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Why Parental Leave Is Not Like Going to a Katy Perry Concert

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This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014. 

efentonThis post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Elizabeth Fenton

The legal blogosphere was atwitter recently over a memo circulated by a female associate at a Biglaw firm to some colleagues. No surprise, the memo was leaked to Above the Law. In the memo, the associate described a meeting of the firm’s women lawyers, where the topics included the “notion that while large law firms have come to respect the obligations of female associates as mothers, this respect for commitments outside of the office hasn’t yet transcended to young associates who aren’t parents, both female and male for that matter.”

The author then proceeded to declare boldly that she would be “having a baby” a/k/a attending a Katy Perry concert. She hoped her colleagues would cover for her while she was away. I believe this female associate was well-meaning in her attempt to “be the change we wish to see” at the firm. Unfortunately, in sending this memo, she lent credence to “society’s badly mistaken assumption that going on maternity leave is akin to going on vacation,” as Ananda Lowe described in a recent piece for WBUR.

When my first child was born, I was a Biglaw senior associate and I billed up until the evening before she was born. I took some time to recover from childbirth and be home with my child. Because of the hard work of (mostly) women lawyers who preceded me, I was fortunate to have paid maternity leave and to also take unpaid leave. Enjoy that time I did, but it was no Katy Perry concert. If you have stayed home with a newborn, you know what I mean. I recall luxuriating in a child-free day spent during my leave at our litigation department retreat. There, I engaged in the final push (so to speak) for my ultimately successful partner candidacy. My first week back, I was officially a partner.

At that time, many women lawyers did not publicly discuss the impact of having children on their careers. Lawyer moms did what they needed to get through, and didn’t generally advertise how they did it. I returned to work ill-prepared for the reality that, having involved other associates in my work so I could go out on an extended leave, I would have to rebuild my case load from scratch. Unfortunately, the economy was starting to falter as well. Ironically, it was not until the month before I gave birth to my second child that I again carried a full load of cases.

During my second leave, as a partner, I remained responsible for my client relationships. If those relationships atrophied while I was out, I would face the impact. It wasn’t an issue of my firm respecting my outside commitments—the firm had and has an exemplary record of promoting women lawyers. Instead, my role as a partner in the firm differed from my role as an associate. I imagine many of the readers of this blog can relate to this dilemma, which poses far greater difficulties for solo practitioners or lawyers in small firms. Now, I am in a small office of a mid-sized firm, growing my own practice, and I remain grateful for the time I was able to take away from work to be with my children when they were newborns.

I don’t tell these stories because I want to be judged (although surely I will be). I tell them because I want to tell that associate that before I was a mom, and before I was a partner, I was a childless female associate unsure whether I’d ever be able to leave the office without stressing about the work still sitting on my desk. If I were in the same room with the author, I’d share with her a story from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. Sandberg writes about words of wisdom passed on to her early in her career by her manager at McKinsey & Co. He advised the young consultants that more work would always be there, and it was their responsibility to set their own boundaries and limits. Sandberg continues, “Counterintuitively, long-term success at work often depends on not trying to meet every demand placed on us. The best way to make room for both life and career is to make choices deliberately—to set limits and stick to them.” Being deliberate in our choices takes practice. Fortunately, it allows for mistakes. I hope, after the glow of being out with a friend at a great concert wears off, the author of the memo makes some time for reflection on her choices.

Elizabeth Fenton, a shareholder in the Philadelphia office of Chamberlain Hrdlicka, focuses her practice on business torts litigation.  A co-chair of the Business Torts and Unfair Competition Committee of the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association, she speaks and publishes frequently about fiduciary duties, limited shareholder and member liability, and piercing the corporate veil.

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