Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

This month, I am asking the questions. I interviewed Michelle Travis, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, a Dean’s Circle Scholar and co–director of USF’s Labor and Employment Law Program. Michelle has just written a children’s book, My Mom Has Two Jobs. And she has great advice for women in the legal profession.

  1. What made you decide to write this book?

I first had the idea to write a children’s book about working moms at the end of my two maternity leaves. I felt guilty about leaving my two young daughters with someone else, but I was also looking forward to getting back to teaching future attorneys as a law professor. I found myself struggling to figure out how I could help my kids understand what it means to be a working mom. I searched for children’s books that could help us talk about my return to work. But I did not find any books that celebrated both the roles of moms and what they do outside the home. I wanted my book to show how the work that women do as moms is connected to the work that we do outside the home—that we care for our kids and our societies with the same love, dedication, and commitment.

  1. Why a children’s book – that seems like an unusual genre for a law professor?

As a lawyer and a law professor, I’ve realized the limits of legal solutions for addressing the work/family conflicts facing working moms in general and lawyer moms in particular. I strongly believe in the law’s capacity to help advance women’s equality, but we also need to find other ways to change the gender stereotypes that can limit our success. Children learn gender stereotypes at a very young age. When girls are asked to draw a scientist or someone who is good at math, for example, they are more likely to draw a man than a woman. So I thought that the best way to start disrupting gender stereotypes was to get kids looking at images of diverse women in empowering roles—including as lawyers.

  1. Did you do research to find out how to write a children’s book?

Yes. They are very different from law review articles! Because children’s books are often read out loud, cadence is essential. The books also need to use short sentences and concrete words with a message that will captivate children.

  1. What impact do you hope to see from the book?

I hope that My Mom Has Two Jobs will give lawyer moms—and all working moms—a much-needed platform to talk with their kids about their work in a celebratory and inspiring way. I hope the book will help children understand how their moms can do important work to make the world better, while still being loving, caring, and dedicated moms. I want the book to encourage kids to be proud of the work their moms do outside of the house and to fuel their curiosity about their moms’ careers. I also hope that the book will help reinforce the message that women can do every possible kind of job, and that it might inspire young girls to imagine themselves in exciting careers, like being a lawyer, an engineer, a firefighter, or a pilot.

  1. What advice would you give — or do you give — to women entering the legal profession?

I have three pieces of advice about work/family balance that I often give to women who are entering the legal profession, including my law students.

First, I’ve learned to judge my own success on work/life balance not on a daily basis, but on a wider timeframe. On any given day, I may feel that I’ve failed by neglecting my kids to meet a deadline, or missing a deadline to take care of my kids. But I may be hitting the balance just about right when I consider what I’ve accomplished at work and how I’ve supported my kids over the course of the past week, or month, or year. Also, when I am in my mom role or my professor role, I work hard to be fully present in that particular role.

Second, it’s important for women lawyers to arm themselves with data to help combat the guilt that we sometimes feel as working moms. On difficult days, it helps to remind ourselves that research has found that children of working moms are just as happy as children with stay-at-home moms, and that they grow up to be just as happy adults. Research has also found that when the daughters of working moms grow up, they have better careers with more responsibility and higher pay, and they enter into more equal relationships than daughters whose moms stayed at home. When sons of working moms become adults, they take on a greater share of childcare and household responsibilities than other men, which also contributes to more equal relationships for women.

Third, I encourage women lawyers who are struggling to find mentors to seek out fathers who have daughters. Research has found that fathers of daughters—particularly dads with adult daughters who are working moms—have greater empathy for and understanding of the challenges that working moms face. Dads of daughters also tend to be more outspoken advocates for women in leadership roles and for equal pay. My own two daughters impacted my husband, Richard Dickson, who is the Chair of Fenwick & West, LLP. For years, Richard listened to me talk about gender bias, workplace flexibility, and mentoring women. He has always listened thoughtfully, but when our daughters were born, the issue was personal. Having two daughters launched him into action with a new-found purpose, commitment, and sense of urgency.

  1. How would you hope that the legal profession — or workplaces in general — change over the next decade?

I hope that my book will help women share with their kids the joys of being a working mom. But the legal profession also needs to adapt to the reality that lawyers also have childcare responsibilities—and that women taking maternity leaves is a routine part of lawyer life. Some firms are making progress by experimenting with flexible or reduced-hour options. Most of those options are successful if both women and men use them and if the policies allow lawyers to stay on the partnership track. Law professor Joan Williams and attorney Cynthia Thomas Calvert have two guidebooks that can help law firms adopt flexible and reduced-hour options. They are: Flex Success: The Lawyer’s Guide to Balanced Hours and Solving the Part-Time Puzzle: The Law Firm’s Guide to Balanced Hours.

I also hope that legal employers start thinking more creatively about their maternity leave practices to better enable women to taper their work hours down and back up again before and after their leaves, instead of using an all-or-nothing model when women exit and return. I recommend that women lawyers and law firm leaders take advantage of the resources from author and attorney Lori Mihalich-Levin. Her resources include the book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.

  1. What’s next for you in this realm?

The encouraging data about how daughters can inspire their fathers to become women’s advocates is the source of my upcoming book, which is titled, Dads for Daughters. This book reveals the ways in which dads of daughters are quietly helping support women’s equality in a variety of ways. CEOs who are dads of daughters, for example, have a smaller gender pay gap in their companies than in firms run by other men. Legislators who are dads of daughters are more supportive of laws protecting reproductive rights than are other male lawmakers. And judges who are dads of daughters have a more feminist voting pattern than other male judges in cases involving sex discrimination. Dads for Daughters shares the stories of fathers who have been inspired by their daughters to become women’s rights advocates. After a discussion of the issues and the personal stories, the book provides concrete steps and guidance for dads who want to help make progress on key issues.

More information on Michelle’s work on employment law issues is here.

Her book is available here and here.

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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