Legal recruiter answers the question: will taking maternity leave in my first few years as an associate derail my career?

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!

[More after the jump]

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?



I think law school is a great time to have a baby (I had my son between 2L and 3L years), but I also think it's ridiculous to assert that having a baby early in your legal career will derail it permanently.  There may be firms where this is true, and candor about which ones those are would be welcome, but there is no way that missing out on 3 months of your second year at a law firm is going to make partnership impossible 8, 9, or 10 years down the line. 
Most attorneys (even partners) I've spoken with felt that the first few years as an associate are a better time to have a baby than after you make partner because you generally don't have your own clients (whom you want to keep coming to you with their legal needs, regardless of whether you're on maternity leave); you're still pretty replaceable in the office so you don't have to constantly check-in; and there is plenty of time to continue buliding relationships with partners.  
I know that discrimination against women (especially women with children) still exists and that there are partners out there who view a pregnant associate as not committed to her career, but I also think that as long as people like Ms. Israel make statements about a baby permanently affecting your career, nothing will change.  There are women with wonderful legal careers at top firms who've had children as associates- it is being done- and I'd rather hear about their success stories than general warnings against combining a family and career.


I have heard Anna's recommendation echoed by women across multiple professions: have kids in Med School, before your 100 hr/wk residency, etc.
I knew of four students who had kids right before or during law school (two while they were studying for the bar exam - how they passed I'll never know). I wonder if your student body is older than mine was? I think the average age of 1Ls at UCLA was 26 when I started. I was 22 when I enrolled, and no where near ready to have kids.
So maybe the advice is not just hurry up and have kids in school, but slow down and don't go to school until you're ready to have kids?


Yeah, I think there is definitely only a small subclass of future-lawyers for whom having a baby in law school is a realistic option.  I was 22 when I started law school and 24 when I had my son, but I was ready to do so.  So like you said, the options (according to Ms. Israel) are: (a) wait to go to law school so that you can have a baby there, (b) wait to start your family until you make partner, (c) have kids when it's best for you, but accept that your career is permanently derailed.
I just think that's unnecessarily limited and grossly inaccurate for most people and law firms.


I took the approach of ... wait to go to school until I had children.  When I was in law school with two small children (1 and 3 when I started) people often asked me "how do you do it?"  My response was always that going to law school was much easier and less time consuming than my previous career was or than being an attorney would be.  Going to law school was a break for me professionally so the choice to go when I did was most certainly the convergence of the right time in my life, the right location, and the right school.  Small children need a good amount of attention so I think I made the right choice.  Now they are in full day school and I'm back at being a professional full force.  (However, I know other women who have scaled back when their kids were teenagers because they felt that they needed more of their time then.)

Susan Cartier Liebel

What is really discouraging about this advice, is while it may be true, how women are overtly or covertly encouraged to turn over their power to employers who influence the timing to create a family.  While it may be a non-issue for those who are comfortable adapting to the demands, I can't help thinking, "Aren't we in the 21st century?"
Coming from a different angle I have met women who became partners the minute they announced they were pregnant because the law firm didn't want to lose the person who had already proven their value to the firm.  It is slick in a way to make sure the woman doesn't leave once she has her child because the partnership isn't a carrot…it's now a reality.
I just don't like the manipulation on all things maternal yet it is real, has to be acknowledged and dealt with individual by individual and therefore, it remains a personal decision.  I can't tell anyone to take a stand because I haven't experienced this.  But I did want to voice my distress that it continues.
Susan Cartier Liebel, Esq. Build A Solo Practice, LLC Newly Minted or Well Seasoned, Teaching You How To Create & Grow Your Legal Practice


I don't see how giving birth 3 or 4 months before starting at a firm solves this problem. A woman might avoid being a pregnant associate and the image issues that come with that, but caring for an infant or toddler during your first years at a firm is hardly ideal for family or career.
For the women who can manage it, defering law school for a year to have a baby *before* might be the way to go.
I hold some hope for more flexible partner tracks, though…


I have been searching the net for anything on the topic of having a baby as a young associate and this is the first time I find something so specific to the topic. I guess my worst fears are in fact a reality; employers frown upon it. I am currently a first year at a medium sized firm and have recently discovered that I am pregnant.  While there are women at my firm whom have had children, they generally are older associates and are married. I am unmarried and this pregnancy was unplanned. I am truly terrified about what the partners and other associates will think when they find out. Although I know the firm can legally not fire me, I am concerned they will find other ways to get rid of me.
 I also thought about leaving, but with the economy being the way it is and the fact that I'm pregnant, I know it will be nearly impossible to find a new job.
I don't know what to do…


I feel compassion at the situation you describe.  Until you have thought through what is in your best interest, protect your privacy.  I hope we hear from you again and that you have worked out a good solution. 


Concerned, I would think positive. People at your firm might be a lot more supportive that you think, especially if you go to them with a plan (i.e. know how much time you are taking off and have child care set up so that you know when you will be able to come back to work full time).  If other women at your firm have had children, you might reach out to them for ideas or support.  It sounds like you expect a bad outcome though and that negativity might come across and influence the outcome.  If you expect to be supported and act on that assumption, I think it's more likely to prove true.  There is a lot of negative hype about firms not being supportive, but in my experience, they want to make it work for parenting women.  If you find a way to enable them to make it work, I think it will.  Maybe I'm horribly naive—if so, please share what actually happens!  Good luck!  I think you can and will be a great mom and keep your job.

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