Just past 9:30 on a Wednesday morning in March, after she drove 20 minutes to drop her son, Jack, off at preschool, after she trekked back for an hour across the Washington metro area into Fairfax, Va., for work, and long, long after she answered her first email, Maria Simon sat in a windowless conference room weighing the odds that she would be able to make a party in Jack’s class two days hence.
Ms. Simon was determined to attend, but the party was at 12:30 p.m. and she knew it would monopolize her afternoon. “Once he sees me, I can’t leave,” she said. “I’m going to have a sugared-up kid.”
She did not say this with dread. She considered the chance to spend a few hours with a bouncy 4-year-old one of the chief benefits of her job. Ms. Simon is a partner at the Geller Law Group, a six-woman firm, the founding credo of which is family-friendliness and whose stance on office face time is best described as “militantly against.”
In addition to practicing law, Ms. Simon and her law partner, Rebecca Geller, have a near-evangelical determination to show that parents can nurture their professional ambitions while being fully present in their children’s lives. Ms. Simon has such conviction on this point that she is almost personally offended by suggestions it might not be possible. The widely read and debated 2012 essay in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department official, is a particular source of irritation. “I think women can have it all,” she said. “It’s just based on your paradigm of ‘all.’ ”
Ms. Simon’s paradigm is not what the popularizer of the term would have endorsed. In 1982, Helen Gurley Brown, the longtime editor of Cosmopolitan, published a book called “Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money, Even if You’re Starting With Nothing.” As Jennifer Szalai noted in a recent essay in The New York Times Magazine, Ms. Brown didn’t have children and wasn’t especially eager to incorporate them into her vision of modern womanhood. But the phrase somehow stuck as a shorthand for the aspiration of working mothers — or, depending on your view, a fantasy that women were doomed to fall short of.
While the legal profession doesn’t offer the grimmest odds in this regard — that distinction probably goes to finance — the challenges it poses are considerable. Not least is that would-be partners must typically bill more than 2,000 hours a year, easily a 60- to 70-hour workweek once you allow for human interaction and trips to the bathroom.
Women accounted for a mere 16.5 percent of law partners in 2013, according to the National Association for Law Placement, despite graduating from law school in roughly equal numbers as men over the previous decade, according to the American Bar Association. A 2007 report by the M.I.T. Workplace Center found that by far the most important reason women gave for deserting the partnership track was “the difficulty of combining law firm work and caring for children in a system that requires long hours under high pressure with little or inconsistent support for flexible work arrangements.”
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