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April 2021


A big step for attorney wellness

By Dyan Ebert

I graduated from law school in 1993 and recall that the number of women and men in my graduating class was fairly equal. Interestingly, and encouragingly, there were more women justices than men on the Minnesota Supreme Court when I was sworn in. 

My first job after law school was a judicial law clerkship for two district court judges in Olmsted County; one of the judges and two of the three other law clerks I worked with were women. After my clerkship, I began working at a firm that, although it had a short track record of hiring and retaining women attorneys at the time, hired four other women attorneys in relatively short order. 

Over the intervening 27 years with that same firm, men continued to constitute a majority of the attorneys in the firm and the number of women attorneys fluctuated. For those women who stayed with the firm and had children, career paths varied. Some chose to work reduced schedules; some left the practice to stay home with their children; and a few—including me—returned to work full-time. I believe that each of the women attorneys felt empowered to make the choice that worked best for their personal circumstances and the firm supported their decisions. Even so, I cannot ignore the fact that having to make that decision in the first place remains a burden that is borne almost exclusively by women in the legal profession,1 and one that can significantly impact the trajectory of a woman’s legal career.

In 2001, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession published “The Unfinished Agenda: Women and the Legal Profession,” a report described  at the time as “the most comprehensive contemporary review of the status of women in the American legal profession and justice system.”2 While the report recognized the significant improvements that had been made for women in the legal profession since the commission was originally created in 1987, it also revealed that women remained underrepresented in positions of greatest status, influence, and economic reward. The report attributed the persisting disparities to a variety of factors, including unconscious gender stereotypes, inadequate support networks, inflexible workplace structures, sexual harassment, and gender bias in the justice system.

In the 20 years since that ABA study was published, tremendous strides have been made toward improving the plight of women in the legal profession. Even so, significant barriers relating to childbirth and the ensuing obligations associated with child care continue negatively affect the longevity of women in the legal profession. A 2019 ABA study authored by Roberta D. Liebenberg and Stephanie A. Scharf, “Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice,”3 analyzed the persistent inequities women continue to face in private practice and found that while, year after year, women have comprised between 45 and 50 percent of entering law firm associates, they account for just 20 percent of law firm equity partners. 

Not surprisingly, the 2019 study participants identified caretaking commitments as having the greatest influence on why women left their firms, with 54 percent of study participants reporting that arranging child care was their full responsibility, compared to only 1 percent of the men. Similarly stark discrepancies existed between women’s and men’s responses to questions about leaving work for childcare (32 percent of women, 4 percent of men), coordinating children’s extracurricular activities (20 percent of women, 4 percent of men), and being responsible for evening childcare (17 percent of women, 4 percent of men) and daytime childcare (10 percent of women, 1 percent of men).

The unmistakable disparity in childcare commitments that exists between women and men in the legal profession is precisely why the work of the MSBA’s Parental Leave Working Group is so vital. Over the course of the last several months, the group has been studying the intersection between workplace pressures (including rigid court deadlines) and written parental leave policies with an eye toward developing recommended changes to the Rules of General Practice, Rules of Civil Procedure, and Rules of Appellate Procedure to facilitate personal leave requests by attorneys. (The group’s recommendations will be presented to the MSBA Assembly in June.) 

While it remains true that women attorneys continue to bear the brunt of child caretaking obligations, the proposed changes to the rules will benefit men and women attorneys alike.4 And rightfully so: As the 2017 report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being5 confirmed, issues with work-life balance impact the entire profession and failure to address the problems has, at least in part, contributed to rather alarming statistics relating to attorney depression, anxiety, stress, and chemical use and abuse. 

Seeking changes to the various court rules to accommodate personal leave is one small step we can take to improve well-being in our profession. I hope you will join me in supporting the recommendations of the Parental Leave Working Group. 


Dyan Ebert is a partner at the central Minnesota firm of Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., where she served as CEO from 2003-2010 and 2014-2019. She also served on the board of directors of Minnesota CLE from 2012-2019. 

 


Notes

1 See, “Third child. First parental leave. What’s wrong with this picture?” Michael Boulette (February 2020, Bench & Bar).

2 ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, The Unfinished Agenda: Women and the Legal Profession (2001) www.womenlaw.law.stanford.edu/pdf/aba.unfinishedagenda.pdf (last accessed on 2/28/21).

3 www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/women/walking-out-the-door4920053.pdf 
(last accessed on 2/28/21).

4 Indeed, the rule changes contemplated by Parental Leave Working Group encompass various forms of “personal leave” and are not limited exclusively to parental leave. 

5 ABA National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, Creating a Movement to Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession, 8/14/2017, Bree Buchanan, Esq. (Task Force Co-Chair), James C. Coyle, Esq. (Task Force Co-Chair), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/abanews/ThePathToLawyerWellBeing-ReportRevFINAL.pdf  (last accessed on 2/28/21).

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