Women in the Law: Reflections from a Mother-at-Law

The Bencher—January/February 2020

By Susan E. Farley, Esquire

Undeniably, women have made great inroads into the private practice of law during my 35-year career. Yet, I believe working full time while simultaneously raising children remains a challenging hurdle to overcome. I have raised three children while in full-time private practice, which is probably my proudest accomplishment. When I look back at the start of my career, I recall some—but not many—women blazing the trail ahead of me, particularly in my practice area. However, I cannot recall any of them being mothers. Today, that has changed, as well it should. Many women lawyers are also moms. In my opinion, mothers-at-law bring tremendous talent, insight, skill, and even grit to the bar. Nothing is more formidable in nature or in our community than a mother protecting her young. When that same drive and passion are brought to the practice of law for the benefit of clients, it is powerful. From my perspective, clients recognize and appreciate the maternal qualities of caregiver, teacher, mentor, sage, and loyal and sometimes fierce supporter, especially when they are in trouble or their life’s work is being challenged. In fact, they count on it. Mothers are naturals at law.

Having no mother-at-law role models, I had to find my own way through trial and error. There were many firsts. Indeed, of the three firms at which I had the pleasure to work, none had a maternity leave policy when I arrived. Fortunately, there were plenty of wonderful dads helping to clear the path for me and others. Yet, it is unrealistic to ignore the unique challenges of working moms. Looking back, I can identify a dozen things I learned along the way that contributed to my ability to maneuver through the ever-changing minefield toward a successful legal practice while being a mother-at-law. My suggestions are set forth below, and I invite you to use them as your preliminary road map, if helpful, to move you toward your goal:

  1. Keep it simple and stay organized, both at home and at work. For me, this meant having one calendar, one cellphone, one computer, and limited paper. I am a list-a-holic, but I keep my lists in one small, purse-portable, bound journal, turning a new page each week. On the left page are weekly work tasks, and on the right are weekly home tasks. I keep meals simple and healthy. Grocery lists are repetitive forms requiring only a check box, and the kids learned to check the box or make a note for a needed item. Otherwise, it wasn’t purchased. I designated a place for everything, whether at home or work, and everything was put in its place as a matter of habit. I observe many people spending a great deal of time looking for things. I avoid that waste of time. I learned very early on that having less of everything and putting what I had in its place meant having more time for what is important. I constantly seek ways to simplify, organize, and reduce.
  2. Prepare and lay out all you can the night before, whether at the office or at home. Before leaving the office at night, identify and add to your list those action items that should be addressed the following day. At home, I prepared lunches the night before and planned the next evening’s meal. The kids laid out their clothes, as did I. I learned the hard way, as there was nothing worse than starting a day in chaos with a clothes war or wardrobe failure. There are enough opportunities for unexpected events to disrupt the morning routine; thus, it became important for me to have time in reserve to address those unexpected events rather than collapse under their weight because I had to attend to routine events. Similarly, at work, despite my plans and lists, the practice of law is frequently interrupted by legal emergencies. At least by pre-planning, I knew what to bump and what to prioritize, and I did not feel quite so overwhelmed by the unexpected.
  3. Hire out and delegate all that you can and pay for those supportive services until it hurts. While doing this, it meant having a less prestigious home, a less expensive car, fewer fancy vacations, and less of the other trappings that often accompany a higher salary. A significant portion of my salary went to support those who supported me and made my work and home life possible. Using a payroll service, I paid everyone on the books, with benefits, if they weren’t an independent contractor. Those helping me, whether in child care or other household tasks, were highly valued and, in turn, assisted brilliantly and loyally. Throughout this process, both at home and in the office, I enjoyed the unexpected good fortune of meeting some of the most wonderful people in my life. This is one area in which you should not be stingy or greedy, not only because generosity is the right thing to do, but because you will benefit from it as your life becomes more manageable.
  4. Seek out colleagues, both dads and moms, also working in the legal profession. Obviously, receiving another perspective is very valuable, but there is a great sense of esprit de corps and camaraderie in the trenches. I particularly enjoy observing younger dads in the legal profession, many of whom share their lives and child raising with another professional. It is terrific to see a more equitable sharing of responsibilities at home, which would have been unimaginable 35 years ago. And, in my opinion, this development begets a greater understanding by those in our profession of the complex pathway so many of us travel.
  5. Give yourself a break and don’t be too hard on yourself. Needless guilt should be strictly avoided. I vividly remember years ago, after landing in Vancouver, British Columbia, for a week of court-ordered depositions, calling from the airport to say goodnight to my children. I was a single mother-at-law at the time. On the phone, my mom calmly greeted me and informed me that my five-year-old had just come down with chicken pox. Two days later, my three-year-old bloomed with the same condition. Yet, during this time, I had to stay in Vancouver for five days of depositions. Upon my return home, severely tired, jetlagged, and feeling like a mother-at-law failure, I knew what awaited me. While trying to reclaim my motherhood, I gave my three-year-old an oatmeal bath. He looked at me with his sad, fully poxed face and said, “I like Grandma better.” I responded, “I like Grandma better, too!” Sometimes you must give yourself a break and realize that things cannot be perfect. Now, at age 30, my son assures me he likes me pretty well! And my daughters have thanked me for showing them how to do it, namely model the balance between work and home life. Looking back, I realize those times I felt guilty for not doing whatever I thought I should be doing was misspent energy.
  6. Always have a plan A and then have a plan B and then have a plan C. Things happen, child care falls apart, kids get sick, you get sick, causes of action fall apart, unforeseen evidence comes in against your client. Unexpected things happen routinely. Always have a preplanned A, B, and C, and never leave anything to the last minute. Plan. Plan. Plan.
  7. Focus less on being a “woman lawyer” or “working mom” and define yourself more as being a great lawyer and a great mom. Let others define you as they wish, but you define yourself. If you are in the legal profession, you deserve to identify yourself as a great professional without any other modifiers. The same goes for motherhood.
  8. Make sleep a priority. Coping mechanisms are more effective and clarity of thought is heightened after a good night’s sleep. That means seven to eight and a half hours a night minimum. I would rather have a tough day after sleeping well than an easy day while sleep deprived. It is important to know when to say, “I am turning off the day, goodnight.” And then you need the discipline to do it.
  9. Use your commute and travel time productively. If you are driving, it is the perfect time to think. Turn off the radio and use it as quiet reflection time. It will invigorate you and help with your planning. If you have calls to make, line them up in advance and make them. I used this time during long rides to make calls that did not require note taking. Now, I use the time first thing in the morning, every morning, to touch base briefly with my elderly parents and other family members. They count on it and so do I. If you are riding during your commute, you have the added option of doing a task. For instance, complete or review your daily time records for accuracy. Do not leave them for the next day when they are not fresh in your mind. During morning travels, start your instructional emails or clean out your email boxes.
  10. When telecommuting from home, have a dedicated space that is yours and yours alone. Do not spend time in it unless you are working. Otherwise, you may feel as if you are working all the time. Concomitantly, do not invite others to enter your working space. It should be your work zone only. My children knew not to bother me if it could possibly wait until I exited my home office. Even our beloved golden retriever knew never to cross the threshold.
  11. Be attendant to exercise. This is the thing that mothers-at-law tend to give up first because they have so little extra time. Exercise could be as simple as taking a walk at any part of the day. Use that time to think and plan and even make phone calls. Just moving and getting out of your chair is very important because the better your body feels, the better your mind works.
  12. Lastly, and in my opinion, most importantly, carefully choose the right person to join you as a co-pilot because it will heavily influence the quality and enjoyment of your mother-at-law journey. This choice is often made early in a career before fully understanding the bumps in the road ahead. If you are lucky enough to find a parenting partner who is unconditionally supportive, selfless, and willing at times to step into your role as mother, you will arrive with less stress, happier, and probably faster. Sometimes, this co-pilot is hard to find, but if you do, be grateful, pay close attention to their needs, and make your relationship your most important priority. Similarly, while at work, your partners should reflect your values. If they do not, find new ones.

Upon reflection and review of this list, I thought momentarily how much easier it would have been had I been given this road map before beginning my journey. Yet, there is nothing like experience as a teacher, and I am sure you have your own experiences, favorite routines, and successful tips. I encourage you to share them with others as I have done, with the knowledge that whatever works for you is the best path. I wish you a wonderful journey.

Susan E. Farley, Esquire, is a partner at the firm of Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti P.C., an intellectual property firm located in Albany and Rochester, New York. She is currently serving as the treasurer of the Intellectual Property and Innovation Inn and is also the recipient of the 2018 American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the Second Circuit.

© 2020 Susan E. Farley, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.