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There’s a New Episode of ‘Mommy Wars’ at the American Bar Association

July 16, 2021, 3:00 PM

Women lawyers get a lot of advice—too much, if you ask me—which is why I initially barely bothered to read Susan Smith Blakely’s recent article “Are women lawyers paying enough attention to upward mobility?” in the ABA Journal. I skimmed it quickly and thought to myself: Yeah, it’s the usual advice on how women need to stay in the game, be strategic, and shouldn’t get too hung up about being perfect. Yada. Yada.

Well, I guess I should’ve read it more carefully.

Because all nine female ABA presidents—past and current—are slamming Blakely as the latest anti-feminist—some sort of Phyllis Schlafly reincarnated.

Writing in the ABA Journal and joined by the other former female presidents, ABA president Patricia Lee Refo calls Blakely’s opinions “antithetical to the core beliefs and principles of the American Bar Association.” Women’s “lack of upward mobility,” writes Refo, “is not because women are not putting in the time and effort, nor is it because they are distracted by other concerns in their lives.” Rather, she cites “systemic issues” in the “promotion and retention of women attorneys.” She adds: “Blaming women attorneys is appalling.”

Harsh words. But did Blakely, who’s long been an advocate for women in the profession, deserve such a public slapping?

What got Blakely in trouble, it seems, is what she says about motherhood’s impact on careers: “There is nothing that can derail a career faster than the responsibilities of motherhood—ask any successful woman lawyer with children. It is a game changer that can cause very busy women lawyers to lose focus.”

Blakely goes on to write that women, despite their large representation in the legal profession, are still saddled with primary responsibilities at home because “little children typically look to Mommy for on-time meals, rides to school. . . and general comfort and care. And that is especially true when Daddy is a busy professional, too.”

Because “motherhood is demanding” and women are “exhausted,” Blakely warns that women must be mindful of their roles as leaders and mentors—lest they lose out on opportunities. Her basic advice: Women “should keep their eyes on their career goals”—and not be overwhelmed with the immediate demands of motherhood.

So what’s so controversial about all this? I didn’t find the message offensive (or that original), though, arguably, Blakely could’ve been a bit more artful about delivering it. Her tone can be a bit patronizing (“I applaud lawyer moms for their best efforts in keeping all the balls in the air,” she writes). And I instinctively cringed when Blakey suggested that motherhood causes “women lawyers to lose focus”—which, to me, conjured the unfortunate stereotype of the irrational woman ruled by hormones. You might also fault her for painting a rather retro picture of family life—all that stuff about children clinging to mommy, as if the modern dad has hardly evolved since the days of Ward Cleaver.

But what about her broader point—that motherhood derails careers—something which Blakely says “any successful woman lawyer with children” can attest to?

Perhaps Blakely’s statement is too sweeping, but can anyone deny that motherhood profoundly affects how many women approach their careers? Unless she has a spouse whose career takes a second seat or a relative who’s a dedicated babysitter, I don’t know a single female lawyer who hasn’t reassessed her career—at least briefly—when she has kids. And that calculus, I’m quite sure, wouldn’t occur to male lawyers who become fathers.

Blakely believes she’s getting hammered because women—particularly younger women—don’t want to admit that reality. “I have heard from young lawyer moms who do not want to be treated any differently than the males in the profession on this issue, and they think I was singling them out,” Blakely told me. “They don’t want the suggestion that lawyer moms might be exhausted.” She adds, “they think that by pointing out the pitfalls in their paths I was blaming them for the systemic failures in the profession that are responsible for gender inequality. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I have written about those systemic failures over and over again.”

Indeed, I sense a generational shift in how women talk about careers, motherhood, and the whole mess. “I’ve learned to steer away from the whole topic,” says a female partner in her late forties at a major New York firm about the young women in her office who seek out her advice about balancing work and family. “If I tell them that sometimes the work comes first—that I’ve missed my children’s recitals and games—and how you can’t always be a great mom and lawyer, they get angry.” She adds, “they think they won’t run into the same problems [women have had]. Well, let them find out.”

But aren’t the ABA presidents who condemned Blakely older women too? Yes, agrees Blakely, though she says Refo’s article was “devoted almost entirely to a recitation of the systemic failures and gender inequities in the profession”—which Blakely says she agrees with. That said, Blakely adds, “I don’t have a clue why they would attack me,” noting that she’s “supported women lawyers for more than a decade.”

I also asked ABA president Refo for comment and she sent me a statement reiterating that Blakely’s opinions go against ABA’s “core beliefs and principles.” Refo also stresses Blakely’s views are simply wrong: “I believe they are misguided, for all generations of women lawyers. Systemic issues exist that hinder the promotion and retention of women attorneys, and they must be addressed. Blaming women attorneys is not the solution.”

But I’m not certain the case has been made that Blakely is blaming women. Sure, you can pick at her article for not sufficiently highlighting how the system fails women, but is her main message—that women have agency and need to be mindful about their long term career goals—truly that awful?

All this points to how women are struggling to talk openly and honestly about why we’re still behind in the legal profession. We’ve shifted from the Sheryl Sandburg “lean-in” school—where women were told to step up to the plate and assume their success—to “the system is rigged” school—where women’s actions and choices are not to be questioned.

Ladies, we all know it’s more complicated. Don’t we?

To contact the columnist: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

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