Since this interview series began, we have brought to light many common issues that affect women in the legal industry. We have discussed the myth of “having it all,” the need to find your inner strength to fight for those who have none and the desire to find your voice in the crowd. All of these themes have individually touched on the professional challenges that women attorneys face in order to succeed. However, in honor of the month of May, a month in which Americans take time to honor their mothers, this edition of Women in the Law will discuss a different kind of challenge, one many women in this country face—the challenge of being a working mother.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, around 70% of American women with children under the age of 18 participate in the work force. The number of working mothers in this country has risen over 20% since the mid-1970s and continues to rise as the concept of the stay-at-home mom becomes increasingly unattainable for most American families. Women in this country are finding their voice and are no longer content to sit idly by and conform to antiquated gender roles. Women are capable of great things and have fought to be able to be both mothers and have fulfilling lives outside the home. The delicate balancing act of successful motherhood and professional achievement is both challenging and rewarding. In this edition, we will be profiling a truly inspirational woman, Alabama attorney Danielle Ward Mason of the firm Beasley Allen.
To fully appreciate Ms. Mason’s journey to the top of her profession, it’s important to take a look at some of her professional achievements. Danielle first started as an associate at Beasley Allen in 2009 and in just six years, she became the first African American woman to be named a principal at Beasley Allen in 2015. In January 2017 Danielle was appointed to the plaintiffs’ steering committee for the Invokana MDL, pending in the New Jersey federal court. She is also the lead attorney in her firm for the Reglan litigation, for which she has done extensive work to ensure the survival of the claims. Reglan is associated with the development of uncontrolled muscle movements, a permanent and incurable condition known as Tardive Dyskinesia. In addition to her work as a lead attorney for Invokana and Reglan, Danielle devotes the rest of her practice to the talcum powder litigation against defendants Johnson & Johnson and Imerys Talc America Inc.
Ms. Mason says that she always wanted to be an attorney. As a child, she gravitated towards legal dramas and found that the role of attorney, and the ability to be a champion for others, was something that fit her personality to a “T.” However, her road to becoming an advocate for others was not always smooth. Danielle has had to overcome obstacles that would have made a far less-determined person concede defeat. While in her sophomore year of college at the University of Alabama, Danielle and her husband welcomed their first child, a son named Jordan. Being a mother added a new facet to Danielle’s determination to succeed. Danielle finished college on-time; working during the day and attending school at night. After her undergraduate studies, Danielle began working in commercial banking, while at the same time studying for her MBA. Working, seeking a master’s degree and being a mom to a toddler was more than demanding. Danielle says that at times she felt the guilt that so many working mothers experience when they pursue careers outside the home, but she knew that she couldn’t be the best mother to her son if she didn’t follow her dreams. “No one put that pressure on me to do it all, I put that pressure on myself. I wanted to set an example for my son that nothing should stand in the way of your dreams.” Having a solid support system at home was crucial at this time. “My husband and I work well together as a team. We are both equals. There are no gender stereotypes in our relationship—there couldn’t be.” Danielle also credits her mother for her help during this time watching Jordan during the day while she and her husband were at work.
Danielle continued to work in commercial banking for the next seven years, spending five years with Regions Bank and two years at Compass Bank, but something was missing; she still felt an attraction to the law. At the time, though, she had a career and a five-year-old at home and the thought of going to law school full-time seemed crazy. However, she knew that she did not want to live her life with regrets. “I didn’t want to look back and wonder what my life would have been like if I had just [gone] for it, so I just went for it.” Her husband reiterated what Danielle already knew deep down: that she is an ambitious, intelligent woman and could do whatever she set her mind to. Consequently, Danielle quit her job and enrolled in law school and her husband picked up a second job to keep the family afloat while she was in school full-time. Nothing was going to deter her from becoming a lawyer. During her second year of law school, Danielle welcomed her second son, Jaxon. Far from derailing her goals, having two smalls boys at home helped to fuel her drive. Danielle says that coming home and seeing her boys made all the hard work worth it and that “it was a reminder that this is why I’m doing it.”
In the course of our conversation, we discussed the way that society views professional drive in women versus men, and how societal expectations are unfair to both sexes. “We will never get to a place where women aren’t held back for their family decisions until men are also allowed to take paternity leave. There is nothing more important than bonding with your child [and] there should be no gender discrimination in that.” Danielle stresses that the basis for a successful career and a thriving family life is that she and her husband have been able to shed the traditional marital roles that society expects of them and focus on what is best for their family. For example, women are expected to be the more nurturing parent while men are given the luxury of being able to work outside the home and not feel guilt about being away. “Society needs to understand men don’t love their children any less than women do and women don’t crave a fulfilling outside career any less than men. We need to shed the cloak of tradition so we can all get rid of this guilty feeling that society is trying to put on us by telling us what is right and wrong behavior.”
Of course, Danielle admits that there have been times in her career when she has struggled with feelings of guilt for spending so much time away from her boys, but she says that her time away makes her appreciate the time that she gets to spend with them. “It’s the quality of the time you spend with your children that matters and not the quantity of time. I never viewed coming home and spending time with my family as ‘work,’ I always cherish my time with my family.” Now that her sons are older, they can appreciate all their mother has sacrificed to give them a good life and achieve her dreams. When asked what advice she has for young women just starting out in the legal profession and facing a good deal of the same challenges that she faced, she stresses that women put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect. “The pressure to be perfect and to succeed can feel even more crushing when your decisions affect not just you, but your children and spouse who depend on you,” Danielle says. “We may look at things and think ‘this wasn’t in my plans.’ But there are no wrong moves or mistakes, there are just opportunities and sometimes we can limit ourselves with preconceived notions. Let it grow you as a person, as an attorney and as a member of a civic society.”
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