Women and the Law: What about the Children?

Written by Stephanie Clark, Student at McGill Faculty of Law.

There are women out there who work in big law firms. There are women who have made partner. There are women in senior in-house counsel positions, ones who have  started their own NGOs and ones who have started independent law firms. These women have been successful at balancing their demanding careers with having children. So there you have it, ladies: everything you need to know about your life after law school.

I’m not entirely happy with this incredible vague depiction of what my life options are post-bar school. I’m looking forward to finding that elusive work-life balance. The vague stories I’ve heard make it seem that there’s a way to work in a demanding law career,but no one seems to want to illustrate that process. I hear that a lot of women have found that balance but I don’t know what it entails. I’ve looked at books in the library that celebrate stories of women who have been able to have children and attain partnership at big law firms, but these stories don’t talk about how they do it. I want to know how people have managed to do it, what kind of landscape they’re doing it in and how that landscape is expected to change. I plan on having children one day, and I also plan on being way too busy in my career because I’m like that. The best way to learn something is to ask people, so I did exactly that. Below you’ll find the fruits of my inquiries of five women, each in different demanding positions in their legal careers, each of whom have balanced their successful careers with having children. And they’re going to talk about how.

Here’s my disclaimer. The women that responded are all married women in heterosexual relationships. And that’s fine for a starting point. I get that not everyone wants their wishes granted by the Diaper Genie, and there are zero things wrong with that. I don’t wish to imply that they have nothing to worry about as far as work-life balances go. I also know that there are way more people having children than just married hetero women– do same-sex couples have the same opportunities to have children while working a legal career? What about single moms? Single dads? I have no intention to discriminate or focus solely on one type of couple;I want to emphasize that I’m merely looking for a starting point to a really important social conversation. Like all equality battles, discussion is an essential starting point, so I strive to present my findings in a way that everyone will be able to glean something from it.

I want to lay out the playing field. What does a woman’s legal career look like, first and foremost? The current numbers in Canada can be summarized as follows:

  • In 2010, women made up 37% of the practicing lawyers in Canada.
  • Of those women, 28% reported participating in a flexible work arrangement, compared to 21% of men.
  • 50% of lawyers in general felt their firms had some work to do in their provision of flexible work arrangements.
  • 51% of women were senior partners compared to 71% of men.
  • 40% of women had an alternative partnership arrangement, such as part-time or salaried compared to 18% of men.
  • The average cost to a firm including investment costs (such as training and development) and separation costs when an associate leaves, potentially because of work-life tension = $315,000.

Apparently flexible work arrangements are possible, both for men and women. There’s your statistical glimpse into the world in which these mythical women had been able to balance their children with their legal careers, and where some men are doing it, too. However, what I’m most interested in is the process by which these women managed a successful career-woman balance.

First, I wanted to know if these women’s career affected when they decided to have children. I know that it’s not a conscious decision for everyone and I approached the topic with that in mind.

For Jodi L.H. Butts, the decision to have children meant altering her career path.

“Being a partner in a small firm means responding when the servers go down, helping your clients when they need you without a lot of back-up or getting to the office when the office security alarm goes off. You need to respond regardless of the hour. That didn’t seem conducive to motherhood to me,” she says, reflecting on the career changes she made. “Nor did big firm life, where a substantial part of your performance assessment hinged on the quantity of your hours. So I chose to go in-house and successfully started my family two years into that role.”

Apparently, an in-house position may be more conducive to having children. However, that’s not to say that it’s impossible to make it work in a big firm.

Kristin Taylor, a partner at Cassels Brock, has worked on Bay Street throughout her legal career, even when her children were very young.

“I became pregnant with my first child within weeks of becoming partner in a Bay St. firm. It wasn’t intentional, but I had already had one miscarriage and we had decided to keep trying, irrespective of partnership. I didn’t alter my career plans around my children, but my miscarriage certainly put the importance of having children in perspective.”

I had been under the impression that big law firms are scary and inhuman and eat up your entire life, so it’s good to know that some flexibility exists even there.

Like Kristin, Dunniela Kaufman never planned to have her children at any particular time. “I believe that all people have to be flexible in their career plans for very few people’s paths go exactly as planned.  I married an American and moved to Washington, DC. This was not in my plan and in fact, I actually moved back to Canada after obtaining an LL.M in DC so as to avoid the very situation that I find myself in. At a high level then you could say I did alter my career plans in order to have children, as leaving the jurisdiction that I practice in certainly altered my career path.”

Motherhood can change a woman’s perspective in all kinds of unpredictable ways, but I nevertheless thought it helpful to provide some of the ways that women have changed their work habits after having children.

As Catherine McKenna explains, even if you don’t plan to have children at any particular time, some changes occur as a result. “Once I had children, my time became much more precious to me and I was less interested in doing something that I wasn’t passionate about. My focus is on doing fulfilling work and having control over my schedule.”

Jodi found that her in-house counsel position worked especially well for her family, since the emphasis in her position tended to be more on efficiency than on billable hours, on “more effective compliance, risk management and better business decision-making with less time and money.”

Dunniela found that her children became her focus, and was able to find a situation in big law that worked for her. “I need a situation where I have the flexibility to be the kind of mother that I want to be. Children require a lot of attention and so if you are the primary caregiver, that inherently takes away some bandwidth that you have available for your job. You can try to do it all at the same time, or you can make the right decisions to create “balance” in your life.”

Kirstin was also able to make the balance work in big law by taking some time off and embracing technology. “After I had children, I slowed down my career – even though it was at the outset of being made partner. I worked much less in the office and less hours overall. I took on fewer non-billable commitments. I balanced it by focusing on clients for whom I had primary responsibility and being accessible. I learned to work productively from home when my daughters were asleep.” Being a partner, however, also meant that she was back at the office after shorter maternity leaves.

These women did not find that their shift in focus adversely affected their careers. Kirstin and Dunniela both returned to full-time work when their children reached a certain age.

Dunniela recently started her own firm, and she attributes her ongoing career success to her dedication while at work. “I continued to work very hard and meet the high standards. With my second child, this became harder and I have now decided to go out on my own, which is working out fabulously.”

Kristin is back full-time at big law, and credits her position at work prior to having children to the balance she maintains now. “I think the timing of when I had my children worked well in that I had already built my reputation and trusted relationships and I had flexibility because of it. I didn’t need to be as visible or to prove myself. Partnership – at least at that time – also permitted me the ability to reduce my hours and commitment temporarily, for almost 8 years, without impairing my job security. I didn’t ask permission. I just did what worked for me, my family and my clients.”

An ongoing theme here is that women seem to be increasingly doing whatever they want, as long as they meet the bottom line of what their clients need. One way to meet this requirement is to carefully select the clients one takes on, after evaluating how fulfilling the work is going to be. The caveat seems to be that a woman may only have this luxury after already establishing herself in a legal career.

Another way that women have been able to make it work is by balancing their partner’s career demands with their own. Jodi credits her work-life balance to an ongoing discussion with her partner. “Parenting is a team sport and, I believe, the only way to not make joint decisions throughout, built on many daily conversations, is if early on, one of you elects to relegate their career to the other’s. If you both want to be successful and pursue the highest achievements possible, you better work out a joint plan.

Dunniela found a similar situation. “It absolutely has to be a decision that you make as partners. You cannot both go full tilt and properly care for your children. In my case, life has worked out that my husband can pick up the slack when my career is demanding, as he works for himself.”

Kirstin has also built her life around a balance with her partner’s career.My partner’s career was quite demanding at the time my first daughter was born, but he transitioned to working from home a few years thereafter and that has created more flexibility for me. He has been incredibly supportive.”

As well, many women advocate external childcare. According to Dunniela, “Either you have to hire a third party to give your children the care that they need or you have to make a decision that one of you is going to pull back slightly from your careers.  We also have a great live-in nanny.

“Having very good childcare arrangements was key in our situation,” says Catherine.

I was also interested to know that having children influenced these mothers’ careers in indirect ways as well. Jodi notes that, “When I returned to work lots of folks commented on my more surgical hand, that it is I was much more precise and deliberate in terms of what I took on and was much more deliberate and delicate in terms of how I responded to challenges.”

Dunniela found as well that “I think I am a better person and therefore a better lawyer since becoming a mom but there is nothing that I can directly point to.”

According to Kristin, “Having children has made me a better lawyer in many ways. They’ve taught me patience. I’ve also learned how to juggle in ways I didn’t think were possible and how to be hyper-efficient and organized.”

Catherine also notes how her children have changed her perspective on her career, “I’ve learned from my children to be more mindful and to enjoy the moment. Although I’m still working on this – I’m a huge multi-tasker!”

These women have all noticed changing attitudes towards mothers in the legal workplace. Dunniela says,, “I think women today are not afraid to stand up and say that they need the flexibility to parent their children. As long as you continue to do your job and meet/exceed expectations, employers seem more open to facilitating this.”

Kristin also sees positive changes. “I think men are beginning to share more and more childcare responsibilities. Technology also has made it less essential, at least for my practice, to sit at a desk on Bay St. There also is an appreciation on the part of firms that they have to make the transitions around maternity leaves successful.”

For a deeper analysis of women’s attitudes in all careers, I turn to Reva Seth, who has interviewed over 400 women about their balancing careers with families.

Reva has noticed a marked shift, “I think women (and men) entering professional careers are less willing to compromise when it comes to either their career plans and children. At law firms for instance, I’ve really noticed an increasing number of younger associates who are more open to the idea of having children before they make partner, for instance. There’s also more role models for the different ways that they can combine a successful career and family life. Most of the women I spoke to feel very confident on this issue – which I think is great!”

From her perspective, there are definitely more changes that need to be made. “From a public policy perspective, more needs to be done when it comes to child care. From a private sector perspective, working mothers do have an increasing number of initiatives designed to help them stay engaged. Ultimately, each time a working mother decides to step away from her career, the law firm that’s invested in her loses out, and the realization of this business reality is fueling the creation an increasing number of programs designed to help retain talent. These include mentoring programs and buddy programs designed to enable female associates remain engaged during their maternity leave.”

Whatever programs or opportunities a woman finds in the legal world, though, it all seems to come down to choice. “Women today have so many choices and there so many different ways of successfully combining a professional career and family life. What works for one family/career/person won’t for someone else. I would say it’s essential to open to all the choice and be ready to change and adjust along the way.”

I still don’t have a complete picture of how I’ll be able to balance my family with my legal career. I don’t plan on having any kind of plan until it happens, because all of the variable and intensely personal factors that go into having a family make everyone’s experience unique. However, I am more comfortable knowing what options exist and where the industry seems to be headed. Knowing where and whether I can be flexible with my career means worrying that much less that I’ll be able to balance work and a family.

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