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5 things you should know about . . . being a mother in law

Career Path
|Written By Danya Cohen
5 things you should know about . . . being a mother in law

As far as the legal profession goes, it’s one of the saddest statistics around — while women account for more than half of Canada’s law school graduates, they still don’t come close to that number in terms of partner membership at law firms across the country.

Women are leaving private practice in droves, often quitting within the first 10 years as the idea of building a practice and a family becomes an increasingly flimsy prospect. Some women (and men) have found a fine balance by moving in-house — a setting which often provides more predictability.

But unpredictable hours are not the only problem. I once heard a senior partner offer that a woman couldn’t be a good mother and a good lawyer. Apparently, the un-negotiable biology of procreation has not been around long enough to make the point clear. Either that or the profession has not come to terms with the reality that more women are practising law.

That’s not to say that there hasn’t been any progress. The Law Society of Upper Canada released a report in 2008 that made several recommendations for improving the situation of practising moms. But after all the top-ups, flex arrangements, life coaches, maternity-leave buddies, and mentoring circles, practising moms are still awaiting a meaningful shift in attitude.

In the meantime, these women have become more resourceful, innovative, and tenacious in finding solutions that would make primordial partners eat their words. I don’t have the answers, but some practising moms do. Here are five things they want you to know.

1. Babies make for better lawyers

One of the greatest challenges for any good manager is finding ways to increase productivity amongst employees. Apparently, the solution is having a baby.

Many mothers reported they became more productive at work once they started a family. Being at work became about working, and socializing was sacrificed in the wake of new priorities.

Specifically, several mothers explained that the structure of their day changed after having children. Better than an alarm clock, a screaming baby got them up and at their desk earlier. Working straight through the day and stacking up an unbroken string of billables became the norm when they had to get home to relieve a caregiver.

Gone were the luxurious lunches, the online jaunts, the holidays at Starbucks. When they did make time for lunch, it was with purpose.

Some mothers designated one night a week where they would arrange to work late, tying up loose ends so they could salvage their weekend.

Beyond improved productivity and efficiency, some women noticed becoming a mother had a positive effect on how they valued their jobs as well. As they became increasingly significant breadwinners, succeeding at their job became more about sustaining their family than sustaining a healthy bounty of shoes. This, in turn, led to better job satisfaction.

Let’s see: improved productivity, efficiency, loyalty, satisfaction . . . sounds like it could be a management coup. If only your boss would catch on.

2. Home is where the work is

Although having a fully operational home office becomes a pragmatic measure for most lawyers, it becomes an acute need when you become a parent.

Several mothers say they performed the same amount of work after having children, but that where and when that work got done became slightly unconventional.

In a throwback to traditional family values, moms (and dads) are now making it home for supper. Thanks to technology, they can log on from home and work into the night. More than the regular shuffle, there are also plenty of unexpected instances where parents have to be home: your kid has the flu, your nanny has the flu, you inevitably get the flu. Being prepared and properly set up at home seemed to be a repeated point of advice.

Synchronizing your contacts, having an ally at work who knows what’s going on in your practice, and staying organized so that someone can easily jump into your files are all good ideas.

What does a home office need? In the interest of being portable, getting a laptop, wireless Internet, and a good printer/scanner is a good start. Having a pleasant room, not a moldy crawlspace under the stairs, and a one that doesn’t share space with your big screen TV are good ideas too. Oh, and a door. Definitely a door.

3. Separation anxiety

Making it work at work seemed to be the focus of the advice mothers had to offer, but making it work at home seems to be what it’s all about.

One of the most frequently exchanged anecdotes among practising moms relates to their experience returning to work after a maternity leave. There are the good things: having time to eat lunch, going to the bathroom in privacy, and donning your favourite jewelry again. But more often the stories revolve around the separation anxiety, the caregiving dilemma, and, of course, coping with the knowledge that no one will do it better than you (a sentiment not reserved to, but perhaps more pronounced among, lawyers).

I spoke with a few mothers who had taken several maternity leaves and, as a result, returned to work when at least one of their kids was old enough to really anticipate the upcoming change.

Like anyone else, kids deal much better with everything when they get some advance notice. So before the signs of the upcoming change start to present themselves — clingy kids who won’t let you shower, pee, or sleep alone — start to prepare them for the transition.

Telling them early on and bringing them to the office so they can visualize where their moms will be every day is a good start. But perhaps the most popular bit of advice was that moms shouldn’t be too hard on themselves, especially since much of the anxiety might be all theirs.

As one mother heard her daughter reply after explaining that she would be going back to work, “I need time to hang out with my friends too, mommy.”

4. Don’t call me ‘mom’

The most disheartening stories that practising moms shared were about changes in how they were perceived upon returning from a maternity leave. It occurred in small, but not imperceptible, shifts which seemingly swallowed their former identity as the “dynamic associate,” swapping it for a one-dimensional version of “mom.”

As far as work goes, it’s like getting stuck with the crappy Halloween costume that yields less candy. Some women expressed that after leaving on maternity, the assumption at work was that they wouldn’t be coming back. When they did return, any absences from the office were assumed to be family-related as opposed to work-related. And if they were at home, the assumption was that they weren’t working even though they might be logging on and working into the wee hours of the night.

With no evidence to the contrary (unless you count having a baby as evidence of a lack of commitment), it seems the burden of proof falls on women to demonstrate they are as dedicated as ever. And women have responded strategically — especially when the perception has translated into a quantitative and qualitative detriment to the work they receive.

Several women said they checked in regularly with their firms during maternity leave and used opportunities where they had coverage to attend the firm’s social events.

Checking in with the firm was especially important in the month leading up to their return to ensure they would be considered for any upcoming work.

Other moms resorted to keeping quiet about their kids at work unless asked. While they admitted many women at work bonded over being a mom, others found keeping their family lives at home was the most effective measure to really demonstrate their focus.

Another mom said voicing the fact she had support at home was an effective tactic to ensure she was not passed over for big projects.

These are sad tactics, yes, but it’s a reality of our times and a testament to the tenacity of working moms. Maybe next year your kid will want to be “mom” for Halloween.

5. Mom-aid

It seems that moms who are lawyers are fighting a doubly strong instinct when they accept help from others. But despite a healthy hubris that leads some women to want to do everything, the biggest piece of advice veteran moms offered was to accept help wherever you can get it.

This means at work and at home.

It’s unclear in which domain it is harder to relinquish control. At home, many women have become the main breadwinners for their family and as such, have had to give up on the idea of being “the one” as far as caregiving goes. They slowly shed the guilt of their mothers’ generation and accepted help from spouses, family members, and nannies — as imperfect as that help may be in their eyes.

Accepting a saggy diaper that goes unchanged a little longer, or a mismatched outfit that makes your kid look like a derelict doll seem to be part of a bigger life lesson in not sweating the small stuff. And it’s a lesson that has benefited their work life as well.

Learning to delegate at work not only gives you more time at home, but it’s an expectation as you become a more senior lawyer. Several women said they only learned to delegate well after becoming a mom. Thereafter they learned to “let go” and give a greater amount of responsibility to junior lawyers and law clerks. They took on more of an overseeing role which allowed them to turn their attention to higher level work and strategic considerations which ultimately benefited their own development, their clients, and the company or firm they were working for.

It seems having kids offers some crash therapy for the control freak in all of us.

Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with RainMaker Group. She can be reached at danyac@rainmakergroup.ca.

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