By Shermin Kruse
Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg
Like any advice columnist, I write what I know. And right now, I know what it is like to be a new partner at a firm - and pregnant. While this column applies more to my female readers, I encourage the men to read it. It may provide some perspective into the world of your pregnant colleagues.
I am one of the lucky few who chose a firm that was in many ways a home outside of home, and stayed with it. So I dedicated the past eight years of my career to one firm: Barack Ferrazzano. At the end of 2009, the partners, by a unanimous vote, accepted me into the partnership. I was ecstatic.
While enjoying the challenge of being the youngest partner at the firm, this summer I learned I was pregnant. Naturally, my Type-A personality took to the pregnancy just as it would take to any other challenge. As I gather mountains of knowledge on the joys and pitfalls of pregnancy and delivery, there is one area in which there is a dearth of writing: How to manage your pregnancy along with a full-time job in a demanding career.
Questions popped up all the time, and I could not find good answers anywhere. For example, when do I tell people at work that I am "expecting"? What do I do when my morning sickness does not understand that I am in an important meeting that cannot be interrupted? How do I hide my pregnancy belly? How do I avoid being patronized by opposing counsel, and at times, even the judge? Despite my rapidly changing body, how do I keep my focus on my job, while drawing everyone else's focus away from the pregnancy?
When to tell
Most women wait until the end of their first trimester to tell friends and even family. Some women, however, wait even longer to tell their colleagues or - more specifically - their boss. Law firm dynamics, in my opinion, are different, and provide for an opportunity of greater openness. For instance, I told two partners with whom I do most of my work relatively early on. That way, when I rushed out of a meeting at the height of my morning sickness, BlackBerry in hand and pretending that I was needed on an urgent call, they were able to cover for me. I also told my department head close to the end of the first trimester. I felt that it was important for him to know, so that he can plan appropriately for my maternity leave absence. Most everyone else found out around my 14th week.
I acknowledge that I am lucky in that I have great relationships with my partners, especially the ones whom I work with the most. You may not have the same luxury. Having said that, if you are in a working environment where you feel you must hide your pregnancy for as long as humanly possible, I can promise you that is an environment that will not be supportive to the work-life balance you will need to find after the baby arrives.
How to convince the world you are just as smart now that you are pregnant as you were before
This is what I like to call the "little lady" syndrome. While my colleagues have been terrific, the male-dominated courtroom seems sympathetic to the pregnant woman, sometimes at the expense of not taking her arguments as seriously as they would if her belly was not protruding out of her suit jacket.
This is a difficult situation to control, and the only advice I can offer is to stick to your guns. If your argument is not getting the attention that it genuinely deserves, do not give up on it, and keep the focus on the case. A friend of mine had an experience recently where, in trying to determine an appropriate trial schedule, her opposing counsel made it a point to ask in open court whether she could commit to the dates, given her delicate condition. She stayed calm and informed the court that if anything, another trial opposing counsel had mentioned might interfere with the schedule, but that if he and his client could stay on task, she and her colleagues would make sure they complied with the schedule.
One interesting note is that while there have been some challenges in the courtroom, I have found the negotiation room to be different. For some reason, I find that I can take more aggressive negotiation positions and my opposing counsel does not call my bluff as often. I am not quite sure why, except maybe a fear that lingers in the heart of every man that a pregnant woman might get upset and swing at him if he says "no" to her. Whatever it is, my clients are very happy with some of the agreements I have negotiated recently.
The most important thing to appreciate is that a successful legal career involves much more than understanding legal issues. It involves understanding people.
Whether your concern is a good working environment, or negotiating a great deal for a client, in which case you need to maneuver around opposing counsel, your judge and even your own client, understanding and predicting other people's reactions to your pregnancy will enable you to achieve your goals.
If you are a pregnant woman reading this article, I wish you success in your career during this transitional time, and, of course, a happy and healthy pregnancy. I also apologize for not answering one very important question: where to find a maternity suit that is not made of cheap polyester. If you have the answer, please drop me a line and let me know.