Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law by Susan Smith Blakely is an excellent and no-nonsense look at the issues faced by women in the legal profession. It looks at both the opportunities and challenges faced by women who decide to pursue careers in the law. Best Friends is a superb book for any law student or new attorney who is willing to take a hard look at the potential obstacles she may face when choosing her legal career path. This book provides honest, helpful advice from female practitioners who are willing to share their experiences, both good and bad. Smith Blakely does an outstanding job of remaining objective when reporting on the positive and negative consequences of choices made by new female lawyers.
While most writers on the subject focus on compensation disparities, Smith Blakely acknowledges that there is more to it than salary, including career planning, being realistic about expectations, etiquette, and networking. By providing the experiences of women lawyers who are at varying points in their professional careers, the book provides tangible examples of the challenges faced by women in the law.
The book starts out with a candid discussion about career planning. Smith Blakely very quickly concedes that fewer women are entering law school and more female attorneys are leaving the practice of law because of unrealized expectations and disillusionment. Interestingly enough, many of these women don’t leave to be stay-at-home moms; they are still interested in the law, but are looking for more family-friendly jobs. Smith Blakely cautions that retention of women lawyers is everyone’s responsibility – law schools, law firms, local bar associations, and the American Bar Association.
In Chapter two, Smith Blakely looks at the “law school decision.” To start, Smith Blakely states that law school should not be a default option after graduation; it should be deliberate and fully researched. Law school is too expensive to commit to on a whim. Once the decision to go to law school is made, choosing the right law school and defining yourself are the next critical steps. To end the chapter, Smith Blakely looks at the many ways a bad economy impacts lawyers and law firms.
Chapter three does an excellent job of explaining the importance of being realistic about expectations. The notion that women can “have it all – family, children, and a profession” is both naïve and unrealistic. Smith Blakely astutely points out that the law is still a male-dominated profession, and the norm is full-time practice. The real life examples the Smith Blakely give regarding flex time and maternity leave really hammer home this point. The chapter wraps up with a discussion about the gender divide. It is still often difficult for female attorneys to break into the good ol’ boy network.
In Chapters four and five, the book turns its attention to more practical issues like choice of practice specialty, choice of practice setting, professional dress, and social etiquette. These chapters do an excellent job of identifying, discussing, and dissecting these issues. Smith Blakely gives examples appropriately captioned “Case in Point.”
Smith Blakely ends her discussion (chapter 6) with contributions and anecdotes from her “friends at the bar.” She highlights the experiences and accomplishments of several of her colleagues from varying generations. Of all the chapters, I found this one to be the most powerful. There is nothing quite like a real-life story to give clarity to an issue and to personalize it.
Chapter seven is entitled “The Solution.” Ironically, Smith Blakely admits that there is no one solution to the issues addressed in the book. The solution for each person will be unique to her, and will be the result of choices made while ferreting out a career path.
Reviewed by Maureen Anderson, associate professor at the University of Dayton Zimmerman Law Library in Ohio.