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Creating Work-Life Balance in the Legal Field

I had the pleasure of speaking with attorney and mother, Elise Buie, last month about achieving balance between work and life while maintaining a law career. 

Of the many things that Elise brought to light for me, I think the thing that stuck with me the most is the fact that in terms of providing appropriate accommodations for pregnant or nursing women, we have come so far.

I have nursed and pumped in some pretty awful, dirty places. The ferry bathroom is at the top of my list (both in the terminal and on the ferry). But, I have also nursed in public. I have this right because Washington is among forty-nine states, D.C., and the Virgin Islands, all that have laws specifically allowing women to breastfeed in public. What is most shocking about these laws is that they most of them did not exist until the early 2000’s. There were some earlier states in the late 90’s. THE LATE 90’s! As a thirty-one-year-old, I'm still clinging to the fact that the 90's were not that long ago! 

Elise told me that she was pregnant with her first child during her third year of law school, for the bar exam, and when she got a post-grad clerkship. Just two weeks after having her first child, Elise returned to her clerkship with her baby in a carrier. Apparently, the judge was kind enough to avoid using his gavel. He sounds like a saint. If the baby started to fuss, he called on someone from the large staff available to walk the baby while Elise continued her work. After a while, a nanny was hired to watch and care for the baby, as well as bring her to be nursed twice each day. This is, of course, just a snapshot of all that Elise did as a working mother.

I’m telling you this story because, at the time, this is what accommodations looked like with a good, thoughtful boss: little-to-no maternity leave for fear of missing out on a critical career building clerkship; the expense of a nanny to ensure continued breastfeeding was possible; oh, and nursing in a jail cell because it was the most convenient location.

Elise’s first job was in a large law firm. At that time she had one child, and then became pregnant with her second soon after she started working. That firm, like many others at the time, had no maternity leave policy whatsoever. Elise took it upon herself to create a policy, for herself and future women (I'm sure this policy had an influence on other law firms as well; law policies an templates are often shared). But the reality is that Elise was working in a firm (made up mostly of men) that had no clue how much time a woman might need to be off work postpartum. Personally, I experienced a few minor health challenges that would not have allowed me to return to work in two weeks. I did not have a c-section. I did not experience post-partum depression. I did not have twins. All of these things, and many more, would add to the amount of time that a woman might need. Elise asked those men that she worked with what they thought was a reasonable amount of time, and then she asked them to go home and speak with their wives to guage their responses. Needless to say, they were either shocked, or in trouble with their wives!

Eventually, Elise had to quit her job because, as she said, she just simply could not keep up with the schedule and the demands of a path to becoming a partner. By her own admission, her schedule was a huge step in terms of accommodations in itself:

  • Work 4am-7am
  • Workout 7am-8am
  • Work 8am-3pm
  • Spend time with children 3pm-7pm

Can you imagine? How tired are you moms out there with a toddler and a baby? I'm beat with one toddler! And, on top of that, the work Elise was doing was incredibly mentally demanding. Attorneys that don't have children are exhausted from eight hours of work, and neglect their relationships, both with family and friends. As a mom, your children's needs always come before your own, so you can imagine the impact on a marriage when you have a demanding job and also have children. 

What’s worse is that senior partners would usurp Elise's tailor-made schedule. Partners would come to her at 2pm, knowing that she was leaving at 3pm to be home with her children, and ask her to complete something for the following morning. These impossible assignments were frequent. All with the ultimate prize of someday partner. Someday...

Elise stayed home to have two more children, but with four children under age 10, she went back to work. But, this time Elise opened her own firm allowing for flexibility for herself, and her employees. Rather than buying into that capitalistically driven law firm model, Elise set up the ideal situation (I think) for parents:

  • Commitment to hiring single women, and women returning to the workforce after having children
  • Option for employees to work from home/online most days; there is an office, but they are not required to work from there
  • No requirement to work from 3pm-6:30pm because that’s important family time
  • Health Insurance and 401K provided to employees

I’m sure there’s more that Elise didn’t mention to me, but WOW, are you impressed? I am! This is exactly what I have been talking about over the course of the last five months. I am pleased to say that a quick google search shows that many law firms are speaking about this topic. The trend is toward providing flexibility. As Denice Gierach wrote in January, this flexibility is not desired because of laziness, it is desired because of the value placed on other things in life (such as parenting) as well. Most employees will actually work harder if given that flexibility. Business law firms are marketing the ability to help make policies and procedures more flexible, calling out the increase in profitability as a result.

Elise had some thoughts on what practical things law schools and law firms can do to help students and employees that are parents:

  • Provide child care on or near campus/office
  • Be more reasonable about the amount of work assigned
  • Create mentor programs to support women that are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant

Ultimately, work-life balance boils down to providing flexibility instead of pushing to get the maximum out of your employees as soon as possible. A situation with flexibility, like Elise has established, will in turn establish loyalty from your employees.

One last thought from Elise: your health is one of the most important things. Too often parents neglect to take care of themselves because they prioritize their childrens' health first and end up canceling their own appointments if something comes up with their children. So, take care of yourself, friends!

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