Perhaps we as a profession were uncomfortable discussing such an intimate topic with our colleagues for fear of invading their privacy or encroaching on professional relationship boundaries. Or, perhaps as young lawyers we were hesitant out of fear of being perceived as not as dedicated or focused on our careers as our childless peers, whether justified or not. Whatever the reason, pre-pandemic, many young lawyers had the impression that the legal profession generally seemed to expect that parent-lawyers work as if they did not have children, while society generally seemed to expect that parent-lawyers parent as if they did not have a job. That perception and inherent tension may be one of the reasons the legal profession historically has experienced a high level of attrition for female lawyers.
In March 2020, however, that perception necessarily seemed to shift. Almost all who remained healthy enough to continue to work likely found themselves remotely logging hours in six-minute increments from a spare bedroom, basement, home office, or other makeshift workspace. While some law firms and legal departments had embraced a remote or semi-remote work policy pre-pandemic, many had not. However, even practitioners who previously had worked remotely most likely did not have to do so while their children were also home attempting to adjust to virtual learning while social distancing from friends and family who ordinarily could help with childcare needs.
Out of necessity, most practitioners were forced to become more flexible. Collectively, we began to acknowledge out loud and witness firsthand the tension that can exist between work responsibilities and caretaking responsibilities. Practically overnight, it seemed that attitudes toward parents of young children shifted to expressions of support and compassion. As a result, during the past few years, the legal profession no longer seemed to expect that parent-lawyers work as if they did not have children, and society no longer seemed to expect that parent-lawyers parent as if they did not have a job.
Many young practitioners feel that the legal profession had undergone important transformations during the pandemic, and some of those transformations should persist post-pandemic. One such transformation is the acknowledgement by many that parents in the profession often experience tension between being the best lawyer and the best parent they can be. One of the questions we as a profession should be looking to answer is how do we address that tension so that we can make the post-pandemic practice of law more attractive for parent-lawyers?
I have yet to find one answer that fits all. Often a particular client’s needs, the court’s schedule, and team members’ availabilities drive what the practice must look like, and different matters may require different approaches at different times. After all, the client-centered nature of the legal profession endures. Additionally, parenting looks as individual as each lawyer looks, so assigning a rigid approach makes little sense.
However, groups of practitioners within the ABA, including the Young Lawyers Division, and in local bar associations are passionate about shining light on issues that affect parent-lawyers, and discussing how to make the profession better so that we can retain talented practitioners. There are studies being conducted about parenting and access to childcare to assess the legal profession’s progress (or lack thereof) when it comes to issues affecting parent-lawyers. There will continue to be important conversations about parenting in the profession, and likely different stakeholders will have divergent views .
For my part, I’d like to be a voice of encouragement for young parent-lawyers. To that end, please allow me to share some of the best advice I have received so far from other parents in the profession kind enough to take the time to impart wisdom.
- Be kind to yourself. There will be days when you will think you have this working parent thing mastered and you may feel unstoppable. There also will be days when nothing at work or at home is going right and you feel like you’re being studied as part of some warped psychological experiment to test the outer limits of what one person can endure. Both types of days teach you important lessons, so do not be hard on yourself when you inevitably experience the latter.
- Maintain perspective. Your legal career can span decades. There are relatively fewer years during which you have the opportunity to raise your child. Identify and focus on what is important for you and your family. That may look different for each person and likely will change through the years – that is ok.
- Be flexible. What worked for your practice before may or may not continue to work for your practice now. That may mean adjusting working hours to allow for time with family when you can. It may mean temporarily re-directing business development efforts from attending conferences to writing articles to allow you to spend more time with your child. It also may mean saying “no, thank you” or “not right now” in certain instances. The practice of law evolves and so should your approach to it.
- Take care of yourself. We all likely have heard that you cannot pour from an empty cup. Sometimes it is tempting to test that theory when there are many demands competing for your time. Resist the temptation. You will not be the best lawyer or parent you can be if you burn out.
For all practitioners, continuing to show compassion, flexibility, and understanding to your parent-lawyer colleagues regarding the tension they often face between lawyering and parenting will go a long way toward making the legal profession more parent-lawyer friendly and a better profession for all. Ideally, the post-pandemic version of the profession eradicates the impression many have that parent-lawyers must work as if they are not parents and parent as if they do not work. To get there, we need to continue to acknowledge the tension that exists and be willing to engage in these complex conversations.