Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Happy Mother's Day, Pandemic Version 2.0

Happy Mother’s Day, Pandemic Version 2.0

As we move to celebrating Mother’s Day this Sunday, I have been thinking about Assist’s Annual General Meeting, held last Wednesday (April 28th.) If this sounds like a non sequitur, read on!

As an old corporate lawyer and perennial board secretary of every group I ever join, I have ideas about how a perfect meeting, especially an AGM, should go. You have a script that everyone who is speaking is supposed to stick to, which includes who is supposed to make motions and second them. I used to cringe whenever someone would stand at an AGM and state that they were a “common shareholder”. At my meetings, people said they were “holders of common shares”—way less insulting and it involves less forelock tugging.

Planning the perfect meeting means that you have envisioned all of the things that could go off-track, and you have a strategy (and maybe even a script!) in place. And then the meeting goes seamlessly, all the required business is conducted smoothly, and members experience confidence in their elected board. It is a lovely thing.

When I was inhouse counsel, I worked for a blue-chip corporation whose shares paid dividends. This made these shares popular with retired people (who were referred to for internal purposes as “shareholders”) as well as major institutions and corporations (referred to for internal purposes as “investors” so I am going to use this terminology.) I learned about the AGM circuit, where retired shareholders attended all of the AGMs of the dividend-paying corporations---partially, perhaps because of their interest in corporate performance, but also due to the free refreshments on offer. You would not believe how many conversations I overheard along the lines of “This spread is quite nice, much nicer than the one at XYZ Corporation last week”, and “Thank heavens they have mini quiches again. It just wasn’t the same last year when they only had sausage rolls and cucumber sandwiches.” I doubt that most of the attendees were riveted by the Annual Report presentation, but they certainly enjoyed the hospitality! As for the “investors”, they submitted proxies.

I had one AGM go sideways in my legal career, and it wasn’t pretty. I had been retained by the Board of a not-for-profit to oversee fundamental changes to their bylaws regarding membership, quorum, and notices of meeting. My retainer included all things necessary to give effect to the foregoing—i.e., make sure the resolution was properly passed by the members. Wearing my best corporate governance hat, I prepared a script for the meeting, which included what I considered to be the magic wording for verifying that the amendment was passed by way of special resolution (75% of members.) The script was pretty dense, but it was good.

However well-meaning the board was, they had a free-range Board Chair who was dismissive of my detailed script. He started out following the script but then gave into his instinct to chair the meeting by instinct. There was nothing I could do—the other Board members sitting at the podium were blissfully oblivious of their leader’s decision to improvise. But while the Chair reviewed the contents of the bylaw amendment, he neglected to ask for a motion to approve the amended bylaws. Needless to say, there was no confirmation that three-quarters of the members present voted in favour of the motion—there was no motion at all! And then he moved on to the next agenda item.

I had no choice but to slink up to the podium and whisper in the ear of a director, who had to intervene to get a motion on the floor, a vote and confirmation that there the requirements for a special resolution were met. It was a bit embarrassing for the organization, but I felt vindicated that I had at least prepared the perfect script.

I always think of that meeting that so nearly went awry when I start planning meetings. It was the antithesis of the perfect meeting.

Last week, Assist held its Annual General Meeting. It was our 25th Birthday—Assist was incorporated on April 19, 1996—and I was disappointed that we were not able to serve cake to our guests (who have not been overheard to compare our refreshments with those of other not-for-profits). Traditionally, Assist’s AGM has been held in Edmonton and Calgary courtesy of Field Law LLP and its interoffice telecommunications system (i.e., people attended at one of the two locations that were connected via video link) and we served refreshments (not as lavish as blue-chip corporation’s AGMs, though.) As much as we were hoping to have in-person events this year, it was not to be, and we held our special anniversary AGM via Zoom.

This AGM will live on in my memory as the Perfectly Imperfect AGM. We had attendees via Zoom not only in Edmonton and Calgary, but in Red Deer and St. Paul as well. And it is probably the first Assist AGM where the minutes will reflect that a participant said, “Do you really have to play basketball in here right now?” We had a few slight delays—I had to let my dog out to do her business just as the AGM was starting—and at one point, I thought a guest was raising his hand to speak to a motion, but he was actually high-fiving with the three-year old daughter of another guest who wanted to sit on her mother’s lap through the whole meeting. It was utterly charming.

Many board members were at home, and this meant that children and pets meandered through. At our last AGM (also held by Zoom), we got to meet two new arrivals, and while we didn’t meet any new babies (that we hadn’t met before) this time, we enjoyed seeing people in their home habitats. Assist’s directors and volunteers have always been pretty down-to-earth, and it was nice to watch everyone smile when a little head appeared on our screens.

So, what does any of this have to do with Mother’s Day? Well, about half of our attendees were women, many of whom are mothers, and the realities about working from home Zoom meetings were apparent.

This will be our second COVID Mother’s Day. We didn’t expect last Mother’s Day to be our first COVID Mother’s Day!  But here we are, with new lockdown orders coming into place. In fact, the second tranche of this crop of closures comes into effect at 11:59 pm on Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day—you now get to homeschool your children while working remotely….

Schools are closing at least until after the May long weekend, but at least childcare operations are continuing to operate (if parents feel comfortable continuing to send their preschoolers). This is going to be a challenge to all parents, but media continue to report that, as a general rule, women are carrying more of the care duties, even when both parents are working remotely (  I am worried about how much more our Lawyer and Law Student Moms of school age children can take.

Usage of Assist’s counselling services program reflects these issues. During Assist’s Q3 of 2020 (May through August), 74% of new counselling cases were women. Women generally access this program more than men, but this quarter seemed consistent with the theme that women lawyers were bearing the brunt of family care issues during the pandemic.

This Mother’s Day, Assist’s message to all Moms in our community is: Thank you! You are mothering during an incredibly challenging time, and it is okay if you are feeling worn and burned out—your feelings are what they are, and please do not judge yourself harshly or feel guilty. Please think about what you need, and don’t be afraid to ask your partner, family, and children to ask for what you need.

And, for all our readers who are not Moms, please stop to think about how you can support the Moms in your life. Of course, this includes your own mother, but the mother of your children deserves recognition, to. And encourage your children to show appreciation to their Moms!

What can we do for our Moms who are juggling legal work or law school (or a different career) with childcare? We can acknowledge that people who are working from home have different demands on their time and attention, and that although people are working from home, they are still entitled to erect boundaries around personal and family activities. Please respect the Mom in your workplace by not assuming that she is available 24/7 just because she has a cell phone and an internet connection.

A recent article in Above the Law addresses this issue in an article called “Just Because Associates are Working From Home Doesn’t Mean They Should Always Be on Call” in the context of junior lawyers.  The same holds true for working Moms, too. Just because they can work from home, please don’t assume that they are working 24/7.

The ABA recently released a report on why women leave law firms and the practice of law entirely. This report found that women didn’t leave law because of one overwhelming experience but because of a death by a thousand paper cuts experience where women felt less valued.

The report also makes five recommendations:
  • Assess the impact of firm policies and practices on women lawyers.
  • Take steps to ensure there is a critical mass of women partners on key firm committees.
  • Increase lateral hiring of women partners.
  • Provide resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that women more often face than their male colleagues.
  • Be flexible to support changing practices.
Note the fourth bullet point—bolded for ease of reference.

I know many women lawyers who are the principal earner in their households and whose spouses carry most of the family obligations. But the fact that there are some women who do not bear a disproportionate family load does not mean that firms and employers should shy away from this issue. I would encourage firms and employers to ensure that their policies support lawyers, regardless of gender, who have extensive family duties. But as we honour Moms this weekend, let’s start by recognizing that Moms are juggling many responsibilities, and ensure that we are providing enough support, especially with respect to boundaries.

And, once we recognize that Moms shouldn’t be on call 24/7, let’s extend this to everyone in our work communities. We can do this in the name of our moms who taught us to treat other people the way we wanted to be treated.

So Happy Mother’s Day to all the Moms in the Assist Community. We are grateful for your service, and we are here to support you. And if you are looking for ways that you can help your workplace become more balanced with respect to family issues, please call me.  As someone who navigated those waters, alone, for many years, I am always happy to chat.