Biglaw Is Inhospitable To Human Life (TFLP 041)

In episode 041 of the podcast, I share why I think Biglaw is inhospitable to human life (spicy!), and why I think it’s particularly important for women in Biglaw to figure out what they want from their careers.

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Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell, and on this show I interview former lawyers to hear their inspiring stories about how they left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love. Let's get right to the show. 


Hello, everyone! This week on the podcast I am going to be sharing another short episode with my thoughts on a particular topic. 

As you know, if you listened to last week, this is what we're going to be doing for the next little bit here on The Former Lawyer Podcast because of the realities of life in the time of coronavirus with two small kids and two working parents and all that that entails. 

So this episode is based on an email that I sent to the people on the Former Lawyer email list early last week. And this email came about because I was emailing with a friend the other day about the work that I'm doing with Former Lawyer and how much I'm loving it. And she observed to me that she thinks that it is particularly important for women in law to figure out what they really want from their career. 

And we of course were talking about the fact that that has been one of my focuses with The Former Lawyer Collaborative, so no surprise, I agreed with her. And I ended up sending her back an email that encapsulated a lot of my thoughts on the subject, which I shared with my list—lightly edited, so that it made sense to them outside of the context of the full conversation—and now I want to share it with you. 

So this is what I told her in response to her observation that the work of figuring out what you really want from your career is particularly important for women and law:

I agree 100% that the work of figuring out what you really want from your career and from your life is particularly important for women in law. And that's for a lot of different reasons, but some of them are ones that we talk about on the podcast all the time. 

And one of those is that lawyers in particular get on this train of like, “this is what I should be doing,” and never stop to think whether they actually want to be doing it. 

And they also tend to ignore that there are approximately a billion things that they as smart, capable people could be doing. 

And then on top of that, I think that the practice of law—particularly at large law firms—is, in my opinion, inhospitable to human life. I realize that sounds kind of dramatic, but hear me out. 

The message that you subtly and not-so-subtly get when you work in Biglaw is that it's very inconvenient for us that you are a human with human needs. 

Now I'm gonna stop here and do a quick caveat, which is: I'm not saying there aren't many kind, wonderful people who are working in Biglaw. There are. I have worked with some of them. I've met some of them. I know women who have had the experience of having many wonderful people that they've worked with in Biglaw. 

However, there's a difference between individual people and the entire structure of the system. And ultimately, I think the entire structure of the system is very much geared towards what I talked about with Sarah Rutledge Fischer, a couple weeks ago, which is this idea of it being very inconvenient that you have human needs and that you are essentially a human person.

And in that regard, I actually think Biglaw and large law firms are equally terrible for men and women. The reality is that the business model is built on its human capital being as unhuman as possible which, again, is not good for any of the people who are working there. 

But no surprise, it falls particularly hard on women because of certain biological realities regarding childbirth. And that's why I find all of the hand wringing over “why can't we retain women?” and panels and all of this about how to retain women, blah, blah, blah. They're so freaking annoying because it tends to put the onus on women: “find mentors!” “lean in!” “manage your stress with yoga!” and other—in my opinion—eye-rolling recommendations.

So long as law firms keep acting like it's a problem with respect to women individually, as opposed to the system, it's a fundamentally losing battle. And of course, there's all the old boys club, sexual harassment garbage that pervades a lot of it, which is its own problem and barrier. 

Honestly, I think that most people do not have priorities that align with the lifestyle that Biglaw requires and then they show up in Biglaw and they feel guilty and they think there's something wrong with them because they're not leaning in enough, etc., etc., etc. 

So I've tried to make clear in how I position myself that I don't think everyone should leave the law. And if it works for them, great. If you're listening to this, and you work at a large law firm, you work in Biglaw, and you're having a great experience, and what I'm saying doesn't resonate with you, that's awesome. I am not on a mission to convince people for whom working in Biglaw or working at a law firm is working for them to change their mind. 

But if you're listening to this, and you don't feel that way, and you identify with what I'm saying, you resonate with what I'm saying, you identify with my experience and legal practice, then yes, I think that you should probably think about exploring other options. 

Ultimately, though, it's less about saying legal practice sucks. And it's more about asking “what do you want from your life?” Is the job that you are doing in line with what you want? Does what that job requires from you align with what you want your life to look like? With your priorities and your values?

So this is part of the conversation that we're having here at Former Lawyer. And if it resonates with you, and you have not joined my email list yet, I highly recommend it because I always share these types of thoughts first with my list. That's a wrap from me for today. I will talk to you guys next week.


Thanks so much for listening today. I absolutely love getting to share these stories with you. If you haven't yet, subscribe to the show, and come on over to to get even more support and resources in your journey out of the law. Until next time, have a great week!