The XX Factor

Are Women Lawyers Penalized for Taking the Mommy Track?

Yesterday, the women’s group at Yale Law School published its sixth annual survey of the Top 10 Family-Friendly Law Firms . Members of Yale Law Women collected data on this country’s most prestigious law firms , including billable hour requirements, parental leave policies, child care benefits, and flexible work options. Like the better known survey administered every year by Working Mother magazine, the YLW study stresses the availability of part-time work, cheering that “[f]lexible and part-time work options are … becoming the norm.”

It’s common for advocates to applaud part-time work as a boon for working parents. (I should know: I worked on the YLW survey two years ago.) But individuals who opt to work part-time often experience a disproportionate drop in income; that is, their earnings decline even more than their hours do. Certain professions impose substantial penalties for part-time work, and unpublished data that Harvard economist Claudia Goldin distilled for me suggest that the law is one of them. As she put it, lawyers’ compensation isn’t a linear function of the hours they work: Those who clock mega-hours earn on average way more per hour than those who work ordinary, let alone reduced, schedules.

The YLW study reports that “part-time attorneys appear to be fairly compensated.” But that conclusion was based on some pretty crude measures: whether part-time lawyers get paid for working extra hours and if they’re eligible for bonuses. As Alice Shih, who chaired the group that developed the survey, explained in an email, “We never got … compensation [figures] from firms because they told us they would not give us this information.” As long as firms refuse to pony up their pay data, their part-time options can’t be properly evaluated - and workplace surveys shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Part-time polices simply aren’t a privilege when workers - and their families - have to pay dearly for them.