Mother's Day Special: To be or not to be - A Lawyer and a Mother

Bar & Bench May 12 2019

Aarthi Sivanandh

I read this humorous article a few years ago claiming that lawyer mothers were the scariest of all mothers. It showed how lawyer moms had a superhuman tolerance for drudgery (a lot of the initial work years as a lawyer are just that, we can read a 1000 pages and keep going); how being trained negotiators helped lawyer moms deal with three-year-olds; and that reading the fine print on school circulars was already an inbuilt skill.

The reality though is that a lot of woman lawyers in India are asking this question – is it possible to become a mother and thereafter try to continue to be a high performing lawyer? 

Although there are several women who have paved their way to partnership in law firms yet senior associates or lawyers (just past their fresher years) tend to hesitate when they think of motherhood. The time when you need to make the call biologically will often coincide with that exact window within which you need to make the biggest investment in your firm or law practice in terms of focus, effort and time. This is somewhere between the 27-35 years window. 

And once you enter the game of balancing lawyering and being a mother, it’s a constant game of catch-up to peers in extremely demanding workplaces, in terms of time and physical as well as emotional energy. I hear and see that two-thirds of women in law leave their jobs within the first five to seven years to have a child, and perhaps try to return later, but will be forced to do so with reduced goals or sub-optimal career options. 

There are no magic solutions to this conundrum, but here is what I know from my own experience of starting a law firm when I was pregnant, having two kids, and growing to be a partner at a top law firm in India.

If you want to feel fulfilled as a person and as a lawyer, choose wisely which workplace you are going to give your time to in those years; the culture of such a place will become critical. You must see if you can find an amalgam of devoting time to research, assisting with firm management, and taking on a few challenging client assignments. This is possible when you share goals at your workplace. Some reduced time and bills is a small price to pay for an agreed time between you and your firm. You can be a lawyer and a mom; both are vital for a complete life experience if that is what you want, but do not take your foot off the gas pedal if you want to stay in the game. 

We are also part of the generation that moved from the cities we grew up in and our parents may not be able to be the whole-time caregivers for their grandchildren. For this reason, the mental cost of childcare has risen. There is a constant worry of trusting external help with bringing up a child.

In this case, choose the kind of work you will do in these years carefully and stick to specializing in it. Resist the urge to pick up any type of work that comes your way, learn to say no, and more importantly, learn to say yes. Speak to your seniors to arrange for a fixed time. Have the conversation upfront with the firm.

I heard from a brilliant friend who has recently taken a step back from a competitive career to find her balance with work and kids, that women consistently and grossly underinvest in their support infrastructure to have a career. Even Michelle Obama writes in her book Becoming that her mom advised her to first make money and then be happy. Money to invest in and support your own career as you grow is important.

Teams of attorneys may be able to step up and help you cover for you when you need some time off. Partners do it for a variety of reasons, so there’s no reason why senior associates or equally qualified lawyers should not get the same benefits of flexibility when they are caring for their child in the initial year or two. In any case, there’s no regular work day in law firms; clients and partners will work with your flexibility. Again, do not bite off more than you can chew, but deliver on what you have taken up with excellence.

When things are very hectic at work and with the kids, I have the flexibility to check in on them when they arrive from school at 4 pm, stay till 5.30pm, and then go back to the office for whatever transaction is ongoing, thanks to the firm culture and my colleagues. This sort of accommodation helps keep a lot of us in the workforce and to keep growing. 

When you’re a new mom in the first year and if you live in cities where distances are a pain and you can’t commute to see your baby every few hours, stick to part-time. Take a clear call along with your seniors that for a specified time, you will go part-time. This is not losing out, it is staying in the game. I know a lot of people who rally against part-time work and say that lawyers can never really do part-time work, but it really is possible when you work the right hours and achieve productivity. In the connected world, your work group will keep you posted. Don’t let work time and child time merge and lose on both counts. 

There was one particularly disastrous incident when my son at 6 had fallen down in school and my daughter at 2 was running a fever. I was with a private equity client that was trying to close a transaction. I picked up both children and kept them at work. The client was nice about it, stayed with the firm, and we survived to tell the tale. 

Moms are great multi-taskers, so your efficiency is probably way up. You know time away from kids means it has to be spent on something super useful or productive for your career.

Having dependents also makes you more compassionate to your team and clients. At one point, you may even be checking if all your colleagues have eaten their meals. Also, by 'dependent' here,  I do not mean your spouse. Someone said a working woman’s first career choice is her husband! 

Lastly, cross the bridge when you come to it. Do not pre-decide between growing to be a reputed professional or being a mom and give either a miss. We are lawyers, after all, we can find solutions to the most complex of fact patterns. 

Secretaries are very helpful; they take care of many things pertaining to logistics. Request them to remind you of the kids’ schedules with the red flags. If you don’t have your own secretary as yet, request the practice group secretary, most will oblige. 

Get all the help you can, it does take a lot of people in the law firm to raise kids. 

This Mother's Day, I want to raise a toast to my firm and colleagues who have helped me have the best of both worlds. I wrote this in the wee hours after a work trip out of town to encourage the women out there who would like to be both, a lawyer and a mom, to stay the course. It is possible!

Aarthi Sivanandh on Mother's Day

The author is a Partner at J Sagar Associates, Chennai.

 

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