April 06, 2021 Feature

How to Be a Mom and a Lawyer During the Pandemic

Lesly Longa Vaillancourt
Tips from lawyer-moms for juggling professional and household obligations with everyone at home.

Tips from lawyer-moms for juggling professional and household obligations with everyone at home.

g-stockstudio/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Data released on October 2, 2020, by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor shows that women are dropping out of the workforce at the fastest pace since the pandemic began (https://tinyurl.com/2h6xubnz). This is no surprise to me as a mom with young kids. When the school year just started last fall, many schools across the United States did not even open their doors to children. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about one in three women (32.1 percent) ages 25 to 44 are not working because of childcare, compared to only 12.1 percent of men in the same age group (https://tinyurl.com/pqlaeg95). If women are the primary caretakers of their children and earn less than their partners, women will predominantly end up taking the role of home educator, too, which is a full-time job for parents of young children or children with special needs.

Pandemic Parenting

At the start of the pandemic, during the quarantine, we all saw many people posting on social media about all the free time they had for cleaning, exercising, and honing (new or old) skills, but many of us lawyer-moms felt like we were drowning in kids and work, juggling professional and household obligations with everyone together at home. I spoke with Shaila Buckley, a solo practitioner in Boise, Idaho, as she was rushing home from her office to give her daughter’s teacher a much-needed break and supervise the kids’ lunch hour. Shaila and her husband decided to put their youngest child, a nine-year-old in fourth grade, in a learning pod with four kids. The parents got together and hired a teacher. Each week the location of the learning pod rotates to a different student’s house, and this week it was at Shaila’s home. She describes the weeks that the learning pod is at her house as a “cluster” for the family.

Shaila also has an 11-year-old daughter who is back in a traditional school setting, and her husband has a high-profile, high-pressure job that is gradually transitioning him back to the office. Shaila shared that being home made her husband realize how much goes on in the house with the kids. Pandemic parenting is tough because you need to make sure that the kids are taken care of and also find balance with work. Shaila tries to work school hours so she can be the main point-parent and also maintain a career. The pandemic makes this a challenge. She echoed what most of us have been feeling: “My business model revolves around the fact that they are in school until 3:30; there was not even summer camp in the summer.”

Ronza Rafo does not have the option to send her second grader to school full-time. Ronza is a family law attorney in solo practice in San Diego, California, and has a seven-year-old daughter, a 23-month-old son, and a newborn. Her daughter is in a hybrid program at school, so the two days a week her daughter is on-site at school, Ronza goes into the office while her two younger children stay with her mother. The other days Ronza is in charge of homeschooling her daughter, a full-time job in itself.

Ronza usually works “school hours” plus several more hours scattered throughout the day. She is up two hours before her children and stays up long after they have gone to bed. She has been able to grow a successful family law practice while raising three young kids with help from her family and great time management skills. Her advice to solos thinking about starting a family is to “make sure you have help or can afford help and learn time management skills before they come.”

Adria Dickey, an estate planning and elder law attorney in Tampa, Florida, says life was a “hot mess in the beginning of the pandemic, but when you don’t have a choice, you just have to do what you have to do.” Adria is a mother to two teenage boys, and she says that back in 2015 she felt an urgency to leave her small firm; she started her solo practice on January 1, 2016, and then, on February 14, 2016, her husband was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Adria lost her husband to cancer later that year, just months after starting her solo practice.

When the pandemic first erupted, Adria felt a heavy burden because her kids were concerned with what might happen to her, their sole remaining parent. When asked how she deals with this pressure, she says, “I am very in-the-moment and just takes things one day at a time.” Adria has one full-time paralegal and works school hours plus nights when needed. Like most of us, she relies on technology to help her keep her business running smoothly. Adria says her only regret is not having gone solo sooner because it allowed her to triple her income, gave her the flexibility to be with her husband during his treatments, and provided her with more time to be with her children.

Losing her husband has given Adria a unique perspective. Her advice for lawyer-mamas is: “Don’t miss the moments with your kids because you are never going to get that back. Are you going to say, I wish I took that client call at four or that I saw my kid’s big game? I never want to miss those big moments.”

Every Person’s Situation Is Unique

When I found out I was having my first baby, I was six years into my own practice and working 60 hours a week, but I knew I did not want to sacrifice those big moments because of my career. I had no idea how I would manage maternity leave or a newborn. During the pandemic shut-down, as I struggled with a kindergartner and a two-year-old who needed near-constant attention, I again wondered how other lawyers managed it.

I wanted to find out what we are all experiencing as lawyer-moms, so I crafted a short survey and shared it with the women of the GPSolo Women’s Initiative Network (WIN), Ms. Esquire on Facebook, and the Women in Estate Planning group on WealthCounsel. Thankfully, 130 lawyer-moms answered my survey. About 65 percent of respondents work either as solo practitioners or in small firms with fewer than 15 attorneys. When asked if they had any help with homeschooling during the pandemic, 40 percent responded that they had no help and did it all themselves.

As far as maternity leave, most of the attorneys surveyed took between six and 12 weeks of maternity leave, but many solos took no time off at all or just a few days. Some 58 percent of survey respondents had no pay during maternity leave; 21 percent had paid leave from their firm or the government, while the other 21 percent had disability insurance offering some paid leave. Any respondents who said they had “paid maternity leave” because they worked from home after having the baby were counted as not having maternity leave at all.

Clara Rokusek, a Florida real estate, bankruptcy, and collection defense attorney, is lighthearted when she talks about not really taking any maternity leave: “I just accepted that this was my life, and I had to work around my practice. My kids were my biggest priority.” She and I shared stories about working between naps and taking our babies to the office with us, especially during that “potted plant” phase. One time her sister dropped her off for a court hearing and drove the baby around in the car while waiting for her to get done with the hearing.

As of fall 2020, when I interviewed her for this article, Clara had not been to her office since March. Clara’s practice started out serving the Spanish-speaking population of Tampa, but after having her two kids, who are five and six, she moved from Tampa to Jupiter, Florida, to be closer to her family. Jupiter is three hours away from Tampa. She has a full-time assistant in her main Tampa office and two other employees, all of whom connect remotely to her Jupiter home base. Clara can see what they are working on from the Jupiter computers they sign into. She also uses voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) for her phones so they each can have a separate extension. Clara says that the key is to delegate as much as you can at the office and also at home.

The key for Shaila Buckley was finding the area of law that allowed her the flexibility to be a lawyer and a parent. For her that was estate planning. She left a lucrative career at Jones Day to go solo, but having her babies while in Big Law had its perks. Because Shaila lived in California at the time, her large law firm gave her several months of paid maternity leave.

Attorneys should consider applying for disability insurance before pregnancy. Some survey respondents stated that they had short-term disability insurance through their firms, which paid them part of their salary for several weeks of maternity leave. Aflac, Northwestern Mutual, Allstate, and Unum were some of the carriers that respondents mentioned in the survey.

Ronza Rafo welcomed the arrival of her third child during the pandemic and noted that “Women face pressures that men do not. After I had my second, I thought I should cut down my cases, but the more time you spend at home, you start struggling with your identity—who am I supposed to be now?” We work so hard to become attorneys and build our careers. Ronza decided she wants to be the best lawyer and the best mom she can possibly be, but what that means to one lawyer-mom might not be the same for another.

Ronza had planned to take at least six weeks of leave once her baby arrived. Prior to taking leave, she filed a notice of unavailability of counsel for all her active cases. She also reached out to opposing counsel in an attempt to settle as many cases as she could to avoid delaying resolution of her clients’ cases. But settlement was neither guaranteed nor in her control. In one of her cases, she was granted a hearing continuance of just a few weeks after giving birth despite telling the judge that she had planned to be out on maternity leave. Some areas of the law are more personal than others, but, whenever possible, expectant lawyers should designate a reliable coverage attorney and provide them with access to their case management system just in case.

Practical Tips for Solos Taking Parental Leave

Below are some tips gathered from my own experience and the experiences of the women I spoke with and those who responded to my survey:

  1. Get your case management system, calendars, and case docket organized and ready to share.
  2. Create a business continuation plan and a realistic budget that includes expected expenses. Use the time before the baby comes to trim the fat and collect on past-due accounts.
  3. Prepare your estate planning documents.
  4. Designate a backup coverage attorney who practices in your field.
  5. Arrange to have someone else answer your phones if you currently do this yourself. Popular choices are Smith.ai, Ruby Receptionists, AnswerConnect, LEX Reception, and Back Office Betties. Google Voice also transcribes messages and can be forwarded to any phone.
  6. If you don’t have an assistant and don’t want to answer e-mails while on leave, consider hiring someone to help you temporarily. Cascade Virtual is a company that offers virtual assistants with no long-term contracts. If they don’t already have someone on staff that meets your needs, they will actually search for someone that meets your criteria.
  7. Make arrangements for the office mail you receive to be sent to you at home or to your backup attorney.
  8. File a notice of unavailability of counsel for all your cases in advance of your leave.
  9. Update your social media and online profiles (Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell, etc.) if you or your firm are not accepting new clients during your leave.
  10. Arrange for childcare. Many good day cares have long wait lists, so you might want to get on them as soon as you find out that you’re expecting.

How Far Have We Really Come?

In a 2001 interview with the New York City Bar Association, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” Judging by recent workforce statistics, we still have a long way to go.

As Ronza Rafo mentioned in our discussion, sometimes it feels that as a society we have not come very far because now, on top of everything else, women have to worry about having a “bounce-back body,” too. These pressures can feel overwhelming without the help of a good partner and a support system.

Shaila Buckley noted that she is raising her girls to be academically equal to their male peers, but the reality is that high-end, professional jobs are not structured to account for raising children. One parent is going to have to step back, and often that is the woman. Maybe men feel like they have to work, but why can’t they stay home? Clara Rokusek noted that we as women are tasked a lot more, but it’s up to each couple how that plays out.

Ruth Jackson Lee co-partners her Florida consumer protection law firm, Jackson Lee | PA, with her husband, Jared. Ruth has five daughters, ranging in age from an infant to a nine-year-old. Ruth’s husband breaks societal and cultural norms by being an incredible caregiver to their children and a zealous advocate for their clients. Ruth’s advice to other lawyer-moms is to “consider children blessings, not burdens. Consider your firm a privilege and a joy to serve others.” Ruth has developed an attitude of gratitude for her children, her firm, and for her husband, which she has found crucial for growing her family and her business.

We are fortunate as attorneys to be able to chart our own paths. Adria Dickey says, “I think we’ve come far, and if you feel you are being treated inequitably, start a new path. You can change your own reality. That’s what I did. I didn’t think I was treated equitably in my old practice, so I changed my reality.”

I am immensely grateful to my profession for making it possible for me to create my own practice in a way that allows me to have time to spend with my young kids, and I am grateful to my progressive husband for taking on many duties that were traditionally done by women. Even still, I, too, felt the struggle during this pandemic.

Ruth Jackson Lee summed up how far we have come best when she said, “Progress towards equality over not just my lifetime, but my children’s lifetime, is undeniable. Still, the pandemic has laid bare the work that still needs to be done.”

Download the PDF of this article

Entity:
Topic:

Lesly Longa Vaillancourt (les@longalaw.com) is the owner of Longa Law Firm in Tampa, Florida, and focuses her practice on estate planning and probate. Lesly serves on the Editorial Board of GPSolo magazine, is a past chair of the Florida Bar Consumer Protection Law Committee, and serves as vice chair of the ABA GPSolo Estate and Financial Planning Committee. She is thankful to all the lawyer-moms who contributed to this article.