Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Lawyering and Mothering

Lawyering and Mothering

As we approach Mother’s Day, many of us will be thinking about our mothers, our spouses, our children, and the people who hold similar roles in our lives. In the Assist constellation, many of the mothers we will be celebrating are also lawyers, a tough combination in my experience.
This week, I read a wonderful article by a lawyer who had children before practicing law She summarized how the skills she developed as a mother prepared her for practicing law:

  • Multi-tasking
  • Time management
  • Not easily rattled
  • Mediation and negotiation, and
  • Issue spotting and problem solving.

I approached the combination of practicing law and motherhood from the other direction: I had been practicing law for five years when my first child was born. I used to joke that my skills as a Big Law corporate/securities lawyer had prepared me well for looking after tiny humans:

  • Acceptance: I was used to not being in charge of my life
  • Flexibility: Whatever I thought was going to happen that day, something different always arose
  • Communication Issues: I was dealing with individuals who couldn’t always express what they wanted other than to react in anger when I did the wrong thing
  • Not enough time: need I say more
  • Coping with Chaos: dealing with self-focused beings who imposed their priorities on me

You get the drift.
At first, it was hard for me to stop approaching motherhood like a lawyer. I remember deciding to keep a log of all of my baby’s activities by tracking time in minutes, like a timesheet, so I had a sense of what we did all day. This lasted less than a day as I realized that it was pointless, and I was tired.
As we head towards Mother’s Day, and we express gratitude to our mother figures, I want to express gratitude to motherhood itself, which changed my life.
When I entered law school, I didn’t know what kind of law I wanted to practice—in fact, I doubt I understood that lawyers tended to specialize at all. I just thought law sounded interesting, and it was a nice, tidy way of making a living (no blood and guts or heavy lifting!). I resisted the siren song of Big Law for articling, questioning why quotas like 1800 billable hours existed, and believing that this wasn’t for me. I wanted to have a balanced lifestyle, and I wanted my life to include children. I thought that a smaller firm with a lower billable hour quota would be a better fit for me, so that was what I pursued, only to discover that there are worse issues for an introvert like me than billable hours—finding clients!
I happily ran to Big Law and embraced the beautiful art-filled offices, feelings of elitism, and great pay. I told myself that I could remain true to myself in spite of accepting these trappings, and I spent five years advancing my career, sacrificing whatever was asked. My friends were my colleagues (since I had no time for my old friends), and I viewed the world from my thirty-fifth-floor window of privilege.
I didn’t stop to consider what kind of a person I was becoming, probably because I didn’t really want to know.
My blissful career advancement crashed when my son was born. I began to view the world from his viewpoint: what did he needed, what did I need to do to provide, what kind of a role model was his mother?
By the time my four-month maternity leave was ending, I had a different sense of myself, my career and my life. In essence, my maternity leave was a sabbatical and my fresh perspective was that I no longer wanted what I had built. I went back to work because I didn’t know what else to do, and it felt wonderful and natural in many ways apart from the trauma of leaving my baby each day. But I was exhausted by the time I got home each day (of course, my baby wasn’t sleeping through the night at four months!) I realized that my work pattern generally left me with an empty tank by the end of the day, and that I was parenting on fumes.
I reconnected with my old sense of purpose: could I practice law in a more balanced way, as I had envisioned when I eschewed Big Law the first time? I opted for a non-partnership track reduced hours arrangement even though I could have been up for partnership that year, and I enjoyed my target of 1200 billable hours target for 55% of salary allowing for fixed costs like overhead.
I have no regrets about the trajectory my career took—I enjoyed the flexibility my arrangement provided. No snide voice said, “working half days, Loraine?” when I exited at 5 pm because everyone knew I was on half-pay. The reality was that I was able to bill about 80% of my full pay colleagues because I worked the hours that files dictated and then eased up when files were less demanding. I am sorry to hear that the reduced hours associateships went the way of the dodo as parental leaves increased in length, but there are more non-partnership track roles now.
Sometimes I wonder who I would be if I had not become a mother and shifted my perspective. Perhaps I would have found my way to work that aligned with my values in time—I just don’t know. All I know is that my four-month maternity leave—my sabbatical from the world I had chosen to inhabit—reconnected lawyer-me with pre-lawyer-me, and it was a happy reunion.
We don’t all walk the same path, and I have nothing but praise and admiration for lawyers who seamlessly practice law while parenting small children. I just wasn’t one of them. When we apply to law school, we focus on our GPAs and our LSAT scores, thinking that brainpower (and a particular bias to certain types of performance) is our key skill. For me, I struggled with fatigue and exhaustion—I didn’t have the physical stamina that many of my colleagues had. Becoming a mother forced me to accept this—I was diagnosed with an autoimmune medical condition post-partum, and the idea that my body was attacking itself also impacted my perspective shift. Simply put, defining myself by how hard I could work was not viable work for me, and I have found wonderful ways to stay in law for the last thirty-plus years.
If you are a lawyer-mom, I hope that you will have time on Sunday to think about all that you do, both at home and at work. Being a lawyer-mom is rarely easy—please take yourself off the hook. Perfection in both motherhood and practicing law cannot be perfection but giving the best that you’ve got. I look at this from the perspective of having three adult children now—they turned out well in spite of my imperfections!
I want to do a special shout out to the lawyer moms who were not able to access maternity leaves, I am thinking in particular of a lawyer who had to return to work two weeks after giving birth to twins many years ago. We have to remember our foremothers who created a climate where most lawyers can now access parental leaves, including dads.
This Mother’s Day, as you contemplate the lawyer-moms in your life, please consider:

  • Being a lawyer and a mom has synergies, but it also has incredible challenges. Can you ask the lawyer-mom(s) you know what they would appreciate most this Mother’s Day? I have many happy memories of breakfast in bed, even with spills and hearing the strange sound the microwave makes when something contains metal…. But many moms would appreciate spa time or dinner out. Just ask.
  • Lawyer moms with high-octane careers sometimes struggle with guilt. Can you reassure that they are doing well as they juggle many priorities? Some Mother’s Day cards and promotions idealize motherhood but that can make moms of all kinds—not just lawyer moms—question if they are as good as the words suggest. Sometimes, we want light cards and cards that are funny!
  • Lawyer moms who opt for less intense careers often fear judgment by other lawyers. Can you reassure them that their careers are valued and valuable?  If you have a colleague who struggles with this, please recognize it and tell them that their work is valued, even when our culture suggests that lawyer moms must be in superwomen roles.
  • Regardless of how the lawyer mom has built their career, lawyer moms are invariably tired. What can you take off their plate to free up more time for rest and recharging?  What about a gift certificate for a cleaning service—or a lawn service depending on the division of labour in the lawyer-mom’s family? Or a food deliver service? Many mom’s love coupons for services from their kids for doing helpful jobs….
  • Research confirms that women in dual income families continue to carry a disproportionate share of household responsibilities. How can you support the lawyer-mom in your life to achieve parity? This one is for the spouses or partners of lawyer moms. In some families, the most meaningful gift may be a promise—followed through on—to take on specific jobs without being asked.
  • Lawyer moms who are single carry 100% of the load. If you know a lawyer single mom, invite her out to lunch and tell her that she is amazing!  

My heart goes out to everyone who is facing their first Mother’s Day without their moms. You are entitled to your feelings—whatever they may be—and please practice good self care.
We all go back to being lawyers each Monday, but this Sunday, please celebrate the lawyer moms in your world with love and caring, and sensitivity to the ups and downs inherent in being both a lawyer and a mom.