In this episode, MothersEsquire founder Michelle Browning Coughlin talks about how being a parent—especially a mom—can make it harder to practice law, and what firms can do to be more parent-friendly, from paid paternity leave and flexible working arrangements to breastfeeding accommodations and playing the HR long-game.
Michelle Browning Coughlin
Michelle Browning Coughlin is a Kentucky intellectual property lawyer.
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Announcer: Welcome to The Lawyerist podcast with Sam Glover and Aaron Street. Each week Lawyerist brings you advice and interviews to help you build a more successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Now here are Sam and Aaron.
Sam Glover: Hi I’m Sam Glover.
Aaron Street: And I’m Aaron Street and this is episode 113 of The Lawyerist podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today we’re talking with Michelle Browning Coughlin about how to build a parent-friendly law firm.
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Aaron Street: Today’s interview about work life balance and parent friendly law firms and things reminded me of a case that is currently headed to the Minnesota state supreme court. A woman, Kathleen Riley is licensed I believe in Illinois and is petitioning to waive in for admission to the Minnesota bar. She applied to the board of law examiners under the theory that she had practiced in Illinois for five years, or practiced law for five years, which included a federal courtship and some other stuff, and the Minnesota board of law examiners counts your 60 months, five year credit, so long as you are primarily in the practice of law and they’ve decided that primarily in the practice of law means 120 hours per month for each of those 60 months otherwise it doesn’t count.
Sam Glover: So full-time, 40 hours a week-ish.
Aaron Street: Well that would be like 160ish so it is less than that. It’s closer to 30 but they’ve decided that if you don’t meet that numerical threshold you are not primarily involved in the practice of law.
Sam Glover: Even if that’s the only work that you’re doing.
Aaron Street: So that is the case of this woman who worked part time. She was also a mom and her part time didn’t always meet the 120 hour threshold over the course of those five years, though she wasn’t doing anything else and so they said that she didn’t meet the standards and denied her ability to waive into the Minnesota bar without having to take the bar exam and she’s petitioning that to the state supreme court right now under a couple of different theories because the case also involved maternity leave and whether a gap in that counting, all sorts of interesting stuff.
I thought the fact that there is kind of a pending issue in our state about what it means to be a lawyer, to practice law, whether full time practice is what’s required for you to consider yourself practicing law, and it’s pretty clear to me, and I think to most of the people engaged in the bar association in Minnesota that where our society is headed probably means that arbitrary numerical thresholds of how many hours you bill or work is probably the wrong way to think about whether people are professionally lawyers or not.
Sam Glover: You know, I think the only legitimate purpose of these kinds of regulations is protecting consumers. I mean is there anything beyond that you could say is a legitimate reason to have this sort of regulation?
Aaron Street: That is the goal, right? So the idea is that if you’ve practice for five years in another state than you have demonstrated that you are competent as a lawyer.
Sam Glover: Yeah, and we’re going to have an upcoming podcast dealing with military spouses which will be interesting, who ar lawyers, because they will have had five years of practice but probably not all in the same state and so they also don’t get to waive in under the five year rule in most states.
Aaron Street: God it just feels so arbitrary and if you’ve practiced part time for five years, are you somehow less competent than the lawyer who’s practiced full time? I’m not willing to say that in every case. I think it kind of depends. What if you practice personal injury for a year, family law for a year, criminal defense for a year, something else for a year, than you fall under the five year rule but you’re no more competent than somebody who’s practiced part time in one practice area for five years.
Sam Glover: Yeah, or if you for sure practiced full time doing med mail for five years in one state and then you move to a different state and want to do business law advising, you’re deemed competent even though you are starting from zero in the same way that anyone else would be. I mean certainly our licensing regime is kind of absurd at this point.
Aaron Street: I like that you take the time to make fun of the way that I pronounce it. Yeah I mean if you get to walk out of law school and be presumed competent, than you ought to be presumed competent for just about anything else if you’ve already got a law license it feels like.
Sam Glover: One would think.
Aaron Street: Yeah.
Sam Glover: I’m a big proponent of I wish we had two rules. One is be competent and the other one is don’t lie.
Aaron Street: Sure.
Sam Glover: I mean I think that covers everything.
Aaron Street: You have to set some threshold as to what those mean but yes. I mean we enforce one point one already.
Sam Glover: Yeah, maybe then we could just do a way with the rath of regulations. Probably not. Lawyers would never allow that to happen.
Aaron Street: Yeah, so at ABA tech show last week the keynote presentation was the CEOs of Avvo, Rocket Lawyer, and Legal Zoom, and Mark Britton from Avvo was asked a question about our licensing regulatory regime. The reason those three were speaking was because they’re kind of the businesses testing the limits of what it means to practice law and using the internet to provide legal services, and Mark Britton from Avvo said, “Look, to the extent that regulations are about ethics, about protecting people from fraud, from incompetence, those are the most important rules and to the extent they are about protecting lawyers or regulation for regulations sake, it’s fucking bullshit.”
Sam Glover: Agreed.
Aaron Street: Done.
Sam Glover: Let’s hear from Michelle on a related tangentially subject, which is about how to build a parent friendly law firm. I think you’ll find it really interesting.
Michelle: Hi Sam, my name is Michelle Browning Coughlin and I am an intellectual property attorney in Louisville, Kentucky. I work for a boutique firm called Cahill IP and I love my clients, I love my practice. What we’re here to talk about today is mothers esquire, which is an organization that I founded in 2013. We sort of found it as a small group on Facebook. Really an informal group and we’ve grown over the years to an over 300 member group now and we’re focused on supporting women who are caregivers in particular, women who are lawyers, focus on how we can better make the legal practice more accessible for women and focus on gender equity in the law.
Sam Glover: Michelle when you and I met at the Cleo conference I think last September or October, it was just a Facebook group and you were just starting to get fired up about it and I think you had 70 some members at the time. How big is it now?
Michelle: Yes we just crossed the threshold of 300 members in our Facebook group. Like you said, when this first started I started it as just kind of a moms group on Facebook for several of my friends and there were just a handful of us on there and then as the time grew, we got up to 50, 60, 70, which really felt great and then in the fall I had the opportunity to serve as a diversity scholar to a national conference as part of the American Bar Association and talk about what these issues are and we really focused in on growing our group and letting people know what we were doing. We launched a website, started offering events, and now we just crossed 300 actually just this morning, so it’s been kind of an explosive, exciting, and nerve racking growth because we want to know how can I best serve these members.
Sam Glover: So why moms? Why not women?
Michelle: There are a lot of great resources for women and we feel like by supporting moms certainly of course we are supporting the greater goal of supporting women, but we feel like that that’s a piece that’s not really addressed. You know you and I have talked in the past about well how does this impact moms? And I’ve been asked that question by other people, the gender issues in the law, how do we know what percentage is moms? I don’t know. We don’t know. We just don’t collect statistics about that and I think that that’s part of what I felt was compelling about mothers esquire is that we need to better ask the questions. What is it that is causing us to see a large number of women leave the law when we’re graduating almost 50% out of law school and we’re starting at law firms, almost 50% so we’re almost 50/50 going in, so why is it 10 years down the road we’re down to 18, 20% of women in the law. If you think about timing, that timing lines up almost perfectly for when many women start having children.
Sam Glover: Yeah it sounds like your hunch is basically that one of the main reasons women drop off is they have kids and somebody needs to stay home with them and in many families that’s still the mom.
Michelle: Right. Exactly. I can not produce to you a statistical report that explains that exactly but I do think that’s a big issue and I thought, you know what let’s talk about this. Let’s really be direct and talk about caregiving roles and what I call the double binder, I don’t call it that, it’s been called that before, the double bind which is this sort of pressure to be a great worker, pressure to be very successful in your profession, and then this pressure to be very successful as a mother, a caregiver, a spouse and how that creates this situation that could be a bit of a pressure cooker and for many women they find I think that there’s just often pressure to move out of either a type of legal profession or move out of the profession entirely in order to meet the pressure that is placed on so many moms.
Sam Glover: You know so my wife is a mom and she’s a lawyer with a full time aggressive job and we have kids and so I’m going to try to resist the urge to speak for her since she’s not here to speak for herself but I hear you and there’s a lot going on there. One of the things that’s interesting is we are very, I think we parent very much as partners but it’s one of those things where I’m kind of unaware where I make assumptions in things, but what I really am aware of is I know that she carries guilt over not being around for the kids all the time, that I don’t have because there’s no cultural expectation that dad is going to be around all the time, so the fact that I want to or don’t want to is kind of like my choice, but for her there’s all this expectation around what it means to be a mom and what kind of care you’re supposed to give and I know that it’s there and it weights on her.
Michelle: Absolutely. I mean that’s the nail on the head right there is that the cultural expectations, the personal expectations depending on how you grew up and what you envisioned for yourself as a mom, what you envision for yourself as a professional, as a lawyer, those things can sometimes be at odds with each other and there is an enormous amount of guilt around those expectations and even sometimes I’ve heard women in my group talk about they sometimes get negative messages from their spouse directly or from other family members or other friends who are moms who maybe are on a different path this time and sometimes I call it death by a thousand paper cuts. You get these somewhat negative comments at work. I will tell you I have been told before that, “Oh this will be a great client for you because he won’t care that you’re a woman.”
Sam Glover: Oh God.
Michelle: I’ve unfortunately been told that more than once by more than one person and so when I hear comments … Oh, another example is somebody who had taken a maternity leave earlier in the year and then somebody came along later to her when she and her family were getting ready to take a short beach vacation later in the summer and said, “Didn’t you already take a three month vacation this year?” Those kinds of comments, although sometimes really actually meant very well intentioned or meant as a joke or those sorts of things. When you combine those with some of the negative comments that you hear when you’re trying to be a mom or parenting or trying to show up for a school fundraiser, those sorts of things, and those things start to wear on you because there is such high expectation on you and every role that you’re serving in. It can be very overwhelming. I think we just have to provide more support for women lawyers if we want to see the attrition rate of women improve in our profession.
Sam Glover: You know, one of the things that’s come out in my conversations with you, in our own at Lawyerist and our conversations about gender inclusion, diversity, whatever, is we often make mistakes let’s say. Men make the mistake of assuming that a woman should organize the fundraiser. We didn’t really intentionally assign it to the women, we just associate with that person the kinds of skills and talents that make a better fundraiser or a better party planner or whatever, and somebody needs to call us out on it, but as soon as somebody does we tend to get defensive. “Oh are you calling me a misogynist or a chauvinist or are you calling me a racist because of this?” Well the answer could be yes, I struggle with I don’t want anybody off the hook for their behavior, but I also want to make sure that when we talk about these things, we’re addressing it as a problem that needs a solution, not blame that needs to be laid at anyone’s feet necessarily.
Sam Glover: We’ve had a tough conversation before with Heather Hackman on the podcast about what it means to try and do social equity work and I think that probably spills over here. I guess I just want to ask the listeners that when we’re talking about some of these things, look at them as problems that need to be solved, not acquisitions that need to be deflected or blame that needs to be placed because I think you have to be open to saying, “Whoa I didn’t even realize I was doing that but hey let’s fix it.”
Michelle: Well and I think the same, it’s not even just, the specific example you just used, sometimes we call that office house work. There’s some good articles out there in the internet about office house work and so sometimes it’s not just that a male colleague would assign that to a woman colleague, it’s that a woman colleague volunteers for that because she may also somewhat see like, “Oh that’s a great skillset for me. That’s something I know how to do,” and may not realize that that’s an opportunity that’s a bit of a loss for her in terms of her time, in terms of being able to focus on doing those kinds of committee work or the kinds of board positions anythings like that that are going to actually enhance her career and be a really good use of her time, as opposed to falling into those sort of pre-set stereotypes that we sometimes fall into just by habit. Let her look at that and say, “Oh I’m not going to make that choice this time, I’m going to choose this other opportunity.” I think it goes both ways.
I do think it’s not a blame thing. I think it’s an awareness. There’s a great training out there on implicit bias and understanding, are there times when, and we all do it, so it’s looking at ourselves and saying, “Are there times when I am making an assumption, a choice, a decision about something based on something that may not be what that person has communicated to me? It may be just an assumption that I’m making.” That takes some time. It takes some energy and it takes some awareness.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I think so. One of the things that, we all have implicit bias’ and there’s only so much we can do about them. The important thing is that we are aware of them and are willing to address them. Reflecting on my conversations with Heather Hackman in particular, it’s not about whether or not you have implicit bias’ is it have you created a firm that is a safe environment to discuss them? Safe spaces has gotten a lot of flack recently and so I want to avoid using that term but it is really important for, if you’ve got a partner who asks a woman partner to take over the party planning for the firms biggest clients, is she comfortable saying, “Well hold on. Why should I be the one to do that? Doesn’t it seem weird that you’re always asking the women partners to do those kinds of things?”
If she doesn’t feel comfortable saying that or if the assigning partner responds in a really negative way, you just said we can’t discuss this at this firm and you’ve created a place where, I think that woman partner is probably going to want out but the really hard part is to say, “Oh wow you’re right. I didn’t realize we’re always assigning that to women. How can we make sure that we do this more evenly?” That’s a safe firm and it’s a welcoming firm to everyone and that’s maybe what the target is, and maybe that’s a better way to respond to implicit bias. I’m reflecting on this because we had an event like that at our conference just the other day at TBD law, which will be a couple weeks ago by the time this airs but where Matt Homan was sitting down in one of the groups and jumped into explain something and one of the women said, “Excuse me Matt, I’m trying to have a connection with these women here and I don’t need you mansplaning.”
First of all, I was really happy that she felt comfortable saying that because that’s what Matt was doing. Not in a mean way, he wasn’t like trying to drown other people out, he’s just an enthusiastic person like I am, who wants to air his opinion and Matt said, “Okay. I get it. I didn’t even realize I was doing that but you’re right I totally just butted into your conversation. I’m sorry.”
Michelle: There was a great story about these women at the white house who were on the white house staff I think in the previous administration who had kind of got together and said, “This is what we’re going to do,” and they had a name for it that will not come to me right now but it was essentially that anytime that one woman gave an idea in a meeting, another woman would sort of echo that in order to reinforce and to prevent the mansplaning or the manterrupting, which is another great little term that people use or really allow that woman who originally said the idea to be able to take credit for it and be able to speak out and feel reinforced in that meeting which I just thought was a really clever way to do it.
Sam Glover: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You got to look for those ways to be accepting and open but also to try and solve the problem in a way that isn’t confrontational necessarily, just reinforces it. I love that. That’s a good idea.
Michelle: Right. There is a really, I think what you’re talking about too, I sat on a diversity panel presentation for our local Louisville bar association not too long ago and one of my co-panel members who was a man from a local corporation stood up and said that he does trainings in this area and he said, “I have that people, particularly men who come to my trainings look at, I have them list all the male characteristics they can think of and all the “female characteristics” that they can think of and then I draw this line down the middle and I say women at work have to walk down this narrow line of not being too masculine and not being too feminine and finding that balance between the two and that’s a difficult tightrope to walk sometimes.” I added, “Well especially in high heels.” I mean, it is hard but it’s hard for men too who are trying to be sensitive about the issue and to know what to do. I think we just have to try to, like you said, create a space where people can talk openly about things.
One of the topics that we brought up before the call, breastfeeding. That can sometimes be a topic that is certainly very important to women, very important to moms, and yet that can be a difficult conversation to have at work, and yet it’s essential and I think that women will leave a job if they feel like that they can not get the support they need for those kinds of needs because it’s something that’s very important to them. That’s why, one of the things you and I were talking about some things firms can do, I think firms need to be able to talk about and women need to ask for and they need to be heard when they say, “I need breastfeeding accommodations,” just a simple concrete thing that a firm can do to give them the message that says, “We want gender equity at this firm. We want gender equity in this profession.”
Recently a very large firm started a program, I think it was Latham and Watkins started a breastfeeding accommodation program where they actually give women who are traveling for litigation purposes, shipping containers and they pay for all of the shipping. It was a really interesting program and I said more than just providing for that one particular mom who uses, I mean certainly there are more than one mom that uses the program, but more than just providing for the women who take advantage of that program, it’s the optics of that program. It is what that program communications. We want you to be a part of our firm. We know that what you’re doing can be hard, time consuming, and challenging. Breastfeeding is a really big commitment and we support you and we appreciate that you’re traveling while you have a breastfeeding baby at home and we want to make sure that we sent the message to all women that we want you to stay. That says a lot.
Sam Glover: Yeah. We need to take a few minutes to hear from our sponsors and when we come back I want to talk about how a firm can become more parent friendly, more mom friendly in particular. Let’s talk about those things that a firm can do once we get back.
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Sam Glover: Okay, and so Michelle you had been giving me kind of a list of what it means to have a family friendly firm, what firms can do to become more parent friendly, more mom friendly, tell me what are those things? Give us the checklist. Let’s talk about each thing.
Michelle: I’m sure there are going to be ones that I’m going to not think of and there’s other things that could be out there but have a list of things that I think are really important, we talked briefly about breastfeeding accommodations. I think that’s such a simple fix. A small room, a place where somebody can comfortably breastfeed. I mean I have worked in firms before where you couldn’t ask for a lock on your door. Certain simple things that were supposedly against the firm policy and yet it would be prohibitive for somebody who was trying to breastfeed at work, if they couldn’t be able to lock their door or go to a room that would have a locked door for example.
Sam Glover: And the answer is not go to the bathroom and pump while people are pooping next to you.
Michelle: Exactly. Thank you for saying the actual graphic reason. It really is. Not only is it gross to think about pumping milk that you’re going to feed to your baby in a place where people are going to the bathroom. That is gross first of all. Second of all …
Sam Glover: Everyone should consider that gross by the way. Like if I’m the dad, I don’t want my baby getting milk that has been pumped in the bathroom.
Michelle: Right. I will tell you, I went to law school when my oldest was about nine months old when` I started law school and then I had a baby during law school over the holiday break and so I was either pregnant or breastfeeding most of law school and I pumped in the bathroom the whole time until the very very end when there was a room that was established. It just wasn’t something that was thought about and I didn’t, I guess, know to advocate for myself in that respect. It is something that is gross. It’s also impractical. Pumps require plugs. I will never forget standing in the courthouse of our state capital with a pump standing literally in the doorway because it was the only place I could get access to a plug, trying to pump milk while people were coming in and out, literally pumping into me with the door.
Sam Glover: Well and you need a table, you need more than just, yeah.
Michelle: Yeah, so we could talk about there’s a lot to that but it’s just an example of something that the message is so important that says, “We want you here. We want you to stay and we know this is hard and we support you.” Another thing, this is my super crazy radical idea that not only should firms and legal employers provide maternity leaves but paternity leaves. The reason I say that, I mean for me it feels self-evident but when women take maternity leave, what do we see on a billable hour year? We see a woman who went from billing 2,000 hours a year to all of a sudden she has a 1,200 hour year or a 1,300 hour year. Then she really struggles to then kind of get herself back into another billable year that looks successful.
Well I think that part of that is there is social pressure, there is a need, a physical, biological need to take a maternity leave for women, and yet why isn’t there a similar need for a father to bond with their baby, a father to support his spouse while she’s healing and recovering from this? I think that if we were sending the message that men should also take a paternity leave when their children are born, we know from research that it helps promote bonding when fathers stay home more with their babies when they’re first born. It helps them feel more confident that they’re going to be able to take on some of the tasks for parenting right from the get go, but it also prevents women from being the ones who are stigmatized and penalized for their need to take a leave.
Sam Glover: What you said a moment ago is like this idea that fathers are somehow the less competent parent just drives me nuts.
Sam Glover: A friend of mine just posted on Facebook, moms sick so I fed the kids hot dogs and I patted myself on the back and I’m just like come on. I don’t expect a reward for feeding my kids cold hot dogs and keeping them alive when my wife is gone. My wife is a lawyer, she travels a lot, I’m responsible for the kids a lot. Keeping them alive is not the problem. Having fun and bonding and doing family things is what we do. Sometimes we order pizza and watch movies but whatever.
Michelle: Right, so does mom. Mom orders pizza and watches movies. I mean believe me I do that too so I think we have to send a message from the beginning, and this is clearly bigger than law, it’s a societal issue, but law firms are in a position to be able to say, “We’re offering leave for both parents and here’s a great strategy that a lot of parents use,” so perhaps dad doesn’t stay home for the entire first stage, let’s call it 12 weeks. We can get into that other debate another time but let’s call it 12 weeks. Let’s say dad stays home for the first three weeks, goes back to work for a period of time, let’s say mom’s also a lawyer, mom at 12 weeks goes back to work, dad takes six more weeks off or eight more weeks off or whatever it ends up being.
At that time when, I can tell you when I have to travel for work or when I have something going on and I know that my husband who is a school teacher by the way, when I know that my husband has taken a day off to be with the kids and he’s home when I have to be away, there’s a sense of relief. Like I know that he’s taking care of them. I know he’s got it. I know if somebody’s sick that he’s got it covered. This idea that when mom is going back to work that dad is home, than she feels like she can rely on him. I mean I just think there are a million benefits to that. That’s a great strategy for people to use.
Sam Glover: People who are listening who don’t have kids probably don’t realize just to what a deep extent so much of our society is built up around the idea that one parent, probably the mom, will be staying home with the kids. Like why is there summer break? Neither of us is home during the summers. Why does school get out at 2:15? Neither of us gets to get out of work at 2:15. I mean like just so much about it, it’s a constant scheduling struggle to figure out how both of us can have demanding full time jobs. I mean in fairness I work for Lawyerist, it’s not all that stressful, but like I have a lot of flexibility built into my job. My wife has less, but everything about my kids world and the expectations about how we’re going to be able to juggle it is built on the expectation that either we’re supremely flexible or that one of us is going to be able to be home at pretty much at anytime that we need them to.
Michelle: Such an important point and you know keep in mind we’re talking about lawyers here. We’re talking about women lawyers and mom lawyers and dad lawyers. We’re talking about people who generally, that while we may not have flexibility in terms of the number of hours that have to get produced in a day, we probably have a lot more flexibility than people who are working in a 7:30 to 4:30 job or a different kind of a job that might not be in the same professional sector. Some of this is, there’s a little bit of privilege built into this conversation too but it is so true. There is a book by Ann Marie Slaughter called Unfinished Business that I’ve just recently finished reading again and I think it just lays out these kinds of issues, is that so much is built around this idea that there’s going to be a stay at home parent or there’s always going to be a grandparent nearby who’s capable of helping and able and still healthy enough to do so. I think that that’s a huge issue.
And we talked about this whole issue of office house work. There’s a whole economy built on parental volunteering. I look at my kids school and there is, which is a wonderful school, I mean it’s terrific but there’s three volunteers every single day that go in just to help with lunch, nevermind all the other volunteer work. There’s a whole economy built around this idea of unpaid labor and it often falls on the shoulder of a mom.
Sam Glover: So you eluded briefly to the need to, in the maternity or paternity year, for firms to be flexible, but I wonder if, I mean as we were just discussing essentially everything about my life, my availability, my ability to pay attention throughout the day changed when I had kids and I wonder is flexibility overall just something that needs to change if companies want people to work for them who have children?
Michelle: Yes, I mean the answer is yes it does. It has to change. I went to this seminar in Miami the other day where one of the women that was giving the presentation said, it was how to be more productive and she said, “Always turn off your phone when you get to work, your cell phone, and don’t check it until the end of the day.” I turned the person next to me, I said, “Okay, I can never do that. I’m a mother.” I’m going to get a call from a sick kid or a note about my one kid who’s got a broken ankle right now. There’s just no way so we have to think about flexibility in all jobs. I think law firms and legal employers have a great opportunity here. We have a metric that’s built in that says you were productive. There are ways to say …
Sam Glover: Billable hours you mean? If that’s how your firm does it.
Michelle: Yeah, billable hours. Right, I mean assuming that’s how they do it or work product produced. There are metrics that fit very neatly and nicely within the law that says, “Hey that person was very productive, they did what they needed to do this day. We do not have to see your face to know that you were productive.” There’s a member of our group right now who is fantastic and she works remotely and has for several years. For her firm she just works remotely. They don’t see her face to face and yet she’s one of their partners, she’s very successful, there’s too much technology today for us to not be taking advantage of it to make it more accessible for women to stay in our profession.
Sam Glover: Well and I suppose another part of it might be, I mean depending on what firm you work for, I mean let’s face it, most people don’t need to make a full lawyers salary and maybe they’re perfectly happy making half of that salary and they want to put in about half the effort. It seems to me that part time is kind of a joke at most law firms, medium to large firms anyway. At small firms maybe that’s less so but I think there are a lot of rewards to be found when you provide ways for people to participate in the company or the firm when even if they can’t participate fully.
Back when I had my own firm, the woman who answered my phones was a highly skilled legal assistant who couldn’t find a job at a big firm that let her do what she wanted to do, which was stay at home until her kids were both in school. I said well hell I’ll set you up to answer my phone from your house. You can do that all day if you want. You can sit down and answer the phone when you want, you can pick it up and return phone calls, that all sounds fantastic, and I got one of the best legal assistants that I’ve ever seen because nobody else was willing to hire her and that just seemed dumb to me.
Michelle: Precisely. There is no reason why we can not make things more flexible other than that there are rigid rules made by people who frankly they haven’t had to parent. They haven’t had to be the hands, or I should say they haven’t had to be the hands on parent perhaps. I think that, like you were saying, there’s so many flexibility options that I don’t think firms even consider. I will tell you that I know a personal story about someone who went to a firm, request a reduced hour position and was told by multiple parties, “Don’t do it, you will be considered a second class lawyer.”
Sam Glover: The moment you ask.
Michelle: The moment they ask and that then when they did eventually decide to go ahead and go to a reduced hour schedule, that they ended up getting their billable hour and their pay level did not meet, as in the billable hour was let’s say 85% but the pay was 75%. I know of other people who’ve gone in and who’ve requested a different schedule and have been thrilled with it. I think it’s just so firm by firm. There’s nothing consistent but there is still somewhat an overriding thought that a reduced hour lawyer can not be a partner, can’t make partner, can’t be considered on full track.
Sam Glover: Which is just another way that having kids is really not, unless one person is going to spend all of their time being the worker and the other persons going to be the primary caregiver, that doesn’t really work out. Which kind of reminds me of, you asked me to tell this story which I told you when we first met and it was kind of a revelation I was having at that moment when we were sitting and chatting. It was, my wife has always had a good solid job as a lawyer. I guess in the beginning she bounced around a little bit like many of us did, but for a long time she’s had a really good solid job and she has always been the one making the money, bringing home the health benefits to allow me to try and build something bigger.
For a long time I didn’t really think about it, I just put a lot of work into my own firm, even thought it took a little while before I was able to bring in any money, much less anything equivalent to what my wife was making and I just sort of assumed that we were going to support me so that I could succeed at this thing. Then at some point we kind of decided it was her turn and I sort of realized that she had been doing so much even though she was also the primary breadwinner in our family, we were just behaving like inevitably I would be the primary breadwinner and so she was going to put in the effort and at some point we flipped it and it kind of all of a sudden dawned on me that that was super unfair and I can’t believe I did that.
Michelle: I don’t think it’s super unfair, I think that happens all the time and I think that women have expectations of themselves and men have expectations of themselves about what we’re supposed to do and what our roles are supposed to be and that when you are put in that position you suddenly are kind of confronted with that. I will tell you my personal story is that I’m married to a school teacher, he really encouraged me to go to law school, I started law school with a nine month old. He was working two jobs while I was going to law school and then when I got out I started working and then he started doing more caregiving and he’s always done the lions share the housework. I’m raised in southern Kentucky and I just felt such enormous guilt about this because there was just this assumption in my mind that I was supposed to be the one doing these sort of tasks.
Sam Glover: That he was doing your job.
Michelle: That he’s doing my job. Yes, exactly. I even had this one moment whee I’m standing on a ladder with a drill, like drilling curtain rods in and he’s behind me at the kitchen washing the dishes and I thought to myself, “What kind of crazy upside down world am I living in here?” Yet, this is us and this is what works for us. He’s frankly much better at being more organized and more tidy than I am. It’s not my strength and not only that, he does it to support me because he believes me, he believes in my career and he wanted me to have the opportunity to go to law school and be a lawyer and he knew that that was going take him stepping up to the plate in ways that maybe other guys that he knew maybe wouldn’t have be he’s always done it but it’s hard. It’s confronting your own personal assumptions about who you are and who your spouse is and what your “supposed to do,” but it’s challenging for all of us. I mean and I do this work and I still think about it and worry about it.
Sam Glover: Sure. We’ve talked about paid paternity leave is important, flexible working arrangements, breastfeeding accommodations, what are some of the other things that firms can … Making sure that women aren’t given all the office housework. We’ve talked quite a bit about sort of the importance of environment and culture at the firm and making sure that maybe checking implicit bias’ and then doing training around them I think is going to be part of it. What else should firms be paying attention to as they try to become a family friendly firm?
Michelle: Well I have a couple of other things that I’ll sort of go rapid fire succession here and then we can come back to them. I think we talked about that implicit bias piece for the comp committees, recruiting committees, your management committees, but I think it would be also not only is important to do implicit bias training but to look at this committees, take a hard look at them and say, “What kind of gender diversity do we have here in our management committee? Do we have a management committee and a compensation committee that is 99% male? Do we have any representatives of moms on any of these committees? Somebody who’s going to bring that perspective to the plate for us in terms of looking at our policies, our procedures, how we’re compensating people.”
I think firms can step back and really take a hard look at that and say do we feel like we have adequate representation, not only of gender, let’s get it all at one time, racial diversity, ethnic diversity, and so on, but really take a hard look at your committees and make sure that you are being representative of your firm in such a way that you can produce policies and procedures that are going to help you retrain that talent that you’ve worked so hard to recruit.
Sam Glover: Because I suppose you can have a committee made up of three white dudes who their wife either stays home or they’re unmarried or whatever and you may think, “Well I just ask the moms at the firm what they need,” but that doesn’t really work right? You actually need to be aware of what their needs are so that you can bring them up without, because if you ask the moms what they need they may not be sure that it’s a safe place for them to bring up all of their needs. They may not be fully aware of them because they haven’t really been in a position to consider them before and it’s not really fair to put all of the burden on them to make demands. Even if your intentions are entirely good and pure, it’s probably just not going to work out that way. You’re not going to be able to create the environment you want by just saying, “Tell us what you need.”
Michelle: I think that’s very true because it does put a lot of pressure on a woman to feel as if she’s the spokesperson for all moms in the entire firm who’ve ever come before or after and I will tell you that I heard that story over and over. Again, I was the first mom in my firm to have a baby so I had to write my own maternity policy. I mean I hear that story over and over again and so I think that having somewhere along the line some representation I think helps. I think along those lines, I don’t think it’s enough to say, “Oh well we started a women’s group in our firm,” unless that women’s group actually has a seat at the policy table, really you set up an echo chamber and also I find women lawyers groups in firms sometimes they accidentally slip into that office housework role themselves.
What I mean by that is that sometimes they decide that the women lawyers group should be dedicated to be doing pro bono work or volunteer work in the community, which is fantastic, 100% support pro bono work. 100% support community work, but if that is the sole purpose of that women lawyer group, we’ve again created this group that is not able to effectively advocate for change for women for the whole firm and so I think when we have these women lawyers groups, let’s really give them the opportunity to have a seat at the table. That’s another thing that I think firms can do and if you don’t mind I’ll go to another one because I think…
Sam Glover: No, fire away.
Michelle: This one I think is really important. It probably ranks up there with paternity leave in my mind and that’s firms really really need to take the long game when it comes to women lawyers who are going on maternity leave, and if they have male lawyers who paternity leave, same there. Instead of penalizing women who’ve had really great billable hours for years and then all of a sudden they have a maternity leave, and we all know if you have kids, you know you go on maternity leave, your out for let’s say three months, you come back well a month later you’ve got a sick child so you’re out again and then a month later you’ve got this other thing that comes up and then you’ve got doctors appointments and then you’ve got your doctors appointments and then the daycare closes unexpectedly. There’s always going to be issues in that transition in the first year or so.
Sam Glover: Or seven.
Michelle: Or seven or my case 12. You know, and so which we should say as an aside that I had to reschedule my talk with you because I ended up at the last second having to take my daughter to the orthopedist with a broken ankle so this is life, but I think firms, we recruit really hard. We’ve got these great talented women coming out of law school. You invest, let’s talk about this from an economic perspective. If you are at the first few years of practice, we know that you’re a little upside down in your investment, in all your attorneys, so they are very good, they’re very smart, they’re very talented and in the law run they’re going to be very productive, very profitable partners for your firm.
In the first few years maybe not so much but if we do all that investment in those first few years and then a women now is 29, 30 and decides to take a maternity leave and then all of a sudden we take all of that investment and we just wipe it aside because she doesn’t hit a billable hour year for that year, or she’s not as productive as she was before she had a maternity leave, we’re really discounting what’s going to happen five and six years from now when she’s had that opportunity to continue to practice and maybe at a slower pace or maybe not, it depends on her and what kind of support system she has, but if we penalize her so much in those five years or so where she’s got young babies at home and she’s had maternity leaves, that she says, “Never mind I’m going to go do something else.”
You’ve lost all that investment that you made on the front end and then you’ve also, more importantly, lost that investment of her when she’s 45 and on when she’s totally focused on this and she’s going to be an excellent partner because she’s going to have varied enriched life experiences, she’s going to have served on the PTA and have met people. Who knows what she’s going to bring to the table.
Sam Glover: Let’s be clear, moms are capable of getting more work done than just about anybody else on the planet so when she’s able to devote more of that to your firm, you want that.
Michelle: Yeah. I totally agree. I mean and I think we want engaged moms and engaged dads at our workplaces because they do bring a, I mean I get client referrals through people that go to school with my kids. I get the opportunity to think about things differently, to approach problems differently because of my life experience and I think to not keep that investment that you’ve made in a woman just because she has a couple or three years of billable hour blips associated with her maternity leave is really looking very short term and not considering what the firms going to reap if they hang in there and they don’t make …
Here’s an example of a system that penalizes women where you publish hours and so a women who’s been cranking along, she’s a top notch law student, she’s a top notch associate and she’s been cranking out billable hours and then she hits that maternity leave and then all of a sudden you’re publishing these hours weekly that just show her slipping further and further and further behind. That does something to your ego when you’re used to being a superstar and I think those are things, there’s ways to work around that that don’t have to create this, even a mental road block, if not a true stumbling road block for women who are trying to manage maternity leave and their profession at the same time.
Sam Glover: Yeah, I’m a big fan of trying to find win wins when it comes to anything but often when you’re trying to control for diversity or inclusion, when you’re trying to make sure that your firm is friendly to disabled clients and lawyers or women lawyers or mom lawyers, one of the first things to look for is things that are not just going to make it better for moms but everyone and that toxic environment of competition in publishing hours and fostering competition among associates probably isn’t healthy for anyone.
Sam Glover: So getting rid of that may actually just make your firm a better place and a more welcoming place to work for the best candidates period. Breastfeeding rooms obviously only apply to nursing mothers but to the extent you can find win-wins that just improve your firm across the board, there should be no push back on that. That should be no-brainers that you ought to just do.
Michelle: Right. I totally agree. You’re talking about it, but there may be people who don’t want to work 2,400 billable hours in a year. There may be people who want…That’s not going to just be your moms, don’t be surprised when it’s your dads as well and I think we have to be aware of the bias that might go around that for dads as well and look at how can we reduce that? How can we make these kinds of more flexible, livable arrangements accessible, not just for moms but for dads, for everybody to make the long term satisfaction in this profession, I think it’s going to be just what you said, which is a win win.
Sam Glover: You know, at the big end of the profession, now you’ve got those decisions about no we really think it’s important to foster competition among hours. If those are the kinds of decisions that make women decide, “You know this firm maybe isn’t for me.” Now we’re looking at Microsoft and Hewlett Packard are going, “Yeah, your firm is way too white and dude for us so we’re not going to give you our work anymore.” Those kinds of decisions may start to have repercussions on the other end. On the smaller end of things, maybe you just realize that people who walk into your office don’t feel very welcome there because it’s all a bunch of old white dudes. As someone who will eventually be an old white dude I don’t want that to happen in my company either.
Michelle: Such a great point. I think you probably saw the letter that went out, it became public that Hewlett Packard general counsel sent out, saying listen if you don’t have enough diversity on our client matters than, I think it was, we’re going to cut your rates and potentially we’re not going to use you in the future for certain matters, if I recall correctly. That kind of pressure I do think, I think the pressure on this is going to come from a lot of different directions and I hope it also comes just from internally of looking at we want to have, whether it’s economic or satisfaction rates, or however firms want to look at it internally to say, in the long term we want to be a successful firm and the way we’re going to do that is by number one reaping the benefit of the investment that we put into our young attorney’s.
Even if that means there’s a few years where we have a little bit of up and down around billable hours but also in the long term we have people who are satisfied and loyal to our firm and love working here and they want to stay with us. I hope all those directions, all those different pressures come all together at once and we see some big changes because we haven’t seen change in the gender equity attrition rates and so on of women in this profession in quite a few years. I mean we’re seeing some actually measure that are going the wrong way so I hope all those pressures do come together to make some changes soon.
Sam Glover: Michelle where can people join MothersEsquire if they want to?
Michelle: So glad you asked. So we have a new website that we’re working really hard on. It’s www.mothersesquire.com. We have a supporter membership, which is a free membership that allows you to get info on what we’re doing, our events, we just had a great event about solo and small firm practices for the mom lawyer, like what are some of the advantages and challenges of that, so we’ll have some continued events and information so if they logon as a supporter member, you can get info about that. We also do have a paid membership, $25 annually. You can logon and sign up as that and then you’ll be part of our database and our network and that way we also try to do referrals and support each other through those kinds of things through our website so love for anybody to join. We do have a public Facebook page as well as our private Facebook group and we have a Twitter account so you can follow us a bunch of places.
Sam Glover: Fantastic and we’ll include all those links in the show notes. Thanks for being with us so much today Michelle.
Michelle: Thanks Sam.
Aaron Street: Make sure to catch next weeks episode of The Lawyerist podcast. If you’d like more information about today’s show, please visit lawyerist.com/podcast or legaltalknetwork.com. You can subscribe via iTunes or anywhere podcasts are found. Both Lawyerist and the Legal Talk Network can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and you can download the free app from Legal Talk Network in Google Play or iTunes.
Sam Glover: The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by, Legal Talk Network. Nothing said during this podcast is legal advice.