You must be respectable, if you will be respected.
You must be respectable, if you will be respected.
You now have had the chance to consider the challenge of the last blog: How was being pregnant going to affect the greatest courtroom opportunity of my early but developing career? If you did not read it before, here it is again.
Many of you will be pregnant at some time during your careers, and, just as the work-life struggle affects women lawyers with family responsibilities more than it affects male lawyers with families, even being pregnant can affect you adversely in the workplace, limit some of your opportunities and just plain cause you to be treated differently. Most women lawyers want courtroom experience just as much as their male colleagues. Getting it, however, can be a little more complicated for a woman, as you will see.
There was a lot riding on the case for our client, the product manufacturer, in this pioneering litigation. (If you don’t know about Toxic Shock Syndrome, there are products involved. Look it up!) That is why I was so sure that I would be taking a huge risk by disclosing my pregnancy, and it was a real dilemma for me.
On the one hand, I weighed the benefits and the possible risks, and I knew that the conservative route would be to disclose the pregnancy and chance punting on a great trial experience. On the other hand, our position was strong, I knew that there was a real possibility that the case would settle before any signs of a baby bump, and I REALLY wanted to see that case through.
So … I kept my impending motherhood — and my serious morning sickness — to myself until the case settled— when I was more than five months pregnant! I made the announcement to my trial team as we walked away from the courthouse after the settlement! What I would have done if the case had not settled is not clear. But, it all worked in my favor, and I didn’t have to think about it.
Women should not be put in these kinds of situations, but sometimes it is unavoidable. In those days, there was no open discussion about things like pregnancy. Firms hadn’t thought through how to handle it, and women lawyers didn’t bring it up.
Although things are different today and being a pregnant lawyer is hardly a problem these days, you will have your own similar and delicate challenges, and you will need to know how to handle them. So, here is my best advice for achieving success in these kinds of situations:
Best of luck. My experience tells me that you will need it!
We have to work on what we need to do now to make the workplace safe for mothers and fathers. (2007)
Judge Nancy Gertner, U.S.D.C.
“Women in the Courtroom” is always an interesting conversation. It can be very frustrating, and it can be very rewarding. Certainly, it is not as challenging as it used to be. However, you should not take anything for granted when you are in a venue where the judge is more likely than not to be a male, and your fellow litigants are more likely than not to be male. That is just how the numbers work.
Just recently I was watching a lawyer TV program, and there was something that caught my eye about the female litigator. It was hardly worth noticing, but it reminded me of how different things are today. It also reminded me of a story. Lots of things remind me of stories, but this one should be especially valuable to you in learning how to handle a difficult situation that is both unpredictable and unavoidable.
This story is based on my own experience. It started out very positively when I was asked to join the trial team for what might have been the first Toxic Shock Syndrome case litigated in this country. Although I was only a second-year associate at the time, I also was the only woman in the law firm with any courtroom experience. The lead counsel needed a woman on the trial team to take the depositions of the plaintiff and her mother on some delicate issues related to the illness and to cross examine them at trial. He did not want it to appear to the jury that a male lawyer was being too aggressive and disrespectful to the women witnesses.
That was a great opportunity for me. I knew that I was selected as a “token,” but I also knew that this was going to be a chance for me to really grow as a lawyer.
Well, I did grow as a lawyer on that case — in more ways than one. By the time that the case was prepared for trial, I was pregnant, and I knew that was a problem. I had to think like the the responsible partner on the case, who had the best interests of the client to worry about. I knew that if anyone discovered that I would be visibly pregnant during the trial, there was a risk that I would be taken off the case. Sounds outrageous, I know, but here is why.
The concern was not that I would deliver a baby in the courtroom. That could be handled by paramedics. The concern was not that I would let my pregnancy interfere with my responsibilities on the case. I had proven myself well beyond any such concerns. No, it was something quite different. By that time I had learned to think like a trial lawyer, and I knew what I was up against. The case involved issues of sexual promiscuity, and the real concern was that my “madonna-like” appearance might be viewed as an attempt to draw a contrast with the female plaintiff in order to gain favor with the jury. Judges don’t like such things.
What to do? As I said, this was a great opportunity for me, but I also understood the considerations that were not working in my favor. It was complicated, and we did not have the workplace protections in those days that you have now.
What would you have done? Would you have disclosed your pregnancy and risked forfeiting a great litigation opportunity? Would you have stayed silent and hoped for the best, knowing that you risked being accused of compromising the case? Which risk would you have taken? Like I said, it’s complicated.
I will let you think about it for a few days. Follow my next blog to see how it all turned out.
What counts can’t always be counted; what can be counted doesn’t always count.
I love the thought below—probably as part of my TGIF mood today! It was sent to me earlier this week by a college friend, who lives in Milan. As you can see, the attitudes of today’s women are the same on both sides of “The Pond.”
“Women are angels. And when someone breaks our wings, we simply continue to fly. On broomsticks. We’re flexible that way.”
So, you already know from my last blog that I am excited about the new OnRamp Fellowship. You also know that sit, sit, sit and talk, talk, talk is not my style. I like programs that move the marker forward and achieve positive results. The OnRamp Fellowship has the potential for all of that and more.
Caren Ulrich Stacy, a recruitment, development, and diversity veteran with 20 years of experience consulting to law firms, is behind the OnRamp Fellowship. She envisioned a program to match experienced women lawyers, who wished to return to the profession, with a one-year paid training contract, AND, so far, she has sold the concept to four major law firms. Baker Botts, Cooley, Hogan Lovells, and Sidley Austin are “all in” for the inaugural pilot program. Bravo to Caren and the participating law firms. It is about time.
This is how it works. The women lawyers are assured complex legal assignments and ongoing feedback and support for their work. In exchange, the law firms gain access to highly-qualified talent while also increasing gender diversity, which we all know clients are demanding more and more these days. In-house counsel want to see women lawyers on their teams, and the law firms know it. More than that, the general counsel have the clout to get it in today’s high competition for clients.
Carter Phillips, chair of Sidley’s Executive Committee, summarized it like this: “[T]his valuable program … presents an excellent opportunity for talented women who left the practice of law to return to full-time practice on a partnership track. We hope that the OnRamp Fellowship will create a viable, consistent pipeline of female lateral candidates, something that will benefit the legal profession as a whole, as well as our own firm.”
In other words, the concept behind the OnRamp Fellowship is a win-win for the women attorneys, the firms and the legal profession. This trifecta sounds a lot like the mission to raise retention rates for women lawyers that I have been writing about and speaking about for years. And, as it turns out, when I contacted Caren Ulrich Stacy to congratulate her on this exciting inaugural program, I discovered that she has been a fan of Best Friends at the Bar for years. You know I like to hear that, and I hope we can join forces at some point to improve the future for women lawyers.
Of course, as you would expect, the OnRamp Fellowship program is competitive. The threshold requirements for the candidates is at least three years experience in practice and a hiatus of at least two years. The participating law firms will choose from among qualified applicants, who are required to complete a rigorous screening and interview process, which includes personality, skills, values, and writing assessments. The lucky winners will have unlimited access to online CLE, training in areas of negotiations, business development and leadership, and one-on-one coaching by legal-career counseling experts. Selected fellows are expected to begin work at firms between late April 2014 and early May 2014.
For more on the On-Ramp Fellowship, read the On-Ramp Fellowship Press Release.
Hat’s off to Caren Ulrich Stacy for the vision and to the participating law firms for the support and faith in the program. They are singing the BFAB tune, and this is music to my ears!
Here’s a twist on an old adage that got my attention, and I need some light reading during this horrendous snow storm that has paralyzed us on the East Coast.
God grant me coffee to change the things I can change, and wine to accept the things I can’t.
Author Unknown (but seen on lots of T-shirts around town these days!)