Change the Narrative: Parenting is a Strength for Lawyers
“Are women lawyers paying enough attention to upward mobility?”
With all due respect to the author of the ABA article published June 29, 2021, the title of the article alone illustrates a clear need to reassess the messaging of the body of the article. Perhaps the article was meant to grab the attention of women lawyers. Perhaps it was meant to garner interaction from the public. Perhaps the author’s intent was pure — to help women lawyers succeed. Whatever the intent, the American Bar Association failed in supporting women lawyers, but nonetheless succeeded immensely in uniting hundreds of women lawyers in outrage over the article.
Change the narrative.
Instead of a line-by-line rebuttal, I prefer to write this response instead to help change the narrative that was portrayed. Instead of discussing the vulnerabilities of lawyers who are also parents, the public needs to be more aware of all of the strengths that attorneys who are also parents bring to the table. (Note I intentionally do not refer to lady lawyers who are moms, but all lawyers). The narrative needs to change.
Perception is NOT always reality.
The perception of several lawyer-parent weaknesses identified in the article proves that perception is not always reality. Throughout my life, I’ve been told that I’m “too competitive,” “too assertive,” “too fake.” Just like the perceptions portrayed in the article, the way others have perceived my personality traits was not reality.
Recently, I had the benefit of taking Gallup’s Clifton Strengths Assessment. After taking the 30-minute test, I received a 35-page report indicating my strengths. No surprise that my number one strength was “achiever.” But the remaining top ten strengths surprised me and made me realize that the negative narratives I have been told throughout my life about competition, assertiveness, etc. were simply untrue. They are in fact strengths. Certified by a global analytics and advice firm. For my entire life, I listened to the negative narrative of others, which limited me in a variety of ways. Once I saw the Strengths Assessment report and reviewed it with Strengths Coach Vanessa Kuljis, however, my mindset completely shifted. Which, in turn, shifted my approach to my work, my business, my clients, my children, and my life.
Being a lawyer-parent is a strength.
When you change the narrative from negative to positive, it is amazing what results. No one can dispute that being a parent has its challenges. Being a lawyer has its challenges too. So, naturally, being a mother, as well as a trial attorney, law professor, and business owner carries many responsibilities, duties, and stress. But instead of discussing the negative attributes of lawyers who are parents, insinuating that parenting is destructive to one’s law career, why not focus on the strengths that come from being a parent and systemic ways the legal field can support lawyer parents?
There are so many examples of the strengths of being a parent but let me provide just a few.
People hire litigators when they are in a dispute with someone else. They rely on us to relate to them and fight for them. Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Although I have always identified as an empathetic person, I gained the truest understanding of empathy when I became a parent. It wasn’t until I cared for a sick baby, cleaned off cut knees after a fall outside, or secretly watched my kids interact with others did I truly grasp the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
That strength helps clients. It helps trial attorneys persuade juries and judges. It benefits lawyers.
Organization & Time Management
Parents perfect their organizational and time management skills by scheduling their time out of necessity. When you must taxi your children to multiple extracurricular activities or pick up children from the bus stop, you learn immediately how to schedule the rest of your day around those crucial events and to maximize the remaining available time for work.
This is not a negative attribute that law firms should penalize — it is a strength from which law firms and clients benefit. Lawyer parents cannot afford to procrastinate, plus they value other people’s time. Someone commented on my LinkedIn post today that their sister, who is not a lawyer but is a proud mother, “schedules her days with the kind of precision that would shame a drill sergeant.”
This strength of lawyer parents is something to be respected, not punished. Law firms that respect a parent’s ability to multitask and respects the necessity of childcare retain their lawyers. If you treat people with respect and value them, they stay, and the firm benefits from all that they bring to the table.
Innovation & Communication Skills
Being a lawyer requires effective communication — both in and out of the courtroom. We must communicate with opposing counsel, the bench, internally at the office, with clients, and the list goes on and on. The most persuasive advocacy also requires innovation to forge new paths.
Any parent has learned the skill of communication and innovation. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have masked healthy food in a creative and innovative way just to get my super picky eaters to try something healthy. Or how I have learned to communicate manners and important skills to twins who are currently six years old.
When I teach trial advocacy courses, I incorporate my children into some of the exercises. If my law students can give an opening statement that my 6-year-old twins can understand, then they have improved their communication skills. My little girl still sometimes randomly discusses one of my law students who gave an opening about a fatal bus accident negligence case. That is persuasive advocacy.
These strengths I have gained from being a parent helped me create a litigation training that is groundbreaking. And clearly so badly needed to combat the outdated mentality contained in Blakely’s ABA article. Through my company Trial Advocacy Consulting & Training (TACT), I created a two-day trial advocacy training for women by women. A safe space for lady lawyers to feel comfortable enough to be empowered and grow their skills.
Lawyers need to persevere towards difficult goals to help their clients. Determination is a strength. I became even more determined after becoming a parent. Candidly, I never would have achieved such success had I not become a parent. Every parent understands the desire to make sure their children succeed. Every parent is determined to keep their children safe from harm, no matter what. That grit and determination applies equally at work.
Having children instills courage like nothing else. Just three weeks ago, my six-year-old daughter swam in her first ever swim meet. She is extremely shy and often insecure. We walked into the crowded pool club and Grace began to cry hysterically. She told me she was scared and could not do it. With tears streaming down her face, she still jumped into the pool for warmup.
It took everything in me to walk away and give Grace a chance to fight her own insecurities. When it was her turn to swim freestyle, I watched her from the other end of the pool as she was still crying hysterically and visibly shaking. The other five girls dove into the pool while she remained on deck. Her coach said something to her, and she finally jumped in the pool and caught up with the other girls. When I greeted her at the end of the lap, she was still crying. But she got out and swam backstroke when it was her turn. And guess what? She won. She has been winning the races ever since and looks forward to each swim meet to try to beat her personal best swimming times.
The courage to raise children and help them grow into independent people is real. That courage permeates work life just as much as it does at home.
Your narrative is your choice.
To anyone who read the article today and was disheartened, I empathize with you. But stay determined and have the courage to be a Grace. Find your strength and swim that lap. In the words of one of my colleagues, “anyone who tells you that you cannot do it all underestimates your capabilities.”
 Thank you, John (Jack) Zulkey for your phraseology.
 Sara Jacobson, Executive Director of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania