Over the Thanksgiving Holiday, I found myself with some reading time on my hands, and I picked up Susan Smith Blakely’s new book, Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today’s Woman Lawyer.
Full disclosure—I was dubious about the book’s promise to offer “practical guidance and helpful solutions” for young women lawyers. I mean, what was Blakely going to suggest that we hadn’t already read or heard five bajillion times from the likes of Ann Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg, etc.? Women need mentors; women need flexible scheduling; yada yada yada. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.
Practical Guidance and Helpful Solutions
Blakely’s practical guidance is exceedingly practical. She recognizes that time is the young lawyer’s most precious commodity, and she recommends specific time-saving strategies: websites to help you find a sitter, get your house cleaned, or have groceries delivered. I will copy this page of the book.
Other chapters assume a more global perspective—Blakely emphasizes that success stems from loving what you do and remaining authentic to your own personality as you do it (spot on, if noncontroversial, advice). But it was her emphasis on the importance of girlfriends for women lawyers that truly resonated. I find my female lawyer friends invaluable and crucial to my happiness in the profession, yet I haven’t heard other authors tout the benefits of female friendships so enthusiastically.
Finally, the book concludes by profiling twelve distinguished women lawyers and their varied paths to success. These stories were inspiring—both for the women’s accomplishments as well as for highlighting multiple routes to the top of our profession. I could have read an entire book profiling these women.
But What is a Girly Girl Lawyer?
Despite my general enthusiasm for the book, however, I disagree with Blakely on a few points. My husband, in fact, called out from the other room to ask if I was alright as I yelled at the book occasionally.
In her chapter on authenticity, Blakely praises the fact that diverse groups women can succeed in the law these days. And then Blakely launches into what can only be described as an ode to a type of lawyer she coins the “Girly Girl Lawyers.” It’s unclear what a “Girly Girl Lawyer” is, but apparently she likes reading In Style and perhaps resembles Elle Woods. Blakely contrasts the Girly Girl Lawyers with the (I am not making this up) “brainy one-dimensional types,” in a move that left this feminist uncharacteristically speechless. Besides the fact that I don’t think we advance women in the profession by labeling any of us “girls,” I was surprised to see Blakely splicing and dicing women into categories like this. Some people like In Style and those same people may also love reading the latest Supreme Court decision with dessert. Or you may hate In Style, but that doesn’t mean you’re a brainy one-dimensional type. This fake dichotomy (and the dig at the “brainy”) was unnecessary and undermined Blakely’s theme that women should help women (a theme I can totally get behind).
The book also left me wanting more. Blakely trots out all the depressing statistics regarding women’s dismal prospects in the field of law. And, she offers practical individual-based recommendations for success: her book is about making you a happy lawyer in the legal field as it exists today. She doesn’t, however, address the elephant in the room. Perhaps it is the legal profession that needs to change (and perhaps women need to change it) to address the underlying reasons that women flee the profession in droves? Blakely ultimately is a behaviorist. She offers tips and tricks for changing your behavior to succeed within the profession as it exists. But she is not a revolutionary and her tips and tricks won’t change the underlying reasons why women constitute 50% of graduating law students but fewer than 20% of law firms’ equity partners. Perhaps her next book?