Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Elise Buie back to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
Female lawyers are more likely to divorce than their male colleagues.
Based on a 2008 survey of 100,000 young business, legal, and medical professionals, conducted by the National Science Foundation, Washington & Lee University School of Law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson found that 10% of women versus 7% of men with law degrees were divorced.
The verdict? If you are a woman, being a lawyer may not be good for your health. Your marital health, that is.
This isn’t recent news. But, due to the ongoing pandemic, it is an issue garnering more attention these days. A couple of questions, however, loom large. First, why the difference between genders? And second, what can we do to lessen the likelihood women lawyers will end their marriages?
Before delving into the explanations, it is important to make a significant point: overall, the divorce rate among lawyers and legal professionals isn’t high. Or as high when compared to other professions, according to a 2015 survey of professions conducted by statistician Nathan Yau.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, Yau found that the divorce rate among lawyers, judges, magistrates, and other judicial workers was 27.6 percent.
The divorce rate among paralegals and legal assistants was 44.7 percent, while the divorce rate among judicial law clerks was 25.3 percent. After including the divorce rate for miscellaneous legal support workers (42.7 percent), the average divorce rate for the legal profession hovered around 35 percent.
A quick examination of the professions with the highest and lowest divorce rates reflects a difference in education levels. Those in occupations requiring more schooling are among the least likely to divorce, as opposed to those with blue-collar jobs. Perhaps lawyers, given the years they spend studying, have added knowledge regarding divorce’s potentially high stakes and, therefore, shy away from it.
Still, many married lawyers, particularly women, report how unhappy they are. To listen to the breadth of complaints from female lawyers, whether about their job, their marriage, the toll their job takes on their marriage, or the toll their marriage takes on their job, it is surprising the divorce rate isn’t higher among them.
Statistics in this area lag while, in large part due to the COVID-19 crisis, anecdotes are on the rise. That is because, along with the pandemic, a spotlight came to illuminate the problems plaguing law firms and the female lawyers who work there.
Management from law firms of every size faced a reckoning as overworked female associates and female partners started to see, as they worked remotely, what current ways of practicing law were doing to them personally, to their health and well-being, and the health of their families. This reckoning was underscored as mothers tried to balance care-giving, remote school, and added housework, all while keeping up with the responsibilities from their jobs. Early on in the pandemic, the heavy load forced a record number of women out of the workplace.
Now with women going back to the office, at least part of the time, they are still struggling to balance pandemic burdens. Those who can be are more discriminating about where and for whom they will work, which may not be the same as before. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in November 2021, the number of “quits” among all genders, dubbed the Great Resignation, rose to a record 4.5 million.
The legal profession hasn’t been immune to the Great Resignation’s effects. According to Reuters, while law firms reduced their associate hiring between 2019 and 2020, they are now playing catch up as they struggle to find new talent.
Indeed, finders fees range in the thousands of dollars and a rise in salaries reflect the scarcity in the current legal market and firms’ willingness to bend over backward to attract new hires. In an effort to make job applicants more comfortable amid concerns over COVID-19 exposure, some firms are requiring all employees to be vaccinated, as well as proposing hybrid models, which would be more appealing to working mothers especially.
Still, these “therapeutics” cannot cure all of what ails women lawyers as they negotiate a return to work with themselves, not just prospective employers.
While some of these workplace changes reflect progress, they ignore a critical area where change needs to occur, and that is in the home. Citing economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who researched high-achieving women back in 2001, an ABA article referenced Hewlett’s theory that female lawyers have a higher divorce rate because they find themselves attracted to more successful men. Men who, she theorizes, need extra attention because of their high-pressured jobs but have wives who cannot provide it due to their own careers and the stresses associated with them.
While there is probably truth in her theory, there exists another point of view, which Hewlett aptly poses as a solution, and that is educated professionals should look for men who will be more loving and supportive of them. It is sound advice for those first looking for a husband or those thinking about throwing in the towel with their existing one. Indeed, this guidance could be precisely the push women lawyers are looking for to incite change in their lives.
However, for the female lawyers who don’t want to give up on their marriage, at least without a fight, there is another way. And that is to teach gender equality in homes where it may be lacking. Eve Rodsky, author of “Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live),” has recently taken up the charge.
In her groundbreaking book, Rodsky proposes that women hold the power to change gender roles at home. Whether in response to weaponized incompetence from an uncooperative spouse who pretends not to know how to do specific chores or the spouse who is legitimately oblivious to how much their wife does, it is up to every woman suffering from overwhelm to say no.
Rodsky, a former attorney who practiced with her own spouse what she now preaches to others, offers readers the option to supplement their learning with a card game couples can play together.
Her tips, Rodsky purports, will create happier marriages by literally lightening up women’s loads at home. And produce happier women who can perform better in the workplace as a result, effectively giving women who work outside the home the best of both worlds.
Oprah Winfrey once said, “You can have it all. Just not all at once.” With gender equality at home, all at once can come a lot sooner. For female lawyers wanting to improve the status quo at home and the office, that might mean throwing in the dish towel first.
Elise Buie is a passionate, creative, problem-solving family law attorney who creates solutions, not obstacles. After evacuating her hometown of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and surviving a divorce, Elise landed in Seattle and founded Elise Buie Family Law Group, a law firm devoted to divorce and family law and estate planning. Elise’s practice involves all aspects of family law, guided by a collaborative philosophy and her deep understanding of complex parenting issues. Elise opened her doors during a period of personal adversity. Now in a period of global adversity, Elise’s firm has experienced its most significant growth yet, which she attributes primarily to her driving force and mantra: “I can do it.”