1. Promote ramp support as good business strategy, not as an accommodation, or “the right thing to do”. When talented, productive lawyers are allowed to thrive before, during, and after their maternity leave, employers save money. They retain talented people who might otherwise check out by resigning, or “check out” as a result of losing momentum in their practice—talented people who most often repay this support with loyalty and hard work.
2. These are important business conversations. Talk early. Talk often. Once a lawyer announces her pregnancy, it’s a good time to start talking, and encourage the lawyer to start talking to the leaders and work providers in her realm. Many senior lawyers – particularly men – are nervous about asking questions, or starting conversations for fear of causing offence or treading on dangerous legal ground. Most senior lawyers are delighted—and not a bit relieved – when the pregnant lawyer in their group walks into their office with a maternity leave plan, or ask to sit down and discuss the issues on everyone’s mind about how it is all going to work for this lawyer in this group at this time.
3. Have a maternity leave checklist. There are lots of things to think about before maternity
leave—whatever its length. A checklist helps to nail down the details: expected departure date,
expected return date, reminders about client notifications and file transfers, details about setting up out-of- office protocols, and asking for preferences about contact while on leave.
4. Don’t stop with a checklist. Every lawyer needs to be connected to at least one person who
understands how things work at the firm and can act as advisor through the process. Senior women who have had children while at the firm are obvious candidates. But don’t forget to consider senior men, who have their own experiences through child bearing years, and an equally direct interest in offering support.
5. Remember that it’s not just about the leave. Your support role is also about helping the lawyer manage others’ expectations, and her own, about her output. Before leave, she won’t have the same energy and focus and, ultimately, ability to travel. After leave, she will be adjusting to new workday routines and may will be experiencing less than optimal sleep. It’s normal, and it’s
6. Lawyers tend to be high performing smarty-pants. Be gentle. Many women feel anxious about not being able to give 100% the way they used to. On return, it helps to be reassured that while excellent work is still expected, you understand that the landscape may be different for a while. This probably isn’t the year for intense workloads, chairing the Firm’s student committee, or leading a barnburner pitch for a major client. For everything, there is a season.
7. Expect to adapt. Things change. They always do. Be prepared to check progress regularly, and for some time – at least until the next full year’s performance review.
8. Learn from your mistakes, and your departures. People struggle to rebuild their file load despite the best of efforts. Part-time arrangements sometimes don’t work out. Senior lawyers can let you down because of misplaced assumptions. Some women have personal or professional epiphanies on their leave that lead to a resignation. These things happen. Take the time to learn from them, adjust where you can, and in the case of departures: (1) do a bang-up exit interview; and (2) embrace your new and valued alumni, because…you just never know.
9. Encourage parents and caregiving networks. The more stories we all hear about what has worked and hasn’t, what’s tested and what’s still untested, the more likely it is that positive change will evolve. Younger men and others who are sharing parenting at home have a deep interest in these issues for their partners – it’s why I asked the designer of this post’s image to include a blue button to represent a dad heading out and back on parental leave. Others have caregiving responsibilities for older members of their family.
10. Professional coaching: the baby gift that keeps on giving. Most pregnant lawyers benefit from the opportunity to confidentially explore all of these issues at length, at their own pace, and with their whole selves – not just their lawyering selves. A coaching relationship boosts confidence and builds resiliency by offering space to: (1) examine their medium to long term aspirations; (2) discuss fears about how to manage their new responsibilities; and (3) test their assumptions about other people’s reactions and what is possible at work. And yes, this is one of my signature service offerings, so it definitely counts as a self-promotional plug. You’ll find more details on my website.
The tips in this blog post were adapted from “Up and Down the Ramp: Maternity Leave Coaching for Lawyers”, a talk I presented with Heather Frost, Professional Development Director at Lawson Lundell LLP, at the NALP Education Conference in Boston in April 2016.