August 20, 2020 Feature

Work-Life Balance as a Working Lawyer Mom

by Rong T. Kohtz
Many working lawyer moms have found profound personal and professional satisfaction from their dual roles as mom and lawyer.

Many working lawyer moms have found profound personal and professional satisfaction from their dual roles as mom and lawyer.

Stephen Lux / Cultura / Getty Images

Leta Liou, an attorney in New York City, described that when she was a new mom, she constantly wrestled with a nagging “mom guilt” settled in from different angles: “I should be taking more time off to enjoy my baby girl. . . . I should make dinner . . . but I am falling behind on my work. . . . I should respond faster to these e-mails. . . .” In the early 2000s, under the pressure of this excruciating guilt, professional women started returning in droves to domestic life, leaving careers to give birth and raise their children (Neil Gilbert, A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life, Yale University Press, 2008).

A happy balance of career and motherhood seemed impossible to many. Life as a working mother indeed is challenging. It may even be a struggle at times. In these challenges and struggles, many of us working lawyer moms who chose to stay in the profession since the early 2000s found profound personal and professional satisfaction from our dual roles as a mom and a lawyer. I interviewed a few fellow working lawyer moms for this article, which will share their experiences as well as my own. This article is meant to encourage women lawyers to seek a rewarding balance in legal career and motherhood.

Set Your Own Expectations

The biggest challenge in balancing motherhood and law practice is to manage the expectations surrounding motherhood. The child-obsessed, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and expensive “intensive mothering” defines contemporary motherhood. Under the spell of intensive mothering, working mothers are often plagued by so-called “mom guilt” or “maternal guilt” that they are not doing enough for their children. This guilt is exacerbated among lawyer moms. Our work is usually time sensitive. Court appearances cannot be missed. Filing deadlines must be strictly followed. Clients expect ready accessibility. The job can be both mentally and physically demanding. The conflicting high expectations from both motherhood and the legal profession can knock anyone off-balance.

Intensive mothering is an upper-class fantasy. It serves the status quo of a gendered separation of workplace and home space, not the well-being of children or mothers. Women have worked inside and outside the home throughout history. For thousands of years, mothers worked in their stores, in their food stalls, at the morning vegetable markets, in the rice fields with their children in sight. Only in the very recent 100 years or so, the rise of corporate power transformed the way of work, disrupted the rhythms of motherhood, and created the conflict between workplace and home. The workplace and the family sphere are not only separated but also gendered. Industrialized, corporate workplaces demand male workers to forgo family responsibilities, and their female partners to bear household labor without compensation (Jeremy Reynolds and David R. Johnson, “Don’t Blame the Babies: Work Hour Mismatches and the Role of Children,” Social Forces, September 2012, Vol. 91, No. 1, at 131–155). As for the legal industry, the U.S. Supreme Court opined that exclusion of women from the legal profession was prescribed by nature, by “the law of the Creator,” that “the paramount destiny and mission of woman” were to “fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother” at home (Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 83 U.S. 130, 141 (1873)). It is unquestionable that the 19th century’s “separate spheres” ideology has eroded. Women have been practicing law for more than a century. However, gendered separation of workplace and home has persisted. Social norms and workplace structures still encourage men to be breadwinners and women to be caretakers. “Intensive mothering” fits perfectly into this highly gendered home-work division. Women’s retreat from professional work would only reinforce such gendered separation of work and family. Rather than retreating from the professional life, we need to reject the notion that a career and family are inherently incompatible and set realistic expectations for motherhood and the legal profession.

Jennifer Galloway, a seasoned attorney in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, encourages fellow lawyer moms not to worry about expectations of others but to be self-advocates and follow their own work ethic and realize their own worth. Leta Liou also suggests that setting realistic expectations is the key to overcoming “maternal guilt.” She learned to tell herself that “it’s okay if I need to work late; it’s okay if I take a day off; it’s okay if dinner is ordered from an app tonight.” Indeed, it is okay for a good mom to want to be a good lawyer; and it is okay for a good lawyer to want to be a good mom. Being a good mom and a good lawyer are not mutually exclusive. Home life and professional life can co-exist, and as Jennifer artfully put it, be “integrated” in harmony.

Ditching “intensive mothering” did not result in any disaster in my friends’ or my own cases. When children are integrated into parents’ professional life, they learn to recognize their their parents’ work space and respect their parents’ individuality. They learn to be patient, resilient, independent, and responsible. Most importantly, they learn from us a strong work ethic and skills needed to balance career and parenthood in their lives. Jennifer calls it “office-training the kids.” In the end, the children respect their parents’ professional identity and efforts to build a meaningful career, and bond with the parents because they are active participants in their parents’ endeavor.

Love Your Partner, Build a Team

Decades of heated debate on factors that impact work-life balance of working mothers produced an enormous amount of academic research, popular press, and guidebooks. Corporate executives such as Sheryl Sandberg called for self-reliance and self-promoting. Women’s groups advocated for workplace reforms. Many more pushed for fundamental cultural change. Largely absent from the debate is the consideration of what fathers do and how much parental and family responsibilities they are willing and able to take on. Fathers rarely are given the credit for their contribution. But life tells a different story. I see that behind every happy lawyer mom and thriving children is an awesome dad. Fathers’ support and active engagement in parenting is vital to a satisfying work-home balance.

I would say that without my husband’s unwavering support and hard work, the children and I would not have achieved what we have achieved so far. Despite his own challenging work as a medical school professor and researcher, my husband is always there to rescue me from many, many crises, ranging from toiling over my first trial to rebuilding a practice destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. He often takes time to dive into complex legal issues that I confront. He has helped me become a courageous, independent, rigorous, critical thinker, and a better lawyer. On the home front, my husband does most of the cooking. He drives everyone between home, school, work, medical appointments, and countless activities every day. Before the kids could eat solid foods, he also did most of the night feeding. He wrote quite a few grants with a baby sleeping in the rocking chair next to him. In addition to his share of household chores, he makes extraordinary efforts to cultivate our three daughters’ interests in science, humanity, music, and arts. He helps them with math problems, poetry writing, science projects, book reports, music competitions, artistic endeavors, test preparations—the list could go on and on.

The colleagues whom I interviewed for this article share the same experience. They credit their spouses as a key factor in their career advancement and rely on their partner as the main person to care for the children. Judge Sara Spencer-Noggle is the first female circuit court judge in the history of Isabella County, Michigan. Sara attributes much of her exceptional career success and wonderful children to her husband. Sara says that her husband is a “fabulous life partner” and has always been an equal partner in parenting and running the household.

Jennifer praises her husband of 21 years for his patience, understanding, and support. Jennifer runs a busy family law and criminal law practice while managing child neglect and abuse cases in several central Michigan counties. Because of her heavy caseload, Jennifer often has to stay in the office until 7:00 or 8:00 pm. Her husband picks up their three children from school and does the afterschool parenting duties.

Leta and her partner, Dimitri Maisonet, have a successful matrimonial practice in New York City. Leta recounted Dimitri’s devotion to the family since day one. When Leta and Dimitri started their practice, they also welcomed their baby daughter. On the day their daughter was born, Dimitri slept on a chair in Leta’s hospital room and got up before sunrise to cover a court appearance at 9:30 am. The new mom got a ten-day maternity leave, during which she worked from home. But for Dimitri, Leta said, “Forget about the new dad, the concept of paternity leave never even crossed our minds.” Their hard work has paid off. Their daughter, now a middle-schooler, is turning out awesome!

Forging a strong, supportive relationship with the other “parental unit” is not easy. It requires ongoing efforts. Jennifer’s advice is to communicate your needs and feelings to your spouse or partner, and at the same time be aware of their feelings and needs and take care of them. My husband and I do not have a clear division of labor. When he has more work than I do, I take more parenting and domestic responsibilities. He does the same for me. When we both are swamped, the kids take more responsibilities and help us get through the tough time. In a family, “not everything is a quid pro quo (Alix Strauss, “It Is Not Secret: Two Divorce Lawyers Take Their Work Home,” New York Times, February 18, 2020). Love your partner. Be kind, understanding, and forgiving. As a team, you will be able to take on whatever challenges you may encounter as parents and life partners.

Be Strategic

Balancing family care and professional tasks requires careful and deliberate strategic planning. Long-term strategic planning is essential. There are generally two economic models of small law practice: one is high-volume general practice, and the other is low-volume specialized practice. I do not have the skill set needed to manage a sizable staff of a high-volume general practice. So, I chose to start a low-volume, highly specialized practice, which allows me to maintain a small caseload and reasonable court calendar and have more control over my schedule. A downside of this model is that highly specialized markets rarely generate a constant, steady flow of revenue. In addition, time and financial resources invested in acquiring the expertise do not generate financial return quickly. Thus, a specialized law practice entails crafting long-term and mid-term budgets that are viable with fluctuating revenue. Moreover, long-term strategic planning of a law practice should correspond with your children’s growth and be compatible with your partner’s career path. In the years before my children attended school, I spent most of my time with the children while building my expertise in international family law. By the time they were all in elementary school, my practice began to grow rather well.

I asked my colleagues about their strategies for achieving and maintaining work-life balance in day-to-day life. Not surprisingly, time is the central theme of the discussion. Sara was a solo practitioner before she was appointed to the bench. Her schedule seemed flexible, but the downside was that she had to check on work while at home, and she would be worried about the kids while in the office. Being a judge allows her to limit her workday to business hours most of the time. “This is a luxury that many attorneys do not have,” Sara says. True, it is impossible for private attorneys to prevent work overspill into non-work time. However, it is possible to contain the intrusion by setting clear boundaries between work time and family time. Leta carves out specific time for each aspect of her life as a lawyer, mother, and individual. She makes a conscious effort to be mentally and emotionally present for her daughter. When she is with her daughter, Leta does not check work e-mails or take work calls. My approach is similar. I usually sign off from work completely by the end of the school day so that I can spend time with the children after school and then help my husband cook dinner. Jennifer’s strategy is to reserve weekends for family. In order to keep weekends for her family, she works longer days during the week and often works after the children go to bed.

In addition to disciplining yourself in keeping the boundary between work and family, it is important to communicate to the clients that your personal time ought to be respected. My experience taught me to only take on clients that I can work well with. I always explain to potential clients how I work before I accept a case. Because the clients have decided that my work style is acceptable before they retain me, they rarely demand access during my personal time. To make it easier for my clients and me to plan the day, I share my online calendar with them so that they can schedule calls and meetings in advance. Jennifer points out that the boundary between work and family needs to be flexible at times. Sometimes family takes priority, and sometimes work does. Jennifer cut back work and brought her office with her to Minnesota when her daughters were being treated at the Mayo Clinic. Once her daughters were fully recovered, Jennifer started spending more time at work.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child

“It takes a village to raise a child.” I heard this repeatedly from my fellow lawyer moms. Without an effective, accessible social support system, working parents would not be able to achieve and sustain an equilibrium of career demands and parenting duties regardless of how hard we try as individuals.

An affordable health insurance option for small businesses and their employees is desperately needed. The Affordable Care Act made it possible for small business employees to obtain affordable health care insurance directly from the health insurance exchange, but it is not adequate. Sara said that she would not have been able to hire and retain her paralegal without the Affordable Care Act, and without a skilled and reliable supporting staff her private practice could not have succeeded. Jennifer described to me a hellish process to get her daughters the medical treatment they needed out of state and then get the insurance company to pay for it. The talk of balanced motherhood and professional advancement seems gratuitous when women lawyers have to fight for life-saving medical treatment for their own children and then fight medical bills with hospitals and insurance companies when their children need them the most.

A reliable, high-quality, and affordable family service infrastructure, whether public or private, is instrumental in improving working parents’ work-life balance. Jennifer said that having a reliable, high-quality daycare made it possible for her to work and raise three children. Sara regularly relies on housekeeping, childcare, and grocery delivery service providers so that she can carve out more time with her children and cook healthy meals for her family whenever possible. Our family also outsources domestic tasks, especially when our children were young. We were very fortunate that New York City started a universal pre-K program in our children’s generation. Access to superb New York City public schools in our neighborhood has definitely made parenting a lot easier for us.

Last Words

Some say that the work-family equilibrium is merely an ideal of working mothers. It is nonetheless an ideal attainable by setting realistic expectations, being intentional and strategic about motherhood and law practice, and teaming up with the other parent and the children.

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Rong T. Kohtz practices international family law in New York and Michigan. She is a fellow of the International Academy of Family Lawyers and a member of the Hague Convention Attorney Network at the U.S. State Department. She graduated from Columbia University Law School in 2001 and Peking University Law School in 1998. She thanks Hon. Sara Spencer-Noggle, Leta Liou, and Jennifer Galloway for their time and insights.