Student Guest Blogger: Josh Lee
In the coming weeks we will be inviting several students to write posts
from their own experiences or about things in the news. The post below
is written by Josh Lee, a member of the Yale Law School Class of 2009 and a married father of two. Josh started and runs the Association
of Law Students with Significant Others, which works to make the law
school experience better for students with partners and children.
I expect working at a law firm to be hard on me as a parent. I suspect most law students who think about it share my expectation. Long hours and demanding clients seem almost like a right of passage, a necessary hazing ritual, for newly inducted associates. Other lawyer-parents have confided in me their sense that a diminished relationship with our children “is the price you pay for the big bucks.” They seem almost resigned to this sort of Faustian bargain. And even though I reject it, I confess it has a certain logical resonance: you get paid more, so you work more. But, I find this explanation for legal work’s abusive relationship with parents unsatisfying. As with many things in the law, I suspect the anti-parent culture of law firms began for reasons totally divorced from the ones used to justify it today.
My three years as a law student suggest the expectation that parents will sacrifice their children to their profession owes at least some of its vitality to the culture of law school. Law school does many things right, being unusually receptive to student-driven change and (in the case of Yale) minimizing the competitive pressure of grades and class rank. And like most firms, what obstacles law school does erect for parents are unlikely the result of a conscious effort to disadvantage us. Instead, the problem seems more like a sort of nonchalance with respect to the practical challenges facing “working” parents.
What does law school do wrong? It begins right after admission by closing the doors to students’ families during the various indoctrination events. What is probably an attempt to keep costs down and space up has the effect of foisting all the childcare duties onto the non-student parent. This, in my case, has a certain bitter irony since my wife is the one whose income currently foots the bill for my participation in these events.
Law school scheduling has a similar burden-shifting effect. It assumes (and is largely correct to do so) that students are 24 years old, single, and have no kids. So, when I arrived at law school with a four-month old and a full-time, working spouse I was plunged into a world in which writing instruction comes after 5 PM, student organizations meet after 6 PM, and most meaningful social events take place after 10 PM. There is no way for a parent to be a full-fledged citizen of that world. As with admitted student events, every choice to participate means abdicating my parental role, leaving all the responsibilities (and rewards) of child-rearing to my wife, often after a full day’s work at her own job. Every choice to withdraw means lost networking, camaraderie, learning.
Finally, there is daycare, or the lack of it. I have benefited immensely from Yale’s provision of daycare. It is convenient, well-staffed, high quality. It is also small, and very expensive, and not every law school offers one, even on those terms. Despite having only a handful of student parents, the law school cannot accommodate all of their daycare needs. Student access is limited because the law school holds out daycare spots as a perk for visiting professors, while the cost is driven up by rising lease and insurance payments the law school does not fully subsidize. When once I addressed my cost concerns to a professor, he chided, “You guys are going to make so much money when you graduate, we should double the cost.” It’s hard to ignore the irony of that statement at a school that prides itself on encouraging public interest employment. When it comes to daycare, that may in any case be a self-fulfilling accusation. The more expensive childcare gets, the more pressure parents feel to seek employment in “big law” rather than the non-profit, government, and small firm jobs that have traditionally been more accommodating to parents.
The upshot of all of this is two-fold. First, for the non-student partner, three years of supporting a law student with your income and more than your share of child care has a way of burning you out. When your income is essential to stay afloat for three years, it means you don’t have the luxury of taking time off to find a more satisfying career, of taking vacation or even the night off if work days get displaced by kids’ sick days. It means you need a break. For the student-parent, it means the bill for three years of leaning on your partner comes due just as three years of law school loans drive you into a career that could make it harder than ever to pay down the childcare deficit. Second, for all fledgling associates, it means by the time you graduate, the sacrifices demanded of you as parents by your firms will seem perfectly normal, even reasonable. Of course the firm schedules work and events without regard to family demands. Of course those events are “employees only.” Of course there’s no daycare. “You guys are going to make so much money… etc.”
How can law school improve the situation? First, welcome the partners and children of student-parents into the community. Many of them shoulder the greatest burdens of three years of law school, so it’s fitting that they share in the rewards. But more than that, integrating families into the fabric of law school life lowers stress, increases satisfaction, and changes expectations about how work and family can and should coexist.
Along these lines, law school should also tailor parts of orientation to student-parents. At Yale that means assembling a Dean’s Advisor group for them. New student-parents have a unique set of needs that would benefit from a support structure dedicated to developing and passing on the cultural knowledge of graduating student-parents. How do I find daycare? How do I balance coursework with raising a child? Where can I turn when I need to get out of the library and have child-friendly fun? These are questions the current randomized group DA system is ill-equipped to answer. And while the danger of creating a marginalized, student-parent clique is real, the orientation period is so short, that danger should not be overstated in the face of the tremendous benefits a change would provide.
As for daycare, law school should make its universal provision a priority. Every student today expects their school to have a cafeteria or a gym, even sports teams. But there’s no particular association between these things and “the law.” Law schools provide them because they make life better, easier, more productive for students. The same and more could be said of daycare for student parents. It’s true that this change would benefit a much smaller subset of the student populace than a cafeteria. But the immediate benefit to a handful of parents is hardly the only benefit. Like welcoming families to law school events, the presence of a daycare shapes expectations of work-family coexistence. Those who aren’t parents in law school will certainly want to benefit from that paradigm shift if and when they become parents in a law firm. And there is a way to effect this change without asking law school to foot the entire bill. Right now $25,000 will buy you naming rights to a Yale library carrel. Why not solicit a daycare endowment? In my professor’s words, we’re “going to make so much money when [we] graduate,” someone’s bound to want to put their name on that, especially when it makes their law school experience that much easier and more rewarding.