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The New Normal: Motherhood and (Law Firm) Partnership in the Pandemic

Whitney Brieck

by Whitney Brieck

September 23, 2020

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Most people consider the jump from law firm associate to shareholder to be a significant career event. Most people also consider first-time parenthood to be a seismic shift on the home front. Although I knew tackling both at the same time would stretch me intellectually, emotionally, and physically, I made plans to return to the office from maternity leave with gusto in January 2020.

But like you, I did not plan on a pandemic.

Building the roadmap

Meticulous planning has served me well over the course of my life. It helped me find the financial aid I needed to attend college, and a summer job as a court runner with the one out of several dozen hometown law firms that accepted my cold call while considering a legal career. I relish conducting research and building charts and striking off lists.

Charting a path through private practice allowed me to exploit these mundane talents. I used them to methodically find the work I wanted to do, and the right the law firm to do it with—BoyarMiller. I spent the better part of a decade honing my skills in commercial litigation matters and appeals by outlining, preparing, and executing my way through the dispute resolution process. It’s my “block and tackle.”

Around the sixth or seventh anniversary of becoming licensed to practice law, the clouds seemed to part on the horizon to show the next professional frontier: business development and firm leadership. Each time I followed up with a new colleague or directed a strategic conversation within my firm, I felt like I was flexing a new muscle. I excitedly set about building a written plan to develop the skills necessary to ascend from associate, to senior associate, to shareholder. Outline, prepare, execute.

I built into my plan the fact that I would be eligible to be considered for shareholder for the first time in November 2019. And then—I found out my husband and I were expecting our first baby to arrive in October 2019.

Embracing the detour

It turns out that my usual methods were great for preparing to welcome a new baby. I started scouring the internet for recommendations and ratings on every manner of baby equipment and product. I found apps to help manage the timeline of medical and childcare decisions to be made along the way. We listed (and struck) names we loved, names we hated, and names that we could almost agree on. I packed my hospital bag about three months before my due date.

Despite my best efforts—which not surprisingly included both a birth plan and a back-up birth plan—my pregnancy did not unfold quite as I hoped. I developed a rare condition that required me to be hospitalized the last three weeks of my pregnancy and induced three weeks before my due date. But mom and baby were healthy, and the extra time to rest beforehand served us very well in the end.

I was determined to leave nothing to chance professionally while focusing fully on my maternity leave. I carefully prepared my clients and adjusted my caseload before my departure. I created an advance-draft of my self-evaluation for the annual retreat where my eligibility to become a shareholder would be considered. I was never worried that the shareholders at my firm would not promote me because I had a baby. I am fortunate to work at a firm that, even though it comprises mostly-male leadership, intentionally and actively amplifies the voices of women within the firm and the business communities we serve. But I was a little anxious about being “out of sight, out of mind.” I needn’t have worried.

I had just finished feeding the baby and had settled in with him on my lap for an early Thanksgiving meal with my family when my phone rang with the firm chairman calling. He said he would like to invite me to become a shareholder, and the audio background erupted into applause from the other shareholders. I set aside my concerns and my charts for a moment and mentally prepared to step forward into “The Room” as my two new selves just a few weeks later.

Two steps forward, one epic step back

Friends and colleagues warned me it would be difficult to predict what returning to work would look like. They encouraged me to stay flexible and patient as we established a new routine. We were fortunate to find a wonderful, warm nanny who could tend to the baby while my husband and I worked. It made the transition so much easier—and I will be forever grateful for that assistance, which I know many women do not receive.

I nonetheless felt like I was playing “Lawyer Whitney” during the day and “Mom Whitney” at night. I attended my first shareholder meeting, weighed in as thoughtfully as possible on matters of firmwide importance, and got plugged back into my cases. My husband and I traded off with night-wakings. The schedule felt a bit grueling with all the parenting and pumping amid the practicing, but we adjusted and started to hit our stride.

Enter COVID-19.

We had our first in-office exposure in mid-March. We immediately shifted to remote work right before government officials instituted a stay-at-home mandate. It seemed that my first year as a shareholder and mom would look nothing like what I had anticipated.

In the process, myself

My usual methods could not keep up with all the changes. The chaos forced me to embrace the lack of certainty and take opportunities to do good work and be a good mom as I found them. I stopped wasting energy planning out every increment of my time and started reaching out to co-workers to see how they were faring and what support they needed instead. I learned to balance the increasingly urgent and novel needs of my litigation clients with the ever-changing demands of child rearing on an ad hoc basis. No day looked the same as the one before. That oddly gave me freedom to improvise and adjust.

I also tried to use my new seat at the (all-remote) “table” to voice the concerns of my colleagues and propose possible solutions as we responded to the evolving conditions as a firm. I threw out my literal rulebooks and counseled clients through the practical ramifications of what would otherwise have been purely legal decision-making under different circumstances. Seeing the homes and children of my clients in their webcam backgrounds and hearing them express candid concern and uncertainty about the current conditions added a new layer of authenticity to professional relationships.

In relaxing my approach, I found myself more at ease being just “me.” I sometimes attended Zoom meetings with my baby, or with my camera off so I could feed him at the same time. I discounted online advice to “wear work clothes” while working from home and dressed for comfort and convenience. I did not have time to be anything less than authentically me. I did what I could, as I could do it.

It feels good to be moving forward despite the bumps and bruises, along this steep set of multiple learning curves. And I think I have started to find my way, both as a shareholder and a mom.

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