Mother Lawyer: A Perspective on Work/Life Balance

The Bencher—November/December 2016

By Kristen S. Swift, Esquire

I always knew I wanted to be an attorney. I admit, I had an idealistic picture of what it would be like to practice law. I started my law school adventure part-time as an evening student while working full-time during the day. I had classes several nights a week and would normally devote Saturday and Sunday to studying. The pace was rigorous. I had to find a way to take care of my three children, my husband, myself, and to excel at my studies. I was chasing an ideal, and that ideal helped me cope.

Sometimes, driving back from class at night after an 18-hour day, I would ask myself: “Did I take on too much? Are my children okay without my constant attention? Will they understand why I am doing this and one day seek to do better for themselves?” My children were okay. They were usually better than okay because, as the wisdom says, “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” and I was doing something that made me happy—tired, but happy. The time I spent with my family was quality time and my children were my motivation to work hard.

Often I would have “light at the end of the tunnel” moments, when I would focus on what might be coming down the road if I could stick it out. I would remind myself why I went to law school. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and it would be worth it, so we all hung in there. My children became accustomed to being on the go; my husband and I, already used to balancing full-time work with raising a family, became even better at planning and communication. I was okay, even when I wasn’t.

During my 3L year, I became pregnant with my fourth child. By this time, I had gone to the law school-sponsored seminars on work–life balance, listened to the seasoned attorneys who had walked so steadily towards the light at the end of the tunnel that they burned out, heard stories from women attorneys who chose to delay starting families so they could be considered for partnership, and  encountered a steady stream of female attorneys who just weren’t considered at all—for partnership, promotion, handling a case solo, or mentorship on client development.

I knew the task ahead, to be a full-time mother lawyer, would not be easy. By this time, I had also started to develop my own battle stories. One developed during on-campus interviews: Brimming with hope and flying high into this world of possibility, I was rebuffed by my interviewer after naively revealing during the interview that I had children. (Plural. Not just one child.) And just like that, my rose-colored glasses came off. So did my gloves. I was in this fight now even more than I had been before. After all, I had an idealistic reason for being in law school in the first place—to pursue truth and justice. And that on-campus interview was a very unjust experience delivered to me by someone who represented the very people I had trusted not to act so stereotypically. So I dug in and became even more committed to doing it all and being it all, because I had been fighting all along and had come such a long way, and there was no way I was giving up on myself or on those around me. Giving up would have been easy—expensive, but easy. And although I knew when I started out that I had not signed up for easy, I was now starting to get a sense of what that actually meant.

I encountered a prevailing mentality that a woman could not have it all if “all” meant a family and a successful lawyering career, unless she was willing to wait to have a family. And if said woman comes with a family in tow, then she should avoid private practice, the underlying assumption always being that the cases in private practice are too demanding and that naturally someone in my situation would want—or could only handle—a less demanding job. On the rare occasion when a woman did have it all, then her smiling face would be bannered across the work–life section on big law websites. This, of course, is advertising; the firm is selling the expectation that when a woman signs on to work for them, she’ll be given the allowances needed to have it all. Does that happen? My gut says no, but I saw women embracing the legal field and buying into that promise. Although they were few and far between, they became my heroes.

I studied these women, read about their career trajectories, and spoke with them when possible. I figured out that, like them, I would need a strong support system if I wanted to have it all. I took to heart the idea that it takes a village, and started gathering my village. I put down roots in my community, started regularly attending church, pulled my extended family in, and worked to strengthen my existing friendships. It seemed to me that the women who “had it all” really just had grit and support from their friends and families and one or two professional colleagues willing to champion them. I concluded that to have it all is not to do it all. Instead, it is to work with those around you and to be there for others, while letting others be there for you. These women were smart enough to know when they needed assistance, humble enough to ask for and accept it, and kind enough to assist in return. Now, because of these women, my work–life balance means that I am a part of a village and I act in kind.

Mark Twain bestowed upon us the wisdom that comparison is the death of joy. Comparison can prevent you from building a village, because it draws your focus to differences rather than on how you can build each other up. If comparison to others was the measuring stick I had to use to gauge my own success by, I would be perpetually caught in the middle. That is the opposite of balance. But breaking free from internal comparisons to others is hard.

It’s especially hard for lawyers because we are taught in law school and after to compare ourselves to one another. The top-tier schools produce the top-tier firm hires; to have any shot at success you need to be at the top, on top of everyone else around you. This top-heavy emphasis means that you have to be better than, not less than or even equal to. Our profession, though noble in many respects, perpetuates this propaganda. If you accept this mentality, then you must also accept the necessary built-in imbalance of your work–life roles. If you do not want to accept this mentality, then you are faced with a conundrum: How can I be better than everyone else (read, “Successful”) without comparing myself to everyone else (“maintain my sanity”)? This conundrum left me feeling unanchored, adrift on an endless, purposeless Mobius strip, until I solved it for myself.

The best answer I have come up with is to know my own worth, and to do that without comparison to others. Knowing I am inherently worthy helps me feel balanced, and it chases away my fears. I am empowered and knowing myself, just like knowing I have support from my village, helps me maintain balance. I also know I am not better than anyone else, and I am okay with that because being better than my neighbor is not my goal. My goal is to be my personal best.

This feeling of balance then extends to the work I prepare and other goals I set for myself. Now, instead of constantly chasing a nebulous and ever-changing concept of work–life balance, my balance comes from within. I no longer think about having it all or about doing it all, knowing that I do and have enough.

Kristen S. Swift, Esquire, works for a Fortune 100 corporation and lives in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with her husband, four kids, and village. She is a member of the Randy J. Holland Delaware Workers’ Compensation American Inn of Court and the Richard S. Rodney American Inn of Court.

©2016 Kristen S. Swift, Esquire. This article was originally published in the November/December 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.