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Law Practice Today

November 2023

Practicing & Motherhood – What Has Changed, What Hasn’t and What Needs To

Sarah Mannion


  • Many firms talk a good game about supporting practicing moms, but in reality, the motherhood penalty is alive and well.
  • Parental support policies mean little if daily practice means mom lawyers still lose when they use those policies.
  • Mom lawyers must organize to ensure future generations have a more equitable profession. 
Practicing & Motherhood – What Has Changed, What Hasn’t and What Needs To

Jump to:

My laptop is open with a draft pleading that is due, a pile of laundry is waiting to be folded, a toddler is refusing to eat anything other than ramen noodles for dinner, and my 7-year-old is complaining of a stuffy nose and, oh wait, she actually does have a fever. This is my current view as I write this article about practicing and motherhood. Battling deadlines and demands from career and motherhood is my daily life. 

I am but one in a long line of mom lawyers. As I think back on what others have overcome and accomplished before me, I also think of what we must currently overcome and accomplish to make the road a little easier for the next generation of mom lawyers. 

I recently picked up a call while I was rushing to get out of the office. The call was from an older male attorney who wanted to discuss a case we have together. He said, “Is now a good time?” I was a little flustered, trying to gather my things to leave the office, and said, “Actually no, I have a parent-teacher conference followed by a PTA meeting.” His immediate response was “Oh, that’s more important than this call. We’ll catch up another day.” This was a small interaction but one that I immensely appreciated. There was no tone of sarcasm; nothing that hinted at any indication he thought my leaving to tend to my children was less important than the case.

His response was in stark contrast to a friend’s experience I learned of earlier that day. She became a mom last year and was on the partnership track at one of the most reputable firms in our town. She was told that they were not pleased with the amount of time she had taken off after she had her child and that she wasn’t in the office enough, as she had been working from home while trying to find childcare placement for her baby, and therefore, was no longer fit for partnership. Had she met all her billables while working from home? Yes. Had she taken time off to have and care for her newborn baby? Yes. Was she being penalized for it? Undoubtedly. Her response was to give notice and find a position as in-house counsel.

Her experience with the motherhood penalty is not singular, and this is perhaps one area that has changed the most, yet not very much at all. The outward discussion around the motherhood penalty is very forward facing. Many firms, agencies and corporations tout policies that are purportedly friendly to expecting parents and parents of young children. They have committees focused on women in the law and they host panels regarding the challenges women in the law face, and what mothers in the law face. It is no longer an anomaly to have progressive and generous policies for parental leave for both parents, whether for childbirth or adoption. However, the policies on paper and in practice can sometimes be incredibly different, as my good friend recently discovered. 

What is the result if the female associate takes the entire four-month maternity leave that is offered? What happens to her cases, her clients, her status on the partner track? We need policies that do not detrimentally affect a mom lawyer for taking leave that is, in all honesty, not long enough and often, in our profession, not a true leave. Inevitably emails need to be answered, questions arise and emergencies must be addressed. Is this partly due to the nature of our profession? Somewhat yes, but can it also be that we haven’t yet perfected the professional support system for people taking parental leave? 

The idea of the workplace has also changed, more so since COVID-19 and the immediate “work from home” scenario so many of us faced. We now expect that jobs can be done, in part, from anywhere. As lawyers, our tools are our words and our minds. Armed with a laptop, a phone and a notepad, we should, in theory, be able to successfully do our job from almost anywhere. Why is this so integral to mom lawyers? Flexibility is key. It is essential to being able to feel and be successful moms and lawyers, present for our clients and our children. Can we work from home while our children are sick? Can we think about case strategy while watching a soccer game or attending a Girl Scouts meeting? Absolutely, we can. If we can be flexible (as we are expected to be), why can’t our workplaces be the same?

After the fundamental change that COVID brought, I believe that many mom lawyer’s attitudes regarding motherhood and the legal profession have shifted. Many of us are done being apologetic. I don’t need to apologize for leaving early to attend a PTA meeting. We are adults, capable of raising and keeping alive other human beings. We are certainly capable of managing our clients, our cases, and our deadlines. We know we have the ability and the confidence to get it done. The hurdle, as always, is having partners, shareholders and clients who understand that too. 

What hasn’t changed? The big Ps - pay equity, partnership levels, and policies. Pay equity among women lawyers and their male counterparts, and especially among women of color, is still incredibly out of balance. Females won’t reach equal levels of partnership with their male counterparts for at least another 100 years. On national, state and even micro-levels, such as law firms, policies regarding compensated parental leave, affordable childcare accommodations, and overall societal support of the mental load of motherhood are still woefully inadequate, if there are policies in place at all. 

As societal norms have evolved, in part thanks to social media, we also look to social media for connection, for advice, and for community. I belong to a network of over 8,000 fellow mom lawyers. MothersEsquire was founded in 2013 by a small group of mom lawyers who needed support, a community to connect with other mom lawyers, as our role is uniquely challenging. MothersEsquire is an incredibly strong online group where we can seek referrals, parenting tips, and sometimes, just a listening ear and confirmation that we aren’t alone in our struggles.  It is also a nonprofit that advocates for pay equity, adequate parental leave policies and the elimination of the motherhood penalty. In 2023, we still must advocate for proper accommodations to be provided to nursing mothers who need to pump during the bar exam or bring in feminine hygiene products. We must still push, state by state, for parental leave continuance rules. But we’ve come together and found strength in numbers. 

As they say, it takes a village to raise a child. But it takes an army of mom lawyers to change the playing field for future generations of mom lawyers.