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    Bringing Up Baby: How Lawyer-moms Make It Work

    Raising children while working outside the home continues to be a challenge for 21st-century parents, but some developments in the past few decades help bring women lawyers closer to equilibrium.

    Kara Higdon Getter

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    Kathryn Woodward and family

    “Having a job that I love, a commute that is reasonable, and my family nearby makes everything more manageable.” – Kathryn Woodward, Milwaukee.

    Photo: Kate Woodward and husband Marco Nasca share a light-hearted moment with sons John (age 2) and Matthew (age 4) as family pet Ellie gets in on the action. Photo credit: Josh Eral

    In the 1986 article “Juggling Children and Career,” the Wisconsin Lawyer – then known as the Wisconsin Bar Bulletin – examined how lawyer-moms maintained their work-life balance. In 1986, women made up a mere 16 percent of lawyers nationwide. Now, 29 years later, that number is up to 33 percent. Although the number of women lawyers continues to increase, the question remains: how do women balance the practice of law with raising children? (Although men with families face similar issues, the author chose to focus only on women lawyers as a follow-up to the 1986 article.)

    From 1986 to 2015: An (Incomplete) Evolution of Maternity Leave

    For many women, maternity leave provides the initial glimpse into the challenges of balancing career and child. Because maternity leave policies were rarely in place in 1986, several of the women previously profiled were the first at their firms to ask for maternity leave.

    Kara Higdon GetterKara Higdon Getter, Marquette 2004, is mom to 20-month-old Lucas (see cover) and is the marketing and library manager at Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, Milwaukee, where she is responsible for marketing and business development initiatives and overseeing the firm’s library.

    In 1993, a major cultural shift occurred with passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), entitling some workers to up to 12 weeks of job-protected maternity leave. Now, in contrast to 1986, not only is it entirely common that law firms offer six weeks of paid maternity leave, many women also opt to take additional maternity leave (although for the majority, if extra leave is taken, that time is unpaid). Despite progress in the area of maternity leave, different employers offer an incredibly wide range of leave lengths and benefits.

    Jackie Nuckels practices at Groth Law Firm, Brookfield, a two-attorney firm, and is mom to 5-year-old Charlotte, 3-year-old Grace, and 1-year-old Eleanor. Each of Nuckels’ three maternity leaves varied slightly. After her first daughter was born, Nuckels was back at work within a few days to craft a response to a motion that had to be filed. But after the dust settled, she took leave for six weeks and returned to work half time for two weeks before ramping back up to full time at the eight-week mark. After the births of her second and third daughters, Nuckels put in a considerable amount of work from home while she was on maternity leave.

    Lis Shea, a lawyer at the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau, Madison, and mother to 4-year-old Maesy and 20-month-old Sybil, says, “I had my first child while I was in private practice, and I took 12 weeks. For my second maternity leave, at my current job, I took eight weeks consecutive and then took the remaining four weeks by working part time for a couple of months.”

    DeVona Wright Cottrell and daughter

    “In my role and leadership level within Baird and my involvement in the community, I am just as busy and my hours can be grueling, but I have more flexibility to manage my schedule.” – DeVona Wright Cottrell

    Photo: proud mom of daughter Jayde (age 3, shown) and son Julian (age 8).

    To attract and retain quality women lawyers, a growing number of businesses offer longer paid leaves. Mary Beth Hughes, a lawyer at Whyte Hirschboek Dudek, Milwaukee, and mom to 7-year-old Patrick and 1-year-old Thomas, says at her firm 12 weeks’ paid leave is standard handbook policy.

    Twelve weeks’ paid leave is also standard at Quarles & Brady, where Katie Maloney Perhach is managing partner of the Milwaukee office. Maloney Perhach, mom to 11-year-old Jack, 8-year-old Matt, and 4-year-old Ben, says, “Twelve weeks is absolutely standard. And you can take extra beyond that unpaid up to six months or you can use unpaid leave to work a reduced schedule in the first year after a child’s birth to gradually return to work and help balance the needs of both work and home.” Maloney Perhach says Quarles offers a much-used paternity leave policy, too (something unheard of in 1986). With the increase of dual-income families, paternity leave policies are an attractive benefit businesses can offer their men employees.

    Career Paths: Not Set in Stone

    Adjusted expectations of office face-time allow today’s lawyer-moms more command over their schedules. Additionally, more firms are recognizing the need to allow for reduced-time lawyer positions. After her first son was born, Hughes changed her schedule and started to work from the office four days per week. Although the demands of a lawyer are always very high, Hughes credits Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek’s willingness to be flexible with her schedule and the firm’s family-friendly face-time requirements.

    She says, “I love that I have the flexibility to spend time during the week at home with my boys, or run out to school during the day for various events. It makes me feel much more connected to my family, but allows me to still have my career.”

    Similarly, after the birth of her first son and four years into her career at Quarles, Maloney Perhach reduced her schedule to 80 percent. She continued this reduced schedule for four years, and in 2008 she went back to working a full-time schedule. Maloney Perhach made partner that same year.

    At Stafford Rosenbaum, Milwaukee, where Denasha Scott is a partner, a member of the firm’s board of directors, and leader of the firm’s business-law practice group, most of the female partners have children. Having children is not precluding career advancement; smart firms are not putting young women on the dreaded “mommy track.”

    Other lawyer-moms have opted to pursue careers at small firms. Tara Guelzow, mom to 4-year-old Billy, 2-year-old Ben, and 3-month-old Izzy, practices at Sommer, Olk & Payant, a four-attorney firm in Antigo. Guelzow says, “Not only am I in a small firm, but I’m in a small town. I don’t have to deal with the type of pressure that I assume accompanies those in larger firms. Most weeks I work 45-50 hours, more when trials, appeals, or other larger issues come up.” Similarly, Nuckels feels that being at a small firm affords her the flexibility she needs to structure her schedule to best accommodate her daughters.

    Private practice is not for everyone. Mom to 8-year-old Julian and 3-year-old Jayde, DeVona Wright Cottrell left a firm to work in-house at Robert W. Baird, Milwaukee. While in private practice, she cochaired her firm’s transactional practice. In addition to the pressure of billable hours and client development, she was responsible for marketing and pitching to new clients in several states. Out-of-state travel made it hard to balance work and family. Now in her role and leadership level within Baird and her involvement in the community, Wright Cottrell is just as busy and her hours can be grueling, but she has more flexibility to manage her schedule.

    Public-sector law careers provide the flexible schedules and nonbillable lifestyles that many attorneys seek. Paula Ryan, an attorney at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Madison, and mother to 1-year-old daughter Frankie, believes there are many benefits of being a public-sector attorney. Ryan says, “As a public-sector attorney, my schedule is predictable, and I don’t have the pressure of meeting a certain number of billable hours each year.”

    Similarly, Shea believes that as a public-sector lawyer, the combination of her usual 8-to-5 schedule and not taking work home with her helps her as a mom. She says, “I can pick my kids up from day care almost every day and spend those few hours with them before they go to bed. Also, in my job now there is usually a clean break between my working hours and my hours at home with my family. Sometimes the issues I was working on in private practice would follow me in my off hours, either because I needed to continue to work at home or because mentally I couldn’t let go.” Like Ryan and Shea, many public-sector attorneys are attracted to the absence of both billable hour stress and the pressure of building a book of business.

    Mary Beth Hughes and sons

    “I love that I have the flexibility to spend time during the week at home with my boys, or run out to school during the day for various events.” – Mary Beth Hughes, Milwaukee

    Photo: Snuggling in close with sons Thomas (age 1) and Patrick (age 7).

    Technology in 2015: The Ultimate Double-edged Sword

    Technology, of course, has completely changed in the 29 years since the 1986 article. Whether they use smartphones, tablets, or laptops, today’s lawyer-moms recognize technology makes it possible to clock time and work remotely during nontraditional business hours. Drafting client emails or reviewing a contract might be done early in the morning or late at night, once the kids go to sleep.

    “Technology makes life so much easier and so much harder as a working mom,” says Maloney Perhach. “It’s easier because I can access whatever I need electronically when I am away from the office for whatever reason. I have instantaneous access to my email and my voicemail on my iPhone, and I have the ability to log in remotely to my desktop from home in the evening and see all of my electronic files. Being available 24/7 is also much harder – work life can very easily creep into the evening hours now as I respond to client emails at all hours of the day!”

    Likewise, Kathryn Woodward, in-house counsel at GE Healthcare, Milwaukee, and mom to 4-year-old Matthew and 2-year-old John, credits technology for allowing her to be connected, responsive, and proactive without necessarily being in the office. She adds, “Especially in a business with global clients, technology has to be embraced.” And, the combination of technology and the ability to work remotely have allowed Woodward to accommodate doctor appointments for her sons.

    The technology that keeps attorneys connected 24/7 can also make it next to impossible to disconnect, even extending work into the labor and delivery room for some. Nuckels says, “When I had my first daughter in 2009, I worked right up until the time I delivered. I was, literally, dictating letters and writing emails during labor.”

    Maria Kreiter and sons

    “I started thinking of everything at this four-hour [PTA introduction] meeting in terms of my billable hours and realized, OK, this is just not happening for me.” – Maria Kreiter, Milwaukee

    Photo: Maria with sons Logan (age 6) and Luc (age 11), was surprised to read in the 1986 article that a 9-year-old was taken to a state supreme court hearing due to a lack of childcare options.

    Bringing up Baby

    The comparative lack of childcare options and extended support networks available to the women interviewed for the 1986 article struck a chord with the lawyer-moms of today. Maria Kreiter, a partner at Godfrey & Kahn, Milwaukee, and mom to two sons, 11-year-old Luc and 6-year-old Logan, expressed her surprise to read in the 1986 article that a 9-year-old was taken to a state supreme court hearing. Kreiter thought bringing a child to court today would be viewed as unprofessional, not to mention distracting.

    Maloney Perhach and Kreiter practice at two of Milwaukee’s larger firms, both of which offer emergency childcare, and while neither woman has used these services, they voiced comfort in knowing it is an option. Of course, not all firms are able to provide this type of emergency childcare backup. When one of Guelzow’s children is sick and work schedules can’t be shuffled, she must tap into her extended network of family, friends, and babysitters. No doubt, Guelzow’s experience is familiar to the majority of working moms.

    Finding quality childcare was a top concern for the lawyer-moms of 1986, and it remains a priority today. Fortunately, more childcare options exist today. Among the 10 women featured in this article, four have children in day care centers. Three women employ nannies, one woman’s mother-in-law provides childcare, and two women have husbands who are stay-at-home dads. Scott’s husband has been a stay-at-home dad to their 11-year old son, and Kreiter’s husband is a stay-at-home dad to their sons. Both Scott and Kreiter feel that their situation works perfectly for their families.

    More and more fathers are taking on a greater amount of the home and childrearing responsibilities, helping to do away with many traditional gender roles. Shea’s husband is an electrical engineer with his own consulting business. His job permits him a more flexible schedule. Shea says, “If one of our kids has to leave daycare because of an illness or doctor’s appointment, he is often the one who leaves to go pick them up.”

    In addition to hands-on husbands and helpful childcare providers and nannies, family members – especially the mothers of these lawyer-moms – often play a crucial role in helping maintain a manageable work-life balance. Hughes’ mom watches her sons one day a week, and Woodward’s mom often helps get her sons to and from appointments and activities.

    Having her family nearby was so important to Woodward that she and her husband decided to relocate to the Milwaukee area from Chicago for a great job opportunity. Woodward says, “I used to have a 90-minute commute each way. I was always gone, and my days were so long. Having a job that I love, a commute that is reasonable, and my family nearby makes everything more manageable. I still put in long hours at work, but now I have more time to be with my boys.”

    Similarly, Wright Cottrell says that she and her husband rely on their parents. Her son is in school full time now, and her mother-in-law cares for her daughter every day. Likewise, Nuckels credits her “saint of a mother who covers sick days” and willingly lends a hand when Nuckels’ husband travels and her schedule is tight. She adds, “There is simply no way to be an attorney-mom without a strong group of family or caregivers.”

    Something’s Got to Give

    Whether because they are a group of self-reliant and successful attorneys or because of something within the psyche of every working mom, each of these profiled women makes the most demands on herself. Filing dates have to be met and depositions have to be taken, and yet, as every parent can attest, being a parent requires an incredible amount of both time and energy. So, like all time-crunched attorneys, these women are faced with accepting a nonnegotiable: there are only so many hours in a day. To balance work and children, tradeoffs are made – Halloween costumes might not be homemade and birthday parties might not be Pinterest-worthy – and certain expectations are adjusted. To successfully maintain work-life balance, these women have had to let go of the idea of being Super Mom.

    Kreiter wanted to be involved in the PTA at her sons’ school. Not long into an hour of early-morning coffee talk followed by a leisurely discussion of the topics at hand, she quickly realized that the PTA was not going to be in the cards. Kreiter said, “I started thinking of everything at this four-hour meeting in terms of my billable hours and realized, OK, this is just not happening for me. I just don’t have time.”

    Likewise, Scott said that it is challenging for her to make it to her son’s school trips, but she proudly adds, “He’s becoming an effective negotiator on my behalf, telling his teachers that [I] can chaperone the trip if [I] can meet the class at the trip destination.” And, if the teacher is amenable to that set-up, then that is just what Scott does.

    Maloney Perhach states, “As a working mom, I’ve had to get comfortable with the word ‘no.’ Can you be the room parent? No. Can you come to the classroom and lead the class in a craft for St. Patrick’s Day? No. Can you chaperone this field trip? Maybe, but only if it is on my calendar months ahead of time. I like to think that I can do everything. It was hard to come to the realization that I have to pick and choose what I am able to do because of limited available time. Saying ‘no’ is better than saying ‘yes’ and not having enough time to accomplish what needs to be done or bowing out at the last minute because of a work conflict.”

    Regardless of where they work, there is little free time for lawyer-moms. When a recent jury trial settled at the last minute, Kreiter suddenly had time to create an Easter basket scavenger hunt for her sons. When she had a lighter work week, she chaperoned their field trips. More than one of the profiled lawyer-moms shared the sentiment that Woodward expressed: “I would like to, and know I should, make more time for exercise, date nights, and get-togethers with friends, but at the end of the day, the demands of work and the kids always win out.”

    Conclusion: What’s the Secret?

    We’ve come a long way from the days when an attorney would bring her child to court, but firms and companies should remain vigilant in helping women to achieve the balance they desire. It will make them happier mothers and better lawyers in the end. While there’s not a secret to successfully balancing children with a legal career, technology, flexibility, and a strong support network certainly help. But when it comes down to it, it’s like the old saying, anything worth having, is worth working hard for. Ask any of these lawyer-moms, and they’ll say it is absolutely worth the work.

    Understanding Governmental and Workplace Policies that Support Parents

    Family and Medical Leave Act

    The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave from employment to certain workers for major life events, which include maternity leave, adoption, and providing foster care to a child.

    Because of certain conditions applying to the FMLA – small employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, and coverage only extends to employees on the job for at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 consecutive months and who work for more than 24 hours per week – coverage under the FMLA is far from comprehensive.

    Although the FMLA represents a significant policy achievement, notably missing is a provision for paid leave. While many women in the United States rely on the FMLA for maternity leave, the FMLA is not a bona fide maternity leave plan in terms the majority of the rest of the world enjoys. The United States, Oman, and Papua New Guinea are the only three countries in the world that do not provide some kind of monetary payment to new mothers who have taken maternity leave. Five states – California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island – mandate paid maternity leave.

    Affordable Care Act

    The 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires qualifying employers to provide hourly employees with a place to express milk – approximately every two to three hours – and a reasonable break time to do so. Under the law, employers of more than 50 employees must provide:

    [A] reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk;

    [and]

    [A] place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

    For small companies – those with fewer than 50 employees – there is a caveat: “Employers with fewer than 50 employees are not subject to the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) break time requirement if the employer can demonstrate that compliance with the provision would impose an undue hardship. Whether compliance would be an undue hardship is determined by looking at the difficulty or expense of compliance for a specific employer in comparison to the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s business.”

    Although the ACA’s breast-feeding provision does not apply to exempt employees, employers may want to provide the same accommodation to their exempt personnel as a matter of courtesy and good employee relations.




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