if you are 40 or 50 percent time? These are considerations and things to look at in your firm before you make a final decision. But the ultimate findings to consider, at least from my asking around, are these:

  • There is no perfect or preferred time to have a child in BigLaw.
  • Having a child will generally—though not always–negatively affect a women’s career. Just being honest;
  • Raising a child and working full time in a law firm is crazy hard, but doable, especially if you have the financial wherewithal and a supportive flexible partner/spouse to boot);
  • Your happiness is what counts. Trite but true, and that should be your focus. Regrets later will make you crazy, if not undeniably sad.
  • Trust your gut. Remember, your law firm isn’t in line to provide you with company and comfort when you get old.
  • Be emotionally prepared—you and your husband.

In the end, it’s what you want to do, not so much what everyone else thinks you should do. If you and your husband want to have a kid before you are in your mid-thirties and considered “geriatric,” then have one soon. Get started. Good luck.

Ex-Bitter is a former big firm lawyer who now doles out advice to anyone who asks. Got a question? Email it to advice@bitterlawyer.com. Or read more Advice from an Ex-Bitter.

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