Tuesday Talk*: The Return of Choices and Sacrifice

Why can’t we have it all?

Well, the laws of physics could be a problem, since we can’t be in two places at the same time. When you’re a criminal defense lawyer, and your client is standing in court in front of the judge, and there’s some other place you would rather be, whether at your beloved child’s soccer game or having a little “me time” because aren’t you entitled to take care of your mental health, Lara Bazelon explains why this can be a problem.

I am a lawyer, a law professor and a writer. I am also a divorced mother of two young children. I’m often asked some version of: “How do you excel at work and be the best mother you can be?”

Every working mother gets this question, which presupposes that a “work-life balance” is achievable. It’s not. The term traps women in an endless cycle of shame and self-recrimination.

Like many women, I often prioritize my job. I do this because, as the head of a single-parent household, I’m the sole breadwinner. My ex-husband, who has joint custody, is an amazing father and my life would be impossible without him. Neither of us pays the other support.

My choice is more than a financial imperative. I prioritize my work because I’m ambitious and because I believe it’s important. If I didn’t write and teach and litigate, a part of me would feel empty.

This is a stunning admission. First, that she can’t “do it all,” because “work-life balance” is a lie people tell themselves to justify their priorities so they can pretend they’re very professional while walking away whenever it suits them. Second, that Lara has made a choice, not because she doesn’t love her children, but because she chose the life of criminal defense lawyer and there’s no way to do it without making it your priority.

I have missed meetings to take my kids to the park or a museum, and picked them up early to go to karate class. Recently, I turned down an offer to teach an extra class for a significant amount of money because I didn’t want to lose that time with them.

But there is always another client to defend, story to write or struggling student who just can’t wait. Here are things I have missed: my daughter’s seventh birthday, my son’s 10th birthday party, two family vacations, three Halloweens, every school camping trip. I have never chaperoned, coached or organized a school event.

Whether you would make the same choice is irrelevant. You be you. Lara will make her own choices because she’s not you. Her point, however, is that there is no choice where one can be a criminal defense lawyer and not make brutal sacrifices. That’s the nature of this duty we’ve undertaken.

There was a debate here a while back where some lawyers argued that they would never put their clients ahead of their family. There were some distinctions to be noted, that these were appellate lawyers, for whom “emergencies” are more likely to be machete-like paper cuts than a 2 a.m. call that their client is in surgery to remove a cop’s bullet. And their toughest legal choices are whether to use the oxford comma and contractions.

For Lara Bazelon, her choice was to spend time with her kids or save her client’s life.

My son was one of the last children to speak. He stood up and, in a clear voice, said: “I appreciate my parents for being lawyers because they get people out of jail. This really helps me reflect, do the right thing and have positive role models.”

This isn’t a job for everyone for many reasons, not the least of which is because of the sacrifices demanded of us. Many young lawyers don’t want to hear this message; they’re told they can have it all, that there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing your client for your family. After all, your daughter will never have another third-grade recital, right? Is it wrong to miss it?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

28 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: The Return of Choices and Sacrifice

  1. Kaye Reeves

    Excellent story, but if you think the toughest legal choice criminal appellate lawyers face is whether to use the oxford comma, you have no idea what their professional life is like. Appellate lawyers labor long and hard on behalf of their clients for typically meager pay. It’s no walk in the park to come up with reasoning persuasive enough to sway an appellate court when the presumption favors the conviction. Even merely selecting which arguments to raise for maximum persuasiveness in a state court can determine the outcome of the case later in federal court. It’s a tough job, and no doubt some appellate lawyer somewhere is missing a birthday or field trip today.

    1. SHG Post author

      Now I’m crying sad tears for how hard you work and how my humor hurt your feelings. No doubt all the lawyers and judges here will learn from your defense of appellate lawyers, because nobody knew until you explained it to them.

      1. Kaye Reeves

        I can’t claim to have been personally offended by either the post or your reply. I worked for many years as a staff attorney in the appellate courts, and was expressing my appreciation for appellate counsels’ admirable efforts, not tooting my own horn.

      2. Richard Kopf


        For 10% of the take, I will personally underwrite a cage match between Ms. Bazelon and Mr. Melkonian, the Dean of #AppellateTwitter.

        All the best.


        1. SHG Post author

          I cannot endorse the physical beating of any human being, and Lara would kick his ass across the room.

        1. Jeff

          I didn’t even click play and I can hear the acoustic plucking of the strings. Excuse me, it’s summer break. I need to go hug my kids.

  2. L. Phillips

    The hubris is strong in this one.

    Ladies and gentlemen of the criminal defense persuasion your life is no different from anyone else in the world trying to maintain and grow a family while sustaining at least a few positive relationships with other human beings. If you want to compare 2am phone calls, yes, I have been hauled out of bed to try and prevent someone from eating their gun and I have not always succeeded. Not so rare is the call that announces an illness, injury, or even death that must be dealt with regardless of whether or not junior needs a ride to soccer practice. Or an opportunity for overtime that will finally make that last payment on the refrigerator but will interfere with an elementary school play about asparagus. Throw in trying to satisfy your own desire to excel at your trade or profession and the hard decisions multiply.

    Life is tough – for all of us. I figure it is OK to whine occasionally but better to cut yourself and your neighbors some slack once in a while and know that the vast majority of us are doing the best we can. Your clients are not society writ large. Neither were mine. (Often they were the same people.)

    Yes, you hit a nerve. Rant off.

    1. SHG Post author

      Listen, copper. Keep your twelve hour shifts to yourself. The hubris here has more to do with an internal lawyer fight than lawyers versus the real world. Remember, we’re the center of the universe, so of course it’s all about lawyers.

  3. Kathryn Kase

    1. It is stunning how many mothers have roasted Lara Bazelon in the NY Times comments for this admission.
    2. I’m still waiting for fathers to feel the need to write similar pieces justifying why they would put livelihood before their children.

    1. SHG Post author

      Your first point answers your second point. Still, women are constantly roasting men for not doing their share of child rearing (not to mention housework). There seems to be a common theme in the two, but it eludes me.

      Edit: This seems like an opportunity to recall when feminism meant women were entitled to free agency, to choose their future, whether it was to work, to stay home with the kids or anywhere in between. It’s not going nearly as well as anticipated. This is where us old school feminists, who don’t admonish women for making choices with which we disapprove, question whether there can ever be real equality as long as people seem to believe they’re entitled to define right and wrong for others.

      1. Jake

        “This is where us old school feminists, who don’t admonish women for making choices with which we disapprove,”

        Wut? lolz. Yeah, so long as their choice is not:

        – Being intersectional
        – Making rules on college campuses designed to prevent rape
        – Protesting your old people political agenda
        – Studying social justice
        – Disagreeing with you on virtually anything
        – Need I continue?

  4. Jake

    Is the underlying problem work-life balance, or is there a structural defect in the system needing correction that leaves criminal defense lawyers terminally overbooked?

    1. SHG Post author

      Is there a bone in your head that makes it impossible for you to see the obvious, even when it’s spelled out for you?

  5. szr

    What a fantastic article. What seems most crazy is that something like this needs to be written at all. When did we agree to believe the “have it all” fantasy? Our clients put an awesome trust in our hands, and we should never forget that fact.

    Your blog posts over the last year have made it impossible for me to ignore the connection between dismissing our primary duty to clients with other adjunct concerns. Here, it is about family, and elsewhere it has been about political concerns of the type on full display in the NYLAS complaint or Appellate Squawk’s saga.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that most of my CDL heroes are women like Lara and Squawk, who have to put up with a ton of bullshit that that I don’t, and yet they push forward because they are that strong. I wonder how many male CDLs would be strong enough to put up with the shit they get and still push through?

  6. CLS

    An older attorney approached me one summer in law school while I did some research work for a judge. He questioned why I wanted to be a lawyer. My answer didn’t seem to indicate I understood what he meant at the time, so this lawyer rephrased his question as follows:

    “How many times do you want to explain to your wife why you’re spending Valentine’s Day at the county jail, stopping someone from tanking their own case by talking to cops? You interested in having kids? Be ready to explain to them why Daddy gets home late some nights and won’t always be there for bedtime.”

    Years later, I’d like to think I grasp at least a little of the seriousness of this lawyer’s line of questioning. It’s never been easy. And as a certain mean-ass editor once told me, it’s a life by definition filled with failure.

    But I’m grateful for the times I saved someone’s life.

    1. SHG Post author

      No matter how unpleasant it may be to miss a precious moment with family, it’s nothing compared with the misery our clients face. If this is the life we chose, then our duty to our clients comes first.

  7. DaveL

    which presupposes that a “work-life balance” is achievable. It’s not.

    I find this claim bizarre. Having it all doesn’t presuppose that work-life balance is achievable, it presupposes it’s unnecessary. There’s no need to balance if you can do everything. “Work-life balance” means you get to weigh your shortcomings as a professional against your shortcomings as a parent, and identify the kinds of failure you can live with.

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