The more things change, the more they stay the same: a law firm debacle

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Ed. Remark: This is the last part of a series of articles on maternity in the legal professions, in partnership with our friends from Mothers Esquire. Welcome Deena R. Sturm on our pages. Click on here if you would like to donate to MothersEsquire.

Growing up, I was brought up with the belief that I could be successful in any career I had for myself. Having been raised by a stay-at-home mom, I was never told How? ‘Or’ What I was supposed to balance raising a family while managing a high profile career, but that didn’t deter me from trying. Like many “smart” kids of my generation, I was on the pre-med trail in college. I wisely excluded medical school after too many too many fainting spells while volunteering at a local hospital. With medical school off the table, law seemed like the next most prestigious career, so I went to law school.

Part i

We are in 2005. I am a young graduate in law of 25 years. I have a six-figure job at a prestigious law firm in downtown Manhattan, and I’m on top of the world. I carefully choose my “opening day” outfit: black suit pants, a well-ironed button-down shirt and classic pumps. Flawless. I walk into my new office at 1 Broadway full of hope and ambition. I feel unstoppable. I smile for my photo ID. “Click on!” go to the camera. Captured – a moment in time.

Fast forward to 2006. I am a second year partner and am pregnant with my first child. I don’t disclose my pregnancy until it becomes impossible to hide it. The company is predominantly male, but it is not hostile to women. And yet, I have the feeling that my pregnancy will not be good news.

My firstborn, my beautiful son, entered the world in 2007. I am overwhelmed by love and changed forever. I am taking the fully allocated four-month maternity leave. The human resources manager calls me and asks me when I will return to work. I grind my teeth. It’s too early. I need more time. But my time is up. TIC Tac.

For the first time in months, I put on my “work uniform” and went out in the dark while my son was still sleeping. I fight the George Washington Bridge traffic from my hometown in New Jersey. As I sit motionless on the West Side Highway, heading down Manhattan, I daydream about my son. And I miss him. My heart aches. An hour and a half later, I walk in through the doors of 1 Broadway and swipe my ID card, my face shining on the card no longer looking like mine. In a way, I survive the day. I drive the 1.5 hour long drive home. When I get home it is dark and my son is sleeping again. I missed all of his waking hours. My heart is breaking.

To continue working as before would mean that I would hardly see my son. But we are in 2008. Surely the law firm could adapt to a part-time or remote work arrangement. Maybe they could – but they won’t. “Sorry, this is against our policy,” says the human resources manager. “You have to return to work full time or quit. ” I give my opinion. It is not a difficult decision.

second part

We are in 2018. I am 38 years old and I have three children. I live in Boca Raton, Florida, and my youngest child is in kindergarten. I attend the celebration of Mother’s Day in her classroom. She hands me a pink, sparkling card titled “All About My Mother.” A question reads: “What is your mom’s job?” My daughter scribbles in her quivering kindergarten doodle, “My mom runs errands and goes to the gym.” “Micro drop. Wait what? I have a law degree. I have been an online law professor for the past decade, but suddenly I can’t wait to return to practice.

I take – and pass – the Florida bar exam the next time it is offered. Despite my lack of practical experience, I manage to land another six-figure job at one of the top law firms in the country. I know this is a second chance most people don’t have. I intend to take advantage of it. I can do it!

But soon, too soon, cracks start to form on the outside of my brilliant new career. The trip of over an hour, each way. The nannies who quit, one after the other. The lack of time, of all free time, for me. Children who get sick, who get sad, who still need me so much. I am the default parent, and I have to be. My husband is an emergency physician. He cannot leave the emergency room to pick up a sick child. It cannot prevent CPR from responding to a call from a child’s teacher. So it must be me. As it always has been.

I look at the female lawyers in the firm. How are they doing? Some do not have children. Some have grown children. Some have “stay-at-home” husbands or wives with flexible jobs. Some have close family nearby who help them take over. I do not have any. The bridge is stacked against me.

My load is becoming too heavy to carry. I try to talk to my supervisors about reduced hours, part-time work, remote work. Partners don’t like it. They want me to be there everyday. Going to “part-time” would mean the loss of benefits, the loss of the majority of my salary. Without openly saying “no”, they declined my request. So again, I give my notice.

In my experience, law firms are not created to accommodate “alternative arrangements”. Maybe companies are more accommodating to those who reached seniority before having children. Maybe these alternative arrangements are offered in theory, but they are disadvantaged and frowned upon. Even now. Even in some of the “Best Women’s Law Firms” in the country. Is this still where we are? Did we not go further than that? Well, no, I guess we didn’t. Not yet. Maybe when my daughters reach career age, things will be different. Here’s hoping.


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Deena R. Sturm

Deena Sturm is Professor of Law at St. Francis School of Law where she teaches a variety of courses including intellectual property, legal drafting, research and contracts. She has taught at various online law schools for over a decade and has also practiced intellectual property law intermittently in several national and international law firms. When not teaching law or volunteering in her community, she can be found running, reading, following fashion trends, or driving many miles in her car as a driver of his children. She currently lives in Boca Raton, Florida with her doctor husband and three children, and can be reached via LinkedIn.


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