Bringing home the milk and the bacon

June 30, 2023

President’s Message By Erica L. Laughlin

It was spring of 2018, I was freshly off of maternity leave navigating life with no sleep, a toddler and an infant. The return to the office was a breath of fresh air where I could have adult conversation and eat in peace. Other days the struggle was real. I was nursing. I was tired. I was stressed. I felt like I needed to prove to colleagues and clients alike that I had the same work ethic and dedication as I did pre-baby (or babies in this case). I also had mom-guilt that I wasn’t home. In addition to hauling my purse, laptop and files back and forth I now had to drag along my breast pump, attachments, mini storage bottles and a cooler for transporting expressed milk, a.k.a. “liquid gold” from the office home. Despite the bags under my eyes and the occasional spit up on my suit jacket I was determined to jump headfirst back into my caseload starting with a case on the upcoming trial list.

I vividly remember meeting in chambers with opposing counsel, an experienced male litigator, and the judge going over routine pretrial matters. At the end of the discussion, the judge asked if there were any other matters that needed to be addressed. I said yes – I’m recently back from maternity leave, I’m breastfeeding and will need to take breaks to pump during trial in private place with a refrigerator to store the milk. MIC DROP. After a pause that felt like an eternity the judge noted that no one had ever asked him about something like that before (NEVER?!) but that he was sure they could accommodate my needs. Opposing counsel kindly said of course whatever I needed. The trial went smoothly enough though I awkwardly found myself holed up in a jury room with an old door that I hoped would lock pumping while reviewing examination outlines.  

In the office I was fortunate to have a lock on my door and a blind on my window, but it was more often than not that someone on the other end of the phone would ask “what’s that noise?” Don’t mind me, it’s just my breast pump…awkward pause. My alternative would have been to waste precious billable hours. I’ll forgo my modesty for my bottom line. I wonder though how many women have suffered in silence too embarrassed to speak up about pumping needs or have quietly escaped to their car or a bathroom to try to pump uncomfortably albeit in private. 

How can we better support our new mothers? For starters, I encourage all attorneys to familiarize themselves with the lactation support available in our local courts. The Western District of Pennsylvania has a Nursing Mother’s Program to provide space and support needs for nursing mothers including access to lactation rooms. This program serves lawyers coming to court for hearings or trials, litigants, jurors and employees. The dedicated room is located on the second floor of the courthouse and is open to anyone in need during business hours. For more information see The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Family Law Center opened a lactation room in September 2015. It’s located on the third floor of the Center and is equipped with both a sink and refrigerator. Attorneys in need should make a request to the fifth floor Administration. For litigants or other members of the public, there is lactation support in the Family Law Center Children’s Room on the first floor run by the National Council of Jewish Women. In the City-County Building there is a room above the jury assignment room on the seventh floor that can be utilized as a lactation room. While there is no dedicated lactation space in the Allegheny County Courthouse, the Criminal Court Administrative Office can provide a private space for nursing mothers upon request. In Orphans’ Court in the Frick Building a nursing mother can utilize the lawyer’s lounge for lactation needs upon request. 

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) most nursing employees have the right to a reasonable breaktime to express breast milk while at work for up to a year from the child’s birth. In 2022 the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) for Nursing Mothers Act was passed expanding nursing employee access to break time and space except for limited exempt positions or circumstances. Eligible employees are entitled to a private place to pump at work, other than a bathroom, shielded from view and free from intrusion. For attorneys with private offices this may not be as much of an issue, but consider your accommodations for everyone else. A chair in the supply room with a lock on the door is not an adequate accommodation unless the message you want to send is that your employee deserves no better than your overstocked blue pens. 

Over the years there have been numerous surveys and reports as to why women leave our profession at a dramatically higher percentage than men. Not surprisingly, caregiving commitments and work/life balance are among the top reasons. A 2019  American Bar Association survey of more than 1,200 big firm lawyers revealed that 60% of women attributed leaving the practice to caregiving considerations. In 2021, Forbes Magazine reported burnout and low levels of job satisfaction combined with disproportionate parenting responsibilities as a basis for women deciding a career in law wasn’t for them. Thompson Reuters, just last year, reported that a survey of 200 female lawyers who quit their jobs in the last two years revealed that 70% of lawyer mothers reported that staying home with their children wasn’t the pivotal factor in their decision to leave the practice, but rather the expectations imposed by law firms made working and having a family infeasible.

Firms and legal departments who want to retain their lawyer mothers should take note. Offer longer paid extended leave policies allowing for better rest and recovery. Have better lactation support in the office and a clean welcoming private space that can serve the dual purpose of lactation and wellness for any employee in need. Offer flexible working arrangements. Don’t applaud the new mother who tries to work during leave or ends her leave early under the pressure of wanting to appear committed to the practice – instead instill a culture of support and understanding. Let your employees know that having a child does not impact their ability for professional advancement. Don’t just tell your employees you value family – show them. Your chances of retaining female talent will increase. Your employees will be loyal and they will thank you. Then they’ll tell others, and you will become that much more attractive to lateral and new recruits. Above all else – it’s the right thing to do.