In nature, life forms have evolved in order to survive, but in our human world, evolving isn’t enough. This past year and a half, we have struggled, as lawyers, parents, caregivers, and humans, to somehow keep pace with a virus that mutates at lightning speed. Consciously adapting to changing circumstances – especially in today’s workforce and workplaces – is a uniquely human endeavor that applies to all of us if we want to not only survive but thrive.
My long lawyer career has been a model of adapting with purpose. I had to be inventive as the only lawyer in many situations – the only lawyer answering hotline calls from struggling Wisconsin farmers and creating programs in a crisis; the only administrative law judge at my agency hearing all the cases involving many different programs, statutes, rules, and individual fact patterns; the only lawyer to move from the ALJ position into a legal counsel position 24 years into her career. What made it work so well was my state agency Secretaries’ and general counsel’s willingness to be flexible and work with me so I could thrive in these “only” positions.
When I asked to work closely with the State Bar of Wisconsin and private practice attorneys to help fill the gaps in the Farmers Assistance Program, agency managers agreed it was an excellent partnership, and my State Bar volunteer work became integral with my job responsibilities. When I took parental leaves, I worked from home as needed, occasionally coming into the office with infant in tow, so cases wouldn’t fall through the cracks, and the Secretaries were pleased that I kept the hearing process running without any measurable interruptions. With a toddler and an infant, I realized I couldn’t juggle two different solo positions, so I requested to work only as the half-time ALJ. But I was always treated as a valued employee, as each Secretary observed my ability to keep the contested case process working smoothly at half time – for 18 years. When the sudden death of my first husband threw off immediate plans to work full time, my bosses gave me breathing room to transition to my unexpected role as single, working parent.
With my bosses’ flexibility and belief in me as a true contributor within the agency, I stepped up in 2009 when asked to be a full-time assistant legal counsel. Although I had never held this type of position, both the general counsel and agency leadership showed confidence that I could once again tailor my skills to everyone’s benefit. I believe the last 12 years of my career have proven them right.
Whether in the private or public sector, as attorney owner, senior partner, or supervisor, examine if you work with your junior partners, associates, or attorney employees to customize as needed. This isn’t only a women attorneys’ issue; it is a human attorneys’ issue affecting everyone. When you are flexible, you won’t lose the training and skills of these attorneys, but gain experienced and genuinely loyal colleagues, and your humane workplace will be a legacy of adapting with purpose.
» Cite this article: 94 Wis. Law. 4 (September 2021).