Taking a Break From Law: Can You Get Back In?

What happens to highly successful women lawyers and corporate executives and managers who decide to stop working and stay at home with their children full-time? Do they miss their successful careers? Do they feel they made the right choice for them and their families? What happens if they want to return to work ten years later when the children are older or their husbands have lost their jobs?

These questions were explored in a recent lengthy New York Times magazine article that revisited twenty-two women who were profiled in 2003 and labeled as the “Opt-Out Generation”.

Each of these women was married to an affluent, highly successful spouse so could afford to give up their careers. In each case, their husbands were supportive and often highly encouraging of their wives quitting work so that someone would be at home with the children and manage all their domestic responsibilities. The original article focused on the family and marriage pressures experienced when both spouses worked fifty to sixty hour weeks and often travelled with their jobs. The recent article talked about the challenges each woman faced trying to re-enter the workforce after a ten-year absence.

None of the women interviewed regretted making the decision to become a stay-at-home mother despite the personal challenges they faced doing so. It was the right decision at the time it was made.

However, most felt a loss in self-confidence and a loss of equality in the marriage once they were no longer earning an income. Some of their husbands, who had been initially supportive, started to resent or envy what they saw as their wife’s easier and less stressful life.

Most of these women brought their prodigious corporate and legal skills to volunteer jobs at the school and in the community. However, this volunteer experience was not usually helpful in finding work when they wanted to re-enter the workplace. Eighty-nine percent wanted to return to paid work outside the home but only 73 percent were able to get back in and only forty percent found full-time work. Those who did find employment were mostly working in positions that were far below their previous job title or compensation.

While two-thirds had worked in traditional male-dominated professions such as law and finance, when they re-entered the workforce only twenty-five percent returned to their previous profession. Seventy-five percent were employed in not-for-profits or in traditionally female jobs such as teaching that paid much less.

Most commented that they were now in traditional gender-role marriages where the husband had the “more important” career and earned the majority of the income. For some of these women, they had no desire to return to working a sixty-hour week and were happy in their new lower paid jobs. But each said that this resulted in feeling less equal in their marriage. Money often equates with power in relationships and other contributions are not always as valued. For those who had divorced over the past ten years, their financial situation was dramatically poorer as they supported children on the much-reduced income they were able to earn.

There are two things we can learn from these women’s experience. The first is that we are losing a great many talented, smart, highly educated and experienced women from our professions and the workforce. Many of these women would have stayed in their careers had there been a way for them to work fewer hours at lower pay and still receive good work and opportunities for advancement. One woman, who tried to work a three-day week, gave up because she felt like a second-class citizen when she wasn’t given the good files nor included in important meetings.

There is still a huge stigma that part-time lawyers do not deserve to be given good work or be considered as contenders for partnership. Full-time lawyers often resent what they see as the easier ride that reduced hour lawyers are getting and expect these lawyers to be marginalized. Lawyers are highly competitive and judged on their billable numbers. This weekly statistic makes many lawyers measure their own and others’ worth on the basis of who billed the most.

Many lawyers still believe that every lawyer must be available 24/7 to clients despite successful client-sharing and client management practices that allow lawyers to reduce their need to be on call at all times. The Australian experience of accepting reduced hour partners and associates at all the largest firms shows that this can be done.

Many men also want more flexible work arrangements or reduced hours as they struggle with the stresses of practicing law while needing to be more available at home to support wives who also work full-time.

The second thing we can learn from the experiences of the “Opt-Out Women” is the need for women to keep their skills current and to stay connected to their lawyer colleagues and clients for the day they may wish to (or need to) opt back in. Although chairing the Parent Advisory Committee takes all the skills of the most highly regarded mediator in conflict-management, sadly it is not often viewed as helpful on a resume.

At a very minimum, lawyers who leave the workforce need to remain as non-practicing members of the Law Society and should retain their membership in professional organizations such as the CBA, TLA or local bar associations. New lower fees have made this much more affordable in all these organizations than previously.

Remaining a member of professional bodies means you continue to receive all communications and notices that will keep you up to speed on developments in the profession.

It also means that there is no gap in your membership and shows that you always had an interest in returning to law (whether you do or not). It also means that you can attend occasional meetings or social events to keep you connected with the bar. (Find someone to go with you if you feel awkward arriving alone and have a short explanation about your break from work that is upbeat and positive and not apologetic. Most people will envy you your freedom.)

Ask professional colleagues, to let you know when there is an event that would interest you and stay connected with these colleagues so they know you haven’t dropped completely out of sight. Meet colleagues for lunch and speak and email sufficiently to keep the relationships active.

Keep your skills current and use the time to attend a conference or take a short course in areas where you have an interest but didn’t have time before to attend. Take a short course in public speaking, presentation skills, board governance, mediation, accounting for the non-financial lawyer, a business program or one in a client’s industry. These one or two day programs will not only keep you much more job ready, but will give you confidence if return to practice some day.

Volunteer (or get paid) on boards related to your legal interests such as business boards or not-for-profits which have a high profile. Most boards are looking for lawyers who have the time to sit as directors. Let other lawyers know that you are looking to join a board. Be strategic about the boards you choose. Don’t sit on a board of an organization in which you have no interest, but do choose boards that are not all related to your children’s school or other activities.

Volunteer for professional organizations such as CBA or offer to help organize a bar dinner if you don’t want to immerse yourself too much in the law. It is important to stay connected to colleagues and the profession so that your network will still be there if you want to find a job. It will also make you feel less isolated and more confident should you wish to return.

The biggest workplace issue facing most lawyers (both men and women) is how to fit fifty hour work weeks into commutes, family obligations, community service, business development and fitness in a technologically demanding 24/7 world. Until men and senior women push for change in how workplaces are structured and it is no longer seen as a mothers-only issue, talented women (and increasingly some men) will continue to leave the law.

While there are ways to stay sufficiently connected that you can return, it would be better for lawyers, their clients, their families and communities if they could stay practicing law but in a workplace that values their contributions and supports a variety of flexible work arrangements. The law firms that embrace this concept will attract, retain and motivate their lawyers to be the best that they can be.


  1. I left private practice and spent 10 years as a stay-at-home parent. I then worked part-time for four years for a law school colleague, in an area of law I had not previously practiced. I was given interesting work and a great deal of flexibility. I then opened my own practice, and have been working from home, renting an office by the hour at a corporate centre to see clients. I’ll never make as much money as I would have had I stayed with the law firm I was with, but my husband and I have made the conscious decision to live a modest lifestyle in order to permit such working arrangements. I work off a smart phone and take calls from clients on evenings and weekends. My clients appreciate the personalized service they receive. My practice model may be unique, but I bet it will catch on as new lawyers realize they want more from life than endless hours spent in an office.

  2. Susan Cartier Liebel

    I appreciate the article and the statistics. However, there are many women who are successfully ‘ReZooming’ their careers and reframing their experiences as stay-at-home moms very differently. Here is a columnist who discusses the whole ‘ReZooming’ experience, her journey, and how she has gone into solo practice in the second chapter of her legal career and doing so very successfully following a legal niche which is her passion.