August 22, 2017 Articles

Roundtable Recap—Mothers in Law: Women and Work-Life Balance

Does being a woman increase the difficulty of finding happiness at the office and at home?

By Angel Chiang

On April 6, the Diversity & Inclusion Committee hosted a roundtable entitled Mothers in Law: Women and Work-Life Balance, to address common issues facing working mothers in the legal profession. The committee’s own Chisa Putnam—a working mother herself and newly minted magistrate judge in York County, South Carolina—moderated the panel of speakers:

  • Jacqueline Epstein, the owner of Epstein Law Firm in New Orleans, Louisiana;
  • Tashanna Golden, an attorney at the Housing Unit of the Staten Island Office of Legal Services;
  • Brittany Pereira, an attorney at Robert A. Ades & Associates, PC, in Washington, D.C., who focuses her practice on family law; and
  • Alison Stein, a partner at Jenner & Block’s Content, Entertainment & Media practice.

Each panelist brought her own perspective on the challenges of achieving work-life balance as a working mother and attorney, which made for a lively discussion. Below is a summary of the roundtable’s highlights.

How can female attorneys distinguish themselves in a male-dominated profession?
All of the panelists agreed that women should not shy away from bringing their unique perspective to the workplace, and many in fact thought that their personal experiences as women and mothers made them better equipped in the workplace than their male counterparts. Jacqueline Epstein, for instance, felt that women are better able to resolve disputes in her family law practice because they encounter personal disputes every day in their home lives and acquire skills that are easily transferable to her practice. Tashanna Golden thought that it is a disservice for women to mirror what men do in the workplace rather than bring their own personal experiences to bear on their professional life. She advised that women should not try to blend in, but rather stand out. Alison Stein said that at law firms, female litigators often are underestimated, but that women can use that to their advantage—for example, in deposing a male witness who assumes that women are less aggressive and therefore less capable.

What are the most important things working women can do at work and at home to create work-life balance?
All of the panelists agreed that female attorneys who juggle busy schedules at home and in the office cannot do it without the help of a good support network—whether that takes the form of a partner, family members, or friends. Alison Stein said that having a second or third parent who may not be a biological parent is important for women with big jobs and that she has found it helpful to be flexible about her schedule and leverage technology to do her job. Alison claimed that her flexibility and willingness to work during times when she is at home, on vacation, etc., has gained her the respect of her colleagues and in turn afforded her more leeway to devote her attention to her family when necessary. Jacqueline Epstein, a single mother, says that she receives a lot of child care help from her ex-husband, who is also a family law attorney, as well as her mother, who lives nearby. Brittany Periera said that she stays super-organized at work to minimize the intrusions on her home life and that, when she is at home, she tries to carve out time to connect with friends who are also mothers. Tashanna Golden advised that she made sure to declare her priorities to her colleagues and that the nature of her workplace—a legal services office—means that she does not have to worry about how taking time for her family might potentially hurt her partnership prospects.          

The panelists also agreed that it is important to manage expectations and communicate with their colleagues. Alison Stein said that it’s always better to over-communicate than under-communicate and that she tries to give a lot to her work when she’s able to so she can earn goodwill and have more flexibility later. Brittany Periera said that she has also learned to relinquish some of the guilt associated with needing to set boundaries and communicate realistic expectations to her colleagues about her time.

How do you deal with male counterparts receiving better pay/promotions because they haven’t had the lull in their career caused by parenthood?
Many of the panelists disagreed with the premise that parenthood caused a lull in their careers. Alison Stein, for instance, did not feel that her taking maternity leave twice delayed her partnership prospects. She did, however, feel that her male counterparts had an advantage over her in business development now that she has made partner, because a lot of business referrals still come from the “old boys’ network.” Brittany Periera said that she did not feel disadvantaged by her maternity leave because of the nature of her family law practice. She said that in family law, her reputation matters more than the fact that she is a mother.

How do you avoid being out of sight/out of mind when telecommuting?
All the panelists agreed that whether telecommuting is a good option depends on the culture of the workplace, and they would only encourage it if the workplace culture encourages it. Tashanna Golden, who was out on maternity leave at the time of the roundtable, said that she is still trying to keep up her legal skills by attending trainings at work when they come up. Jacqueline Epstein said that she telecommutes frequently but finds that she is actually more available to her clients because she communicates with them a lot by text message.

Does being a woman increase the difficulty of work-life balance?
All the panelists agreed that there is definitely a double standard applied to working women. For instance, Alison Stein says that at her son’s preschool, the default contact on the parent directory is the child’s mother, and she had to call the school to make sure that both she and her husband would receive notices from the school. Sometimes the double standard hurts men more than women, however. Some of the panelists said that sometimes it is harder for men to be involved in parenting and to take time away from their careers.

How does the current system help female-specific work-life balance?
All the panelists unanimously agreed that the current parental leave system is inadequate and that even calling it “maternity leave” is problematic because it assumes that parental leave applies only to mothers. Jacqueline Epstein said that maternity leave is not long enough and it is not in employers’ interests to require a woman to return to work when she is not yet able to be efficient at home, much less at work.

Does the underrepresentation of women in the law contribute to a lack of flexibility for work-life balance?
Tashanna Golden disagreed that there was an underrepresentation of women in the legal profession; the gender breakdown of male and female law students is about even. She does believe, however, that there is an underrepresentation of women in higher positions in the law, such as law firm partners. She has observed that there are greater numbers of successful female attorneys in smaller practices, and she thought that starting one’s own practice might be a better route to success for female attorneys. Jacqueline Epstein took four years off from work when she had her children, but felt that it did not have a detrimental effect on her career because she kept up with professional networking activities and pro bono work during that time so that she could stay relevant. Jacqueline also earned a degree in library and information sciences during her time away from work and eventually decided to start her own practice rather than accept a position as the lead law librarian at a major New Orleans law firm. She said that the risk of starting her own firm has paid off financially, and she finds running her own business to be much more rewarding. Alison Stein, who has stayed at a big firm, advised women to keep up with changes in the law and continue with CLEs even when they take time off from work.

Angel Chiang is an associate with Fenwick & West LLP in Mountain View, California.

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Angel Chiang – August 22, 2017