COMMENTARY: In praise of the 'lawyer-moms' who continue to make the grade


(Editor’s Note: This column originally was published in The Legal News in February 2013 when the author served as president of the Oakland County Bar Association and also was Corporation Counsel for Oakland County. It has particular application now as we enter the second year of the pandemic. Parts of the column have been updated to reflect the current status of several of those mentioned.)

By Judith K. Cunningham

This year (2021) I will celebrate my 38th year as an attorney. I started law school at Detroit College of Law (now the MSU College of Law) in the winter of 1980, and was admitted to the Michigan Bar in May 1983. At that time my daughter, Meredith, was 6 years old. From the time she was 3, she grew up with her mom as either a law student or a lawyer.

Once when she was 4 years old, Meredith brought me one of my law school casebooks and said, “Mommy, will you read me a case?” and before she was in kindergarten, Meredith could – on her own – call my mother and make her own babysitting arrangements: “Grandma, can you pick me up and babysit me? My mommy has to study for a test.” Meredith knew her grandma’s phone number, could dial the phone without help and arrange for a pick-up time with Grandma. Sometimes I wondered if she needed an agent more than a mom.

I share these vignettes because at the time it didn’t seem so unusual or extraordinary that my 5-year-old daughter could seemingly manage things for herself. There was one other single mother in my law school class, but her two sons were teen-agers, and although they probably had many other issues that I wouldn’t experience for another decade, at least those boys didn’t need babysitters.

Now as I reflect on my experience as a lawyer-mom and I witness other female attorneys and judges I’ve worked with over the years, I’m often amazed at how we have all managed, how we juggle the demands of careers, homes, parenting, family obligations, keeping up friendships—in short, the whole convergence of the pieces of our lives.

How do the lawyer-moms achieve work/life balance—or work/life integration—or whatever we label this juggling act? I asked several lawyer-moms this question. And I asked them if they would be willing to share a story, a skill or a piece of advice for this column. Without revealing anyone’s identity or law firms or other employers, here are some of the stories and advice from lawyer, and judge, moms—women in the trenches. Whether you are male or female, partner or associate, employer or employee, I hope there’s a take-away for you, your firm, or your employer in what follows.

(The asterisks denote breaks between the different “voices” of the women who shared their stories.)

And to my friends and colleagues who shared these poignant stories, let me say a heartfelt “thank you.”

Here’s my advice to others about achieving work/life balance:

(1) Do the best you can for your family, and if you are—don’t feel guilty.

(2) In a working family, each person has an important role to play. Make sure each person in your family knows how important he or she is in keeping the family afloat.

(3) Abandon perfection. Dads only have to do “C” work to be considered fabulous fathers, and while the standards for moms are quite a bit higher, I believe we do better work and raise happier children when the standard we set for ourselves is being a “good-enough mom.”

(4) If you are successful and female, do not become a Queen Bee. Help and support other women.

*      *      *

About two years ago, when I was in the midst of likely the worst case of my entire career and in full litigator mode, I came home to an “intervention.” In my kitchen stood my nanny (who has been with me since my oldest was three), and my two oldest daughters. My nanny started expressing, on behalf of my daughters, how much they really needed me to just “hear” them and not always have an answer.

They felt like every time they tried to talk to me, I wanted to cross examine them, or tell them how things could be resolved, rather than just hear them and be supportive ... I came off the defensive, took a step back, and heard them. My oldest started crying and told me how much she really didn’t want me to be a lawyer at home—just a mom. Right then and there she made a sign that reads, “No lawyers beyond this point” and taped it on the door coming into our house from the garage (where I enter every night). It is still there today, and I consciously remind myself every time I walk through the door that even if my job is demanding (and I often work from home after I get everyone fed and homework done, etc.) and no matter how conditioned I am to argue, I am a mom first and that’s a job I’d take over any other one, any day of the week.

*      *      *

Having a solo practice while my son was growing up allowed me to be very involved in his activities. I was room mom. I went on field trips. I was home during his vacations. The problem I had was when he was ill. What do you do when you have a trial and your son has a fever? To this day working moms need a place to take their sick children.

*      *      *

As far as support goes, I was very fortunate to have a group of full-time moms who really helped me with the kids when they had days off school that did not correspond with days that the court was closed or with picking them up from school when I could not arrange for transportation. In return I would offer to help with their kids in the evenings and on the weekends. Not only did my kids form many long-lasting friendships with the kids, but to this day I am friends with these wonderful women.

Once I was in Oakland County Circuit Court for a motion; I had just dropped off my two boys—who were about 6 months and 1-1/2 years old at the time—at day care and was still in the “mom mode.” My opposing counsel and I were asked to approach the bench and the judge (Judge Hilda Gage) was giving us some information about the upcoming trial date. I reached into my pocket to pull out a pen and pulled out a pacifier instead. Judge Gage giggled and then proceeded to tell me that it looked like I had some “spit up” on my shoulder—which of course, I did!

*      *      *

On the good side: my firm was great and paid me for 11 weeks of maternity leave and didn’t pressure me to come back any earlier.

On the bad side: certain attorneys insisted on calling me when I was still in the hospital about things that did not exclusively require me to answer them.

I am aware that others have felt more pressured to come back (from maternity leave) earlier—not by the firm, but by the threat of losing files and/or losing relevance during their leave. I find that sad, and did not have that issue. Indeed, I came back to find that my files needed a lot of love and attention.

*      *      *

Out of guilt and in a moment of weakness, I signed on as a Brownie troop leader for my daughter because even though there were plenty of other mothers who stayed home all day and theoretically had more time to do the job, I thought it would be a good thing for the other girls to see that some of us go off to a paying job every day and still make time for their families. Also, my daughter was excited about having extra time together and she seemed to get a kick out of seeing me in charge of things. Until then, I had not made friends with many mothers of the friends of my children. Who had time for such things? Furthermore, I had read articles about stay-at-home mothers judging us working mothers for our neglectful ways and I may have been a bit aloof with them as a defense mechanism.

However, as a Brownie troop leader, it wasn’t long before I began developing my own friendships with the other mothers (someone had to teach those girls how to do arts-and-crafts and that was most certainly not going to be me). Despite the rumors of conflict between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers, I instead found myself repeatedly being asked for advice about how to re-enter the workplace. How should I know? I never left.

They (the other mothers) seemed to look up to me. That was really neat, but even better was what happened with one of our more shy and awkward girls. During a friendship activity, the girls were asked to identify the person they most wanted to be like when they grew up. Most of the girls named their mother or a teacher. A shy little girl named Jennifer, who never really fit in with the other girls, said that when she grew up she wanted to be like her Brownie troop leader. That remains one of the highlights of my career!

*      *      *

And, finally, this from one lawyer-mom, asking how bar association activities fit into this whole work/life balance business:

Law firms encourage attorneys to be active for networking purposes and to get our name and the firm’s name out there. But they are unwilling to consider that this takes time away from your family. So, when I was employed with a former firm, it was fine and I was encouraged to be active in the bar association. But, as soon as I had a baby, everything changed.

If firms believe there is a benefit to bar association or involvement in other networking organizations, they should put their money where their mouth is and permit those hours to be counted against the billable-hour requirement in some fashion. If they refuse to give any type of credit or weight to bar association activities and mothers are struggling with the balance of work (billable hours) and motherhood, there will be no time for bar involvement.

To be told, “I pay you to sit here, not to volunteer for the bar association,” or, “You should quit your involvement with the bar association because it will take away from your daughter,” was a complete 180 from the support I received before having a child. Apparently, for some firms, you can be active in bar associations or have children, but you can’t do both. Perhaps that is why we do not see as many young mothers (or young fathers for that matter) active in our bar associations.

While we may have new lawyers becoming active in bar associations after law school, they may be forced to take a break when they become mothers if their firm’s demands for meeting the billable-hour requirement do not provide any flexibility for bar association work, at least until their children are older.

Maybe all of that is okay, but I think that this is the crucial time—when women are struggling with work/life balance—that they really could use the support and networking of colleagues outside of their office (i.e., their bar association friends) to help them remain connected to the profession and, hopefully, so they do not leave the practice of law as many women do.

*      *      *

What do we learn from these personal observations, fascinating stories and sage advice? First, we can’t do it all; second, we can’t do it alone; and third, we should not try to be perfectionists in all areas of our lives.

We don’t always get the mommy stuff right. But that’s okay. The kids survive. Who among us hasn’t taken a child to a birthday party—and had the date wrong? Or who among us has missed a birthday party or other activity altogether—again for having the date wrong? Who among us hasn’t snuck out of work for school plays and performances, Halloween parades, doctor appointments, Brownie meetings and the like?

To the lawyer-moms with young children, here’s my advice: ASK FOR HELP. Whether it’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors or colleagues, don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. And it goes without saying that husbands and dads should not have to be asked to help. I cringe when I hear a father say that he’s “babysitting” for his own children! Or when I hear that a dad stayed home for a half-day with his child like it is some kind of momentous achievement or big sacrifice on his part. But I think the husbands and dads of the millennial generations are doing much better to share in the household and child-rearing responsibilities and activities than previous generations. Kudos to these men who “get it,” who understand and accept that their lawyer wives can’t do it alone, aren’t “perfect”
moms—and yes, that it does take a village as I frequently like to say.

For my part, both of my children—Meredith, who is now a high school Spanish teacher, and Jacob, a member of the Oakland County Circuit Court bench – turned out amazingly well, even though I was either a law student or a full-time attorney for just about their entire lives. And yes, I always knew I would never get the “Mother of the Year Award,” but I’m happy to report that I’m doing much better as “Grandma Judy.”