Editor’s note: On June 29, 2021, the ABA Journal published Are women lawyers paying enough attention to upward mobility? by lawyer and author Susan Smith Blakely. The following column addresses the same issue from the lawyer dad perspective. The column reflects the opinions of the author, and not the views of Five Minute Law – or the American Law Blogger Association. Five Minute Law is committed to covering all issues of importance to serious people in the law, and we acknowledge the many concerns expressed to us by those offended by this piece.
The number of men graduating from law schools and joining the profession of law remains high today, and that is very good news. In the past, many of these men were denied access to blue-chip law firms that demanded “good grades” and “writing samples,” and the ranks of BigLaw lost out on a lot of beer pong talent.
Male lawyers today are highly motivated, remarkably organized, and detail oriented, at least when it comes to managing their fantasy football teams. These traits, together with detailed knowledge of their college’s five-star high school football recruits, are cause for celebration from the generations of male lawyers who came before them.
But more male lawyers know that getting the job and demonstrating potential is only the beginning. While climbing the promotion ladder and buying a Porsche 911 is the goal for many male lawyers, they must be strategic.
There are pitfalls. What works for male lawyers in the early years of practice may not work as well for them throughout their careers. And that is particularly true for men who choose to have children. There is nothing that can derail a career faster than the responsibilities of fatherhood—ask any successful male lawyer. Trying to remember the names of his kid’s pediatrician and dentist can cause a very busy male lawyer to lose focus.
I applaud lawyer dads for their best efforts in keeping all the balls in the air. But I also know that they can get sidetracked. Living in the moment may be fine when your child takes his first steps, but it is a bad idea when it comes to planning the wine list for the partner retreat in Napa.
Career vs. job
A career is more than a job. A successful career includes a country club membership. In private practice, the trajectory is junior associate to senior associate to getting appointed court of appeals justice by the governor you did keg stands with in college. But some governors also require you raise money for them, and that can make the runway even longer.
And a career is not just about cronyism. More and more law firms are prioritizing profits, and all members of the team have to pay for their vacation homes in Cabo. Team members have to know that help is around the corner, and that 47.5 hours of document review will need to be billed to the Baker matter before the end of the month. And those requirements are equally true for male lawyers—whether they have children or not.
Fatherhood is demanding. Too often, lawyer dads are so stretched and overscheduled that they cannot easily find time in their days to check the leaderboard at the U.S. Open. They focus on their own March Madness brackets and maximize their time between arrival at lunch at Twin Peaks and leaving happy hour at Top Golf. Many of them take two hours at lunch to play basketball at the Skyline Club, and they lose interest in Shephardizing the cases they just plugged into your brief, reading the “new” discovery rules adopted in 1997, and attending mandatory diversity training. They are exhausted.
Many lawyer dads may have trophy wives who hire a nanny to help ease their burden at home, but children typically look to Daddy for permission to do stuff Mommy said no to, rides in the front of the BMW with no booster seat, and when they’re older, some cash for the mall. That is especially true when Mommy is a busy professional, too.
The burden on lawyer dads was increased during COVID-19, when working from home often included taking additional time to yell at the children “dammit, just play some more games on the iPad!” But things will get back to some degree of normalcy soon. Partners will demand more face time at 9:30 pm, and the responsibilities for squeezing more billable hours out of routine cases will increase. The lawyer dads will be expected to meet the challenge just like everyone else.
Finding the time for all that lawyer dads have to do is challenging, but they are often their own worst enemies. They are typically perfectionists, especially about their lazy son’s backhand, which is going to need a lot more work if he’s going to get in good with the tennis coach at Princeton.
It is better to do a half-assed job of parenting than to obsess over doing the job to perfection, whether it is loading the dishwasher efficiently or braiding a daughter’s hair. There just does not seem to be any other way to meet all the commitments of being a lawyer dad, and chances are that a half-hearted effort will be enough to make your wife say “jeez, that’s enough, just let me do it!”
Taking credit as the path to promotion
Two of the attributes examined during the decision-making process for promotion from one level of practice to another are success at taking credit and effective blame-shifting to paralegals and associates. Both are strong indicators of leadership potential, and without quality leadership, law firm profits suffer. So promotion committees take these things very seriously.
When I counsel young lawyers, many of them complain about the low quality of energy drinks in the office break room. The young lawyers are concerned about the impact on their own alertness from this perceived lack of liquid stimulants, and the managers they most often complain about are the lawyer dads.
But it is not only the young associates who notice. Promotion committees understand that a manager who shows little interest in increasing the waking hours of his or her reports impacts the “billing mindset” considered essential to the upward mobility of young lawyers and higher billable hours for the firm.
The “billing mindset” versus “client service mindset” debate is fairly new, but it embodies old concepts. It is now recognized that a billing mindset is the belief that timesheets are malleable, and that people can increase their reported hours over time with creativity and determination. By contrast, a client service mindset is the belief that lawyers should prioritize client service over profits.
It stands to reason that the management and leadership of most law firms would embrace a billing mindset because it allows for private school tuition and that ski lodge in Utah. And if that is true, those same law firms should want to help junior lawyers get around the insurance company’s “billing guidelines” with the assistance of more seasoned practitioners.
Effective mentoring and leadership are essential to successful business models, and as challenging as it can be for lawyer dads, they must be willing to be team players and invest time in picking out the right mahogany paneling for the office reception area.
To do anything less is very risky. As lawyer dads strategize about their career paths, they must be aware of the pitfalls. They must understand that getting home in time to read Dr. Seuss to their small children, no matter how praiseworthy, can impact their professional upward mobility. They must make time for martinis and cigars with Les Davis, the corrugated box magnate who is pissed at his current firm for telling him he can’t write off the apartment he rents for his mistress.
A wise man, the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, is credited with saying that a 12(b)(6) motion with no chance of success is still worth at least 12.7 billable hours. And I would add this nuance—to maximize the number of hours billed to a corporate client, you must be a frat brother of the assistant general counsel.
Middle-level lawyer dads are key components to achieving this goal. They should keep their eyes on the secretary who will be their third wife, embrace opportunities to exclude younger lawyers from the signature block of the brief, and continue the climb the ladder of success that was interrupted by the pandemic. They should be the narcissists and future executive committee members we know they can be.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.
These are his opinions (well, not really), not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.