Combining Ambitious Careers with Family Life: Women in Commercial Litigation

By Jenny Branca | Editor-in-Chief

Women, much like men, have aspirations to be successful.  And women have been more successful today with pursuing ambitious careers while simultaneously maintaining a family.  But many women still need help finding a sensible balance between work and family pressures.

On April 21, 2015, the Commercial Division Online Law Report hosted a panel discussion at St. John’s Law School entitled “Increasing Diversity in Commercial Litigation: Why Aren’t There More Female Commercial Litigators?”  The discussion focused on the strides women have made in the legal profession and steps that still need to be taken to continue to move forward.  Despite the significant progress female lawyers have made in the legal profession, men are still dominating the commercial litigation field.

As Adrienne Koch, Partner at Katsy Korins, LLP, shared her story, she highlighted an issue most women would have encountered.  A fellow colleague asked her what she did for childcare, and as she thought about the question more and more, she eventually asked her husband over dinner about his response to that question.  Simply put, he said, “Men are not asked what our childcare situation is.”  The assumption is that women are caregivers and men are breadwinners.  But women are juggling both roles.

“Balancing work and family has to be a human issue, not a women’s issue,” said Koch.  Women have made great strides in the workplace, but the next wave of change must come on the home front. Koch stressed that unless, and until, women and men have equal responsibilities at home, women will never achieve full equality in the workplace.  Koch alleged that it is no accident that all male partners have one or more children and female partners usually only have one. This is because male partners often have stay-at-home wives to care for the family and household affairs. But, it is more common today for families to have two working parents. And when little Sally gets sick at school, who’s the first person that is usually called? The mom, confirmed Koch. The balance between family and work life is taxing for many women. And many women throw in the towel and leave the workplace or discover a more accommodating position for their lifestyle.

Unlike their male counterparts, women are faced with an entirely different experience in the world of litigation.   According to Kathy Kass, Counsel to the Commercial Division Court, there are two reasons that women are held back at firms: (1) sexual discrimination and (2) life choices.   A self-described “lover and not a fighter,” Kass did not feel comfortable “fighting,” as she believed she could make a more valuable contribution to the profession elsewhere. Megan Davis, Senior Counsel at FINRA, agreed with this hypothesis, even though Davis said she never felt held back in her career as a private litigator.  It is true that litigation in a private firm is demanding, regardless of one’s family situation.  However, on a personal level, Davis wanted more time for herself and made changes to achieve that work-life balance.  To achieve this balance, she decided to “opt out” of private litigation for public service work.

Interestingly, most of the participants on the panel agreed that this issue does not necessarily require firms change to adapt a different, more family oriented culture.  The legal profession is a business, with clients needing services and an abundance of work to be done. But the panel agreed that every firm is different in terms of atmosphere and culture, with smaller firms being more individualized than larger firms.  Smaller firms recognize that each person has a life and specific needs. The panelists stressed that women who seek a flexible atmosphere in the workplace have to “give and take.”  For instance, when one partner was out of the office, everyone had to adapt by working harder and taking on more work. But, that is just what a small firm provides: understanding.

While demanding, members of the panel expressed that the joys associated with litigation work make the grind well worth it.  “[Litigation practice] is so fun, so thrilling.  When you cross-examine an expert and bury him, it’s a great feeling! And, when the rules work in [your] favor, it is a fabulous high and worth every minute,” said Koch.

One of the overarching themes of the panel was “wherever you go – do the best you can.” The panelists conveyed that if you prove that you are an asset, your firm would be more willing to accommodate you.

Both work and family are central to our lives and finding a balance between the two is an important issue to men, women, and employers.  In order to successfully balance the two, the panelists suggest that parents need to become even less traditional while handling both work and family roles.  So, communicate your needs, become flexible with your work, and find stability and confidence in your decisions.  Because it is a personal decision how one balances their personal life and career.

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