Everyone has work-life challenges

 Sybil Dunlop, The Daily Record Newswire

A popular legal blog — Above the Law — recently published an email from a Big Law associate to her colleagues. The associate wrote that “[a]t a recent Women Lawyers meeting,” the firm discussed the notion that “while large law firms have come to respect the obligations of female associates as mothers, this respect for commitments outside the office hasn’t yet transcended to young associates who aren’t parents, both female and male for that matter.”

Specifically, she noted that “no one would question or fault a women for being unavailable on a team as a result of “having a baby,” but that other engagements do not receive the same amount of deference.

Someone at the Women Lawyers meeting suggested that all associates be awarded a “baby” every so often — “a hobby, engagement or event for which they are unapologetically unavailable.” The associate ended her email explaining that her best friend was coming to town to attend a Katy Perry concert shortly, and that this was “as important” to her “as a child’s birthday party or ballet recital.” She asked that her colleagues cover any urgent case issues arising the evening of her “baby.”

Above the Law took umbrage with the associate’s position. In response, Above the Law argued that “a child’s birthday” deserves more unapologetic deference than a Katy Perry concert because “it’s more important to the child.” Applying this metric, Above the Law concluded that the Katy Perry concert and the child’s birthday were “not equally valid” priorities.

Both positions made me squirm uncomfortably.

At the threshold, of course, I cannot accept the assumption that “large law firms have come to respect the obligations of female associates as mothers.” Above the Law raises the same eyebrow (asking “[w]hat kind of post-sexist, happy-clappy utopia does she think she’s working in?”) With fewer adjectives, I’ll simply note that my friends at big law firms — both male and female — are not uniformly convinced of this fact. 

Baby events not unique

To imply that “baby” events are unique and special is a disservice to all attorneys — parents and non-parents. It cabins parents — implying that their work-life balance must be structured around their child. And, it is insulting to non-parents — implying that a “baby” is such an important life priority that we have to rename the non-parent’s priorities to fit into this rubric.

I have a baby. Sometimes I may want to attend a “baby” event during the workday, but generally, I am comfortable skipping such events—I don’t need to attend every doctor’s appointment or daycare tour. To imply that mothers have a “free pass” to attend every baby event only increases the potential guilt mothers may feel when they decide that they prefer to conduct that meet-and-confer conference while their partner ably takes the baby to his or her checkup.

On the flip side, parents also have a life beyond their children and may occasionally need to miss work to attend a non-baby event that is important to them — a friend’s wedding, a parent’s birthday, a Katy Perry concert. The associate’s email implies that we each only get one “baby” — once you’ve had a real one, she assumes all work absences must relate to bringing up baby.

Most problematically, however, it’s offensive to suggest that an employer only understands how much an outside-work priority means if it is translated into a “baby-level” priority. It’s the equivalent of saying, “I can’t imagine why it’s important to run that marathon, but maybe if you named it ‘baby’ I would get it.” 

Try some trust

The real problem plaguing the Big Law associate is that she feels some people’s priorities are being valued more than her own. I don’t know if she’s right. But we do not solve the problem by asking the associate to rank her priorities on someone else’s scale. Because even if she calls the concert a “baby,” the very folks that she is trying to convince are not going to buy it—a Katy Perry concert is not the equivalent of a baby.

So how do we address the problem identified in the associate’s email? How do we know when an outside event is important to someone? We listen to our colleagues and trust them.

If a colleague asked me to cover for her while she attended an event that she said was important to her (child-related or not), I hope that I would take the statement at face value. 

And, when I decide to miss work for any personal event, I undertake my own calculus. I consider what work event I would be missing, who can cover, and whether it can be moved, and I consider the personal event, the importance of the event, and whether it can be moved. These are the choices that every working person—parent or non — makes. These are hard choices, and none of us needs priority police intervening to assess whether we have made the right decision.

We need trust and understanding from our colleagues when we make our own calls.

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Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at sdunlop@greeneespel.com

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