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A Life in the Law

The Key to Having It All as a Full-Time Lawyer Mom

By Susan Cohodes

Now that I’m no longer a full-time lawyer mom, I wonder if my children or clients ever paid the price for my trying to have it all.

full-time lawyer mom

Well, that’s that. I am officially no longer a full-time lawyer.

As readers of this column know, I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past months thinking about myself and my career. But, OK, maybe it’s not all about me. I can’t help wondering whether my kids or clients have suffered any collateral damage.

I’d been a full-time lawyer since 1986 and a full-time lawyer mom since 1994. Math is not my strong suit, but it seems that two times full-time is a lot.

Collateral Damage?

As a member of the generation of female attorneys who wrestled with whether we could “have it all” (whatever that means), I now wonder if anyone paid the price for my trying.

It wasn’t easy, but I think not.

Whether due to the type of firm or kind of law I practiced (personal injury) and support system, my awesome people skills, or just plain hard work, I can think of only a handful of clients who complained when I had to reschedule a meeting for a PTA event, band concert or Little League game. And I remember none complaining when I was willing to meet them on a weekend at a coffee shop near their home. (Well, maybe one, but he complained about everything.)

I invited those who complained to find another lawyer and when they did, we were both probably happier for it. I urge young lawyers I meet to do the same. It’s almost never worth it to stick with a client you really don’t like or who’s a perpetual complainer. Whatever you earn will come at too high a cost and the client will probably never be happy anyway.

I’ve also thought back about the homefront.

I don’t recall complaints from my children about feeling neglected. They certainly didn’t seem to care when I couldn’t get around to making their beds. And once it became their responsibility, they cared even less. Neither my children nor their preschool teachers registered a complaint about wearing inside-out sweatshirts or mismatched clothes either. And it was fine by me. Who was I to argue with a toddler who said she liked it that way? Their teeth were brushed and they were always fully clothed when they walked out the door.

My family was always well fed too, since I had a gigantic bee in my substantial bonnet about people assuming we ate takeout every night because I was a working mom. We did not!

My oldest is noe a lawyer himself. Early on in his practice, he called to tell me how hard it was. I lovingly replied, “Duh!” But I hung up thinking I must have done a good job of hiding how hard it was because he had apparently not noticed.

There’s No Substitute for Hard Work

I spent the early years of my practice — before children — working long hours so that I could truly understand what I was doing. That paid dividends later when I was able to work efficiently and well. There were no shortcuts, but putting in all those hours made it possible for me to work smarter when I had to share myself with two little ones at home.

Sure, sometimes that meant going back to the office after the kids were asleep. (I started practicing shortly after dinosaurs stopped roaming the earth, so the majority of my practice took place before working remotely was a viable option).

I knew no other way than to work hard for my clients. I took very seriously the trust that they placed in me and always felt obligated to give them my best.

And, yes, sometimes that meant I was tired or cranky at home.

My kids knew that if I had on a good suit and accessories I was probably in trial or doing something that would consume my attention for a while. They also knew that once I was back in jeans and a sweatshirt, there would be a movie, a restaurant or Saturday time on the couch eating ice cream right from the tub. Apparently, they were OK with that.

When I talk with young lawyers today, I encourage them to put in the time now, while youth is on their side, to learn and build their practices. I assure them that sacrifices made early in their career will pay off when they are older, much more tired and have other pressing obligations. Like PTA meetings.

And No Substitute for Great Partners in ‘Having It All’

I was also lucky enough to have wonderful partners.

My husband shares household duties, including but not limited to cooking, laundry and, when the kids were babies, most of the icky stuff. He is an amazing father and a great partner in my “having it all.” We also had two amazing nannies, one for five years and the other for another 11 years, until my oldest got his driver’s license and was able to haul our youngest from place to place.

I also had tremendous support at the office throughout most of my career. For the last two decades plus, I worked with a lawyer who pretty much let me do what I wanted to do, once he realized I knew what I was doing. I had no desire to own my own firm since the operation I was most interested in was at home. I got lucky enough to find someone who let me come and go as I liked, as long as the work was getting done. 

Very Good Is Good Enough

And that was the key: The work always got done.

Maybe not perfectly, but very well — and work done very well was good enough for my clients. That, I think, was a key to my success.

I remind new lawyers that it’s never going to be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It just has to be very good — and if they put in the hard work early on it always will be.

Maybe I Did Have It All After All

So, as I think back, I guess I did have it all — at least as defined by me. I had no problem abandoning perfection. Toddlers dressed in mismatched clothing were still fully clothed and well-fed. Work done for clients after a midnight drive back to the office was still good work and clients knew it.

It turns out, having it all was well within reach.

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Susan Cohodes Susan Cohodes

Susan Cohodes is a trial attorney who practiced for more than 35 years, first in Chicago and for the last 31 years in Seattle. Susan has spent her entire career fighting for injured clients. In 2024, Susan became Of Counsel to her firm and is now pursuing her passions of knitting, writing — and following her beloved Green Bay Packers around the country.

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