On this week’s tv show, we’ll be talking about Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and the relevancy of the Women’s Bar Association.  As many know, I’ve been very active throughout the years in DC’s WBA, and my guest, Heather, has been very involved in the Maryland WBA.  Both of us are GenXers, who were brought up as Title IX babies and graduated at the same rate as men in our law schools– so you can imagine our surprise as we both went out into the real world, and then got a glimpse at some very stark disparities in the number of men vs. women in leadership roles within our field.

There is about a 40% dropout rate of attorneys in the private sector world, and only 15% of women will ever make equity partner– the chances are less than 4% if they are minorities.  It is no wonder that over 1/3 of female attorneys will suffer from depression at some point in their careers– the numbers themselves are so devastating.    (All of these stats come straight from recent studies done by the ABA and NAWL).

Needless to say, I was completely unaware of  all these stats when I picked my field of study– but to be honest, I’m not sure it would have made a difference.  Ever since I was 12 years old I wanted to be a lawyer, and I don’t regret my choice at all– what is regretable is simply the inability law firms seem to have becoming more accomodating to those of us that want more of a work-life balance.  We all understand that there is high overhead and the rent needs to get paid– but what firms fail to fully acknowledge is that they are suffering a huge brain drain as people burnout and leave when the demands and pressure simply get to be too much.

Fortunately, throughout the years, I’ve always had amazing male mentors at Andover, Georgetown, and in all my years of legal practice– and they taught me well.  Unlike a lot of my female peers, I don’t have a problem being assertive and promoting my skills like a guy.  I make no apologies when I disagree with someone, and I unabashedly voice my opinions– even in a board room filled with nothing but men.  I don’t dwell on rejection, and I certainly will not back down just because someone with seniority thinks he knows better.  Sadly, these traits do not come naturally to a lot of women, and the only way the next generation is going to ever get the courage to do these things is if some of us are not just gutsy enough to tell them that it is going to be okay– we have to show them it will be okay, so the proof has to be in the pudding.

Organizations like the WBA are an amazing resource for young female lawyers precisely because they emphasize the importance of mentoring and networking, something that seems to be lost these days for those joining the bigger law firms, which focus mainly on billable hours.  Of course, it is also only over the course of the last 15 years that I have truly come to appreciate those friendships that withstood the test of time, as we have encouraged each other to negotiate for flexible schedules or reduced hours, all while insisting on making partner and being recognized for our contributions and accomplishments in the legal world.  These female connections have played an amazing role in my life, and now it is a great honor that those of us in leadership roles get to pay it forward helping the next generation.

To lean in is a personal choice, and no doubt a difficult one when you are juggling motherhood, but not all of us have a choice to lean out.  As a divorced single mom, I truly did not have the option to stay home the last 8 years, but I’ll be honest that I never would have made the choice even in an intact marriage, for several reasons, including the fact that I would NEVER want to become so vulnerable that if something happened to my husband- death, divorce or disability, I could not take care of myself and my son.

Every day as a divorce lawyer, I have to deal with horrible situations, and if only you could see what I see, you would understand why I care so much about women staying in the workforce.  Do you know how many women are left at a huge economic disadvantage when suddenly their spouse is either laid off, becomes ill, or decides to leave the marriage?  The lucky ones are the ones who   fortuitously kept their foot in the door and did not sacrifice their careers for their families.  They are not just able to survive, but often they wind up thriving post-divorce, and for them there is no desperate need to remarry.  They will, if the right guy comes along, but for the most part, they can hold their own, and so having to settle is not an option.

In the end, we are so fortunate today to even have the choice to either lean in, or lean out.  However, I want to echo what Sandberg emphasizes in her book:  (1) women in leadership roles really need to step up and help other women; and (2) women that lean out need to think very carefully about the vulnerable position they are creating– not just for themselves, but their entire families should there be a crisis situation.

Lean in or not, it’s a truly personal choice– I just hope people will choose wisely!

By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.