Legal recruiter answers the question: will taking maternity leave in my first few years as an associate derail my career?
By Anna Nelson • February 07, 2008•Balancing Private and Professional Life
Ann Israel, a New York legal recruiter with nearly 30 years' experience, answers the question: "Will taking maternity leave in my first couple of years as an associate derail my career permanently?" Her unspoken answer seems to be "yes," although she offers tips to mitigate the problem. Part of me wishes she'd come out and say it--we need frank advice, so we can work around obstacles and eventually get into positions to improve the system.
When I was asked to speak to some undergraduates at a "women in leadership" conference a few months back, my panel got the same question about fitting a pregnancy into a career trajectory. I feel like Ms. Israel, however well-meaning, is disingenuous to advise that if you just work hard enough beforehand, "hopefully... you will be sorely missed" by senior partners. The best time to have a baby if you're a woman in law, the lawyer on the panel agreed with me, is before you leave law school, in the spring of your 3L year. It's the lightest part of law school, in terms of juggling coursework with mood swings and morning sickness. And nobody expects you to be working 90 hours a week the summer after you graduate--that's when you're taking the bar.
My classmates have voted with their feet (or, uh, their wombs?) on this one: there is a mini-epidemic of pregnancy among my 3L friends and acquaintances. Seems like everybody with a committed partner decided to get pregnant in September, and many of them succeeded. Now they're all just starting to show!
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If you miss the 3L window for having a baby, my impression is that you don't get another "pregnancy window" as good until you make partner in five years or more. I'm a dual-degree student (JD/PhD) and my grad school adviser confirms this impression. While she admits that it was extraordinarily difficult to have her first daughter while she was trying to complete a dissertation, she says it would have been more difficult to care for a newborn while she was trying to make tenure. So if you want a baby and a career at a firm, plan your pregnancy for the last year of law school, or be prepared to wait a while. I wish it weren't true, but I don't think things have changed enough yet to honestly advise a woman otherwise.
What would you advise?