2012 was a good year for women lawyers.
Although the statistics for women partners in law firms continued to be disappointing, women lawyers made significant impacts in other settings. In 2012, we saw women attorneys emerge as strong and influential world leaders.
Angela Merkel, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Christine LaGarde, to name just a few, showed themselves to be impressive and no-nonsense leaders advancing economic, social and political change. They all used their legal educations and practicing experience to make their marks. Lesser known women lawyers -- including Atifete Jahjaga in Kosovo, Guo Jianmei in China, Anabella de Leon in Guatemala, and Pratibha Patil in India -- took broad strides to change the world.
A record number of women are now counted among the members of the US Congress, many of them also lawyers. Most of them prevailed in tough contests against their male counterparts to get there, and they are committed to changing business as usual in Washington. In other words, there is a leadership theme developing for women lawyers, both at home and abroad.
As a lawyer with over 25 years experience who currently works as an observer, writer and lecturer about women in the profession, I think that women lawyers can do even better in 2013. Both men and women lawyers alike should experience improved professional circumstances this year if the economy continues to improve.
A more robust economy means more hiring, and more hiring means more satisfied and fulfilled lawyers. If there is more money in the pipeline from increased demand for legal services, salaries will improve as well, and the alternative work models that women often need to survive the work-life struggle are not as apt to be viewed as destructive to the law firm or company bottom line. All of that sounds a lot better than what we have been experiencing since 2008.
More importantly, perhaps, this is the year when women lawyers have the opportunity to reverse course and embrace the concept that they can have it all. Yes, they can.
Some women lawyers can have it all because they are on an equal footing with men, and other women lawyers, who have greater responsibilities in their personal lives than the men they work for and compete against, can also have it all -- just not all of it, all of the time. However, having all of it some of the time, and some of it all of the time is not a bad tradeoff if you can salvage your career and stay true to the responsibilities of your personal life.
In 2012, women were told by Anne Marie Slaughter's infamous essay published in The Atlantic that women cannot have it all. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook also led women to believe that if they do not aspire to the corner office all of the time, they are not fit to be there. Both of these messages received a fair amount of push back, and rightfully so. The intentions might have been virtuous, but the messages were harsh. Too harsh for women in this day and age. We have more choices than that, and we know it... or at least we should.
Let's set the record straight in 2013 and throw off those one size fits all concepts of success. We need to get creative and embrace our own personal definitions of achievement. We can send a message that the shots heard 'round the world in 2012 were not relevant to most of us. We can stop measuring ourselves against the rest of the players in our profession and learn to dig deep and come up with what is important in our lives and make a plan that works for us for the long haul.
Not only can we can do this, but we must do this. Our futures individually and as a group depend on it. We must position ourselves correctly to fix the backwards slippery slide that we experienced last year -- a year when women lawyers started to doubt themselves more than ever and began to accept their fates as puppets of a male-controlled profession. To do this, we must understand that the male stereotypes for success do not work for many of us, and we must chart our own courses and not be influenced by the naysayers. In some respects, that slippery slide has been going on since the late 1960s when the leaders of the Women's Liberation Movement told us that we could have everything that men have. I know, I was there and remember the euphoria of hearing the message. However, women soon discovered the true meaning of work-life struggle, and the decades following have seen record numbers of women, discouraged by their inability to be successful according to an irrelevant set of indicators, leave the profession. It is now time for a new kind of liberation for women lawyers, one that recognizes reality, individual circumstances and professional and personal goals and does not depend on the way men define work and success.
Careers last a long time and some phases of careers are more satisfying than others. However, this does not mean that we should abandon our professional goals because the going gets tough when the babies arrive, or when we have additional responsibilities for the aged or the infirm in our personal lives. These things pass, and the career is still there -- or at least we hope it's still there. But that takes planning, vision, and grit.
Even if we follow through and take control of our professional futures, women lawyers will continue to struggle with advancing to leadership positions in male-dominated law firms and the need for part-time work or flexible hours, even if those concessions should be seen as investments in the future. Proving professional value early on will be key to gaining those concessions and advancing in leadership. However, for some women lawyers, it will mean bold moves to leave big firms and go solo or join a smaller practice. For others it will mean transitioning into different practice settings entirely, taking their experiences and talents to the non-profit world, or the public sector, or in-house. This can be scary business, but is it not half as scary as the thought of completely abandoning a profession that you fought hard (and are probably still paying) for.
It is not only a wonderful time for women lawyers, it is a wonderful time for women lawyers to dare to dream and to make their dreams come true.