Being an Attorney and Becoming a Mom

7 December, 2016

Erin Downs

Erin Downs


Mom of 4.  FOUR!  I swear I know how it happened.  Andrew and I got through three years of law school and one year of finding a job without a pregnancy scare.  Then we decided to have a kid.  I became pregnant within a year.  I then lost my job, was hired by a solo practitioner, and had my baby.  I then started my own practice.

Shortly after meeting, I discovered my baby, Rebekah, was the most awesome human being ever born.  We immediately wanted more children.  We became reckless when we realized that the worst thing that could happen was having more kids like Rebekah.  We now have four kids, and I’ve had my shingle hung since 2009.

Those are my bona fides.  The advice I give here is from my experience having those four kids.  It has been the hardest and best thing I have ever done.  I have the hardest and best job I could imagine.  I am a truly fortunate woman and I am glad to give any help I can to other women navigating these amniotic waters.

When Do I Tell People I’m Preggers?!

I found this problem as the easiest.  I told my family immediately because I was super excited.  If anything happened, then I would want them to be there for support.  It was natural.

Telling Clients:

Less natural part (obviously) is telling clients and courts.  Other people have done it differently than me.  So really do what you are comfortable with.  I am a naturally open and outgoing person.  I told clients as soon as I started showing.  I told courts as soon as I started showing.  By the way, you start showing the second you conceive when you have your fourth kid.  Just saying.

My regular route to discuss this with clients was to address the issue when I thought they noticed (or when I knew they couldn’t help but notice). I would say “Yeah… I’m pregnant.  No worries though.  I am expecting the baby in March.  [Then pick from the following:]

  1. I am working to get your OVI completed before then for you.
  2. If your Drug Possession case isn’t completed by then, no worries, the courts are great to work with and will set pre-trials around my maternity time.
  3. Luckily, we’ll be able to drag this on a bit longer, due to my maternity time, and you don’t have to worry (appropriate for that unique brand of client that doesn’t want a case finished).

Then reassure the client that while you will be out, you’re still available to them.  If they express concerns let them know the plans you have in place to deal with unforeseen circumstances (which we will discuss later).

This is an important lesson to learn as you begin being a mom.  If you act scared about the kid getting a shot, the kid will be scared.  If you act excited about the first ballet class, the kid will be excited (not nervous) about the first ballet class.  If you have this conversation with your clients and you are calm, collected, and in control, the client’s reaction will mimic your attitude.

Telling Courts:

I tell the courts in much the same way. I let them know that I will work with them and make this as smooth and problem free as possible.  And then guess what, the courts will bend over backwards to help you.  I may be fortunate and just work in a great jurisdiction, and my case is unique, but I doubt it.  I’ve lived in red states, blue states, the south, the north, and even a plains state.  Everywhere has wonderful people.  The people who are good at being secretaries, bailiffs, and court staff are people persons.  They are helpers.  They are moms, dads, aunts, brothers, sisters… They will be genuinely happy for you and work with you to make this a good time for you.

At the same time, (some) people who are good at being attorneys are opportunistic and cut throat.  So, make sure that you tell the staff and the clients that you will be back after you have the baby (I mean you are going to have to feed her!).  With every baby I had rumors circled.  When I returned Bailiffs told me “I heard you weren’t coming back.”  This is where a letter to the courts would help.  Outline to the courts your plan and how you intend to handle the time off.  I promise, that will save you will some headache.

What is Maternity Leave as a Solo Practitioner

Don’t expect the same kind of maternity leave that other women get to take. If you own your own practice you are responsible. After I had my first baby there was a baby boom from female attorneys in my area (Lorain County, Ohio domestic relations and criminal law attorneys).  It was really cool to watch.  After my Rebekah there were 12 babies born to seven female private practice attorneys.  All seven of those female attorneys owned their own firms and practiced criminal, domestic relations, or estate law.  Some of us had C-sections and some natural.  We have had all ranges of medical issues after and during our pregnancies.   Five of us are still in private practice. Two are now magistrates.

I say that to say this, none of us had paid maternity leave.  None of us had easy baby only maternity leaves.  We still had law practices.  We set things up so that we would not be needed by clients or courts, but we still had problems to attend to.

You can’t create the same worry free maternity leave that other moms may have.  You can set up systems and make plans to relieve some law office management pressures.

2 Weeks Prior to Due Date:

Schedule as little as possible two weeks prior to your due date.  You never know. My second baby was a porker.  He was induced two weeks early because they thought he would be Large for Gestational Age (LGA).  He was.  He was 10 pounds.  The first two weeks of that “maternity leave” would have been miserable had it not been for the kind action of friends and courts.  The next baby was also believed to be LGA, however, she ended up only being 7 pounds, 8 ounces.  It wasn’t as bad that time because I planned ahead and did not schedule much the 2 weeks before my due date.

Maternity Period:

Generally, I shot for 6 weeks off.  Schedule NOTHING for six weeks after your due date.  You may think you will need less.  I promise you will need and want more.  The hormone and emotional changes you will experience are indescribable.  It is a dependence.  The child’s dependence on you is so great and you are so responsible for her wellbeing, that leaving her is unconscionable.  At the same time, you now have a dependence for that child and your life is inextricably tied to hers.  The consequences of this new reality coming, led by hormone changes, create emotions that are both irrational and full of love.  You need at least six weeks to get ahold of those changes.  Do not doubt me.  Schedule the time off.

My best friend from grade school warned me about this.  I told her I thought I could be back in two weeks.  She told me I had no idea and to at least schedule six weeks.  I did.  I am thankful that I did.  I can tell you that six weeks wasn’t enough but it was the best I could do.

Post Maternity Period:

After the first six weeks taper in appearances, meetings, and depositions, or whatever it is that you do, slowly.  Do not expect to come back at full force immediately.  Consider yourself part time for the next month (don’t tell anyone you are part time as some vultures will swoop in on you).  You will naturally go slow when you come back to work.  I am telling you to plan to go slow.

Mark “at home” days off on your calendar now.  You want to come back and make a good impression on everyone.  If you schedule too much your body and your mind will not be able to handle it when you start back.  So, schedule 2-3 days off a week for the first month so that the days you are in court or with clients you can make a good impression.

Setting up a Law Office for Maternity Leave

Now that you have an idea of what you are planning for I have a few suggestions for what the plan should be.  The goal is to not have to make phone calls, not leave a client hanging, not leave the court hanging, and not have any work-related anxiety while you care for your new baby.

First:  Get your billing done!

Whatever income you are hoping to have to sustain yourself through this time, put that as one of your priorities.  Send out bills the last day you plan to be in the office.  If I must expand on this then you need to read other blogs about law firm management.

Second: You Need a Friend

Like I said, there were a lot of female attorneys around me who had babies at the same time.  We are not all close friends.  Of those seven attorneys who had babies I am close friends with a few, others are colleague friends, and some are acquaintances.  All of them are wonderful women.

Find other women attorneys in your area who are in your same age range.  You may feel like competitors but you aren’t.  There is enough business to go around.

When Rebekah was born I had only been in practice for two years.  I was working with another attorney and he helped me.  I will always be thankful for him.  He and I parted ways only because I wanted my own practice.

After Rebekah was born I asked a few women (private practice attorneys, government attorneys, and a probation officer or two) to go to lunch with me.  For a while we had a once a month “Ladies Lunch” which was nice.  We got to know each other and build friendships.  Those lunches ended as time, politics, and circumstances carried us all away.  The lunches were not for “networking”.  I hate that word – I believe it is useless and fake.  The lunches were for friendship building and community building.  If you reach out to others around you they will respond favorably (don’t be afraid to use Facebook!).

As far as payment for help goes, the women around me have never asked for or expected payment for the assistance they have given me, and I have never asked for or expected payment for what I have done for them.  It isn’t a sorority or a sisterhood.    It is a group of moms who all know the most important thing to us is our kids.  To keep our kids clothed we have the greatest job in the world.  To keep that job, we help each other because we will one day need help.

Third:  Consider an Answering Service

This one is relatively new to me.  I have never had a secretary.  I do all my own work.  I want a secretary one day, but it doesn’t make financial sense yet.  The WORST feeling I have ever had as an attorney is having a two week old baby, looking at my cell phone, and seeing 10 missed calls and 7 voice mails waiting for me.  Knowing that a bomb is waiting for you, trying to ignore it, having it in the back of your head, and figuring out how to breastfeed a new baby is an awful feeling.  Don’t do it.

Preparing your clients and the court will only get you so far.  I suggest an answering service.  Set this up at least three months before having the baby.  There may be some kinks to work through.  There may be some extra things they can do to help you with calls like answer common questions, accept appointments from the courts, get new client information and scheduling.  I pay around $250 per month for my service.  It has been a lifesaver.

Encouragement

The only other word of advice I can offer you is to be an encouragement to other people.  Other attorneys need encouragement.  You need it too.  Your sphere of influence includes all the people you come into contact daily.  Court secretaries, judges, clients, fellow attorneys, bailiffs, court security, the guy who shovels the court’s sidewalk in winter are all people who can influence you and that you can influence.  If you are friendly and kind to the other people in your sphere of influence, then most will return the favor.

Congratulations to any pregnant attorney or small business mom reading this.  If you are reading to decide whether to have a baby while in private practice, you can.  If you have any questions you can reach out to me via email at erinadowns@gmail.com or call me at (440)213-2760.