In the Know for Women’s History Month | Motherhood and Lawyering

By: Kayla Cruz

As more women began entering the legal profession in the 1980s and 1990s, many wondered whether it was possible to create the career path they wanted and build family lives. Traditionally, lawyering means extensive time commitments that compete with the demands of caring for young children. For years, young women lawyers have been told that choosing to start a family in their 20s means career suicide. Some who choose to start families are left hiding their pregnancies for as long as they can or deciding whether to leave a stable job.

While balancing lawyering with parenthood is not exclusively limited to women, in most cases caring for and raising children disproportionately alters the lives and career trajectory of women. For example, an article in the August 2018 issue of the ABA Journal found that 54 percent of women were responsible for arranging childcare compared to 1 percent of men, and 34 percent of women left work for children’s needs compared to 5 percent of men.[1]

Even more so than their white colleagues, Black women face a surmounting pressure to choose either motherhood or career advancement in a field where they are largely unrepresented. Today, less than 2 percent of attorneys are Black women, making disparity a grim reality and access to employment opportunities slim for those who choose motherhood.

Motherhood and Lawyering Post COVID-19

As the world came to a halt in the midst of a global pandemic, being a working mother – an already arduous task – became untenable. According to researchers, when at home, women subconsciously tend to fall into traditional gender roles, putting their needs and comforts last. For working mothers, stay-at-home orders meant that they would be teachers, primary caregivers, employees, and bosses, all at the same time. An uncomfortable truth became immediately apparent—working mothers had very few solid support systems in place. Early in the pandemic, about 32 percent of women ages 25-44 dropped out of the workforce because of childcare responsibilities.[2]

In light of these changes, the legal industry has had to adapt. Many firms are looking to retain their employees and talent, and they have adopted flexible work-from-home policies. Other changes include switching to remote litigation, which requires more logistical planning, but allows lawyers more flexibility in appearance time. By altering schedules to allow for more flexibility, law firms can retain working mothers and promote more work-life balanced environments.

How To Encourage and Promote Success Among Women Lawyers

The goal for many law firms and companies should be to create a space where mothering and lawyering can co-exist. It is not enough to give advice on how women can be better mothers and lawyers—most are trying their best to achieve some level of perfection in both. Instead, grace and support are what are needed by women who are mothers in the legal profession. Some of these support systems can include allowing women to bring children to the office, paying childcare costs for women during work hours, allowing mothers a more flexible work-from-home schedule, and offering longer paid maternity leave. The reality is that law firms rarely lose from having mothers who feel rested and balanced, because their work-product is better as a result.

Some women have taken on the role of creating spaces for other mothers and lawyers. Chelsie Lamie, a mother and personal injury lawyer in Florida, started a baby-friendly law practice by instituting paid family leave at 100 percent, and encouraging employees to bring their babies to work.[3] She was unafraid to make mothering her first priority and allows other women lawyers to do the same.

Another way that women in the legal field navigate motherhood is by developing external support systems. Having family members, friends, and colleagues help with childcare is important to reducing stress and financial burden. Moreover, letting go of ideas of perfection allows room to go with the flow. Sometimes children will need more time and attention and other times, work will. Motherhood and lawyering can successfully co-exist when perfection is not the goal.

However, until firms are better equipped to support the needs of attorneys who are mothers, the legal industry will continue to be plagued by low levels of retention and advancement of women attorneys to the highest levels of firm leadership. Many attorneys who are mothers, especially in Big Law, continue to face inflexible work schedules, a perceived lack of ambition, and a billable hours system that values the amount of time spent on a project over efficiency in delivery of a work product. Until these issues within firm culture are addressed, women will continue to leave Big Law for more flexible in-house roles–or leave the practice of law altogether–and gender parity at the top of the profession will remain difficult to attain.  

 

 

[1] Jackson, Liane. “Why do experienced female lawyers leave? Disrespect, social constraints, ABA survey says.” ABA Journal, 3 August 2018. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/why_do_experienced_female_lawyers_leave_disrespect_social_constraints_ABA.

[2] Jackson, Liane. “How pandemic practice left lawyer-moms facing burnout.” ABA Journal, 1 August 2021. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/journal/articles/2021/how-pandemic-practice-left-lawyer-moms-facing-burnout/.

[3] Cho, Jeena. “Lawyers on balancing motherhood or choosing a child-free life.” ABA Journal, 1 November 2018. https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/lawyers_on_balancing_motherhood_or_choosing_a_child_free_life.