The legal profession poses a multitude of challenges to female attorneys and the women profiled in this series lead the way by example, in effecting change and working to shatter the glass ceiling. In doing so, they’ve experienced a great deal of change in the industry throughout their careers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has served to impose a new set of challenges to the legal environment, and especially to recent graduates from law school. The American Bar Association (“ABA”) stressed, in a recent webinar, the obstacles facing new law school graduates and rising 3Ls due to the newly depressed legal job market and unanticipated issues surrounding licensing and the bar exam. To add to the mounting pressures, law students graduate with around $148,000, on average, in student debt. To put that into perspective, according to a 2019 Zillow report, the average price of a home in America is $226,800. Comparatively, most law students in the U.S. are starting their careers under substantial financial stress.
One of the major issues facing Americans, brought to the forefront by the coronavirus pandemic, is the struggle of balancing child care and work while working from home. But juggling having a family and succeeding in your career is nothing new for many working mothers. However, for the average law school graduate, the main concern is preparing for the bar exam and securing a legal career—thoughts of child care, maternity leave and paying off student loans often remain abstract considerations. Sadly, for many young women just entering the field of law, these factors don’t become concrete until it’s too late.
Our featured attorney in this month’s edition of Women in the Law, Laci Whitley, believes that topics like the reality of taking on a large amount of student debt and future maternity leave need to be discussed more openly among law students. Laci is a young professional who has made remarkable strides in the relatively short time that she has been practicing law and is currently a partner at the Flint Law Firm in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Laci says she always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. “My parents would say that I’ve been a proficient debater since I was two years old and they would always joke that I was their little attorney. When I was growing up, I just heard from people that this was something I was good at and that I had a passion for and I think it just stuck, because there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to become an attorney and stand up for my clients.”
However, like many students, Laci entered law school with one notion about her career as an attorney and ended up on a very different path in reality. “I never really considered being a plaintiffs’ attorney or entering the world of mass torts when I was in school. I actually wanted to be a tax attorney and specialize in international tax law for large corporations. But midway through getting my LLM in tax law, I changed my mind and started working at the Flint Law Firm.”
Laci’s career transitioned from international tax law to working for a mass torts practice focused on clients with rapidly-advancing terminal illnesses. She was assigned to the firm’s asbestos department and was tasked with handling new client intake. Through doing so, she quickly learned that she had found her niche in the law. “It was going and speaking to these older people and hearing their stories and figuring out what had caused them to develop this horrible disease that I realized I wanted to be a plaintiffs’ attorney. I really loved the whole process of signing up a case and being able to see it through to the end and being able to give to my clients and their families some resolution and hopefully, some peace of mind. And that’s how I’m still here, practicing mass torts six years later.”
Working with clients who are facing an aggressive illness like mesothelioma can be emotionally draining, especially under current circumstances with court closures and significantly reduced dockets. During the shutdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, Laci helped to oversee the transition of her firm from an in-person operation to a remote office and at the same time was faced with the difficult task of telling her terminally-ill clients that their trials had been postponed. “It was a stressful time, for sure, but I think the worst part of it was having to advise clients their trials had been postponed due to COVID-19. A lot of our clients with mesothelioma are very sick and a lot of them try to hang on because they want their day in court. It’s heartbreaking to watch someone who is essentially dying be told that they might not be able to live long enough to see their case through to the end and gain the justice they deserve.”
Despite the delays, Laci says that she has been able to see some positive impact on the practice of law in light of the pandemic. “I think now that we are doing so many things remotely through Zoom and other virtual means, we are seeing that before [the COVID pandemic] we were doing a lot of unnecessary travel. We are handling all of our asbestos depositions remotely now and we are realizing that even after the pandemic is over, we might not go back to in-person deposition for our clients with mesothelioma. When you think about bringing in someone who is sick with a rapidly advancing terminal illness into a room with 17 lawyers who just flew in that day from all over the country, it just no longer sounds like a reasonable idea. A lot of attorneys I know are reevaluating how they work and finding that there are better solutions out there compared to how we used to do it.”
The pandemic accelerated the reevaluation of the “status quo” in the legal industry, opening the door to new ideas and more efficient solutions for the practice of law. As a lawyer who has been practicing law for under a decade, Laci reflects on the last seven years of her law career and can identify what she wishes she had been more aware of when leaving law school. One of the biggest issues facing graduates is student debt. Looking back, Laci knows it’s imperative to consider the impact that student debt will have on your life. She stresses that high school students are woefully undereducated about the repercussions that come with taking on massive student loans and that at 18 years old, most young adults entering college do not fully understand the burden of student debt. A law degree is the second most expensive graduate degree in America and combined with preexisting debt from an undergraduate degree, it can lead to a crippling situation for a young lawyer starting out.
The naiveté that a law student might have as to the later repercussions of student debt is similar to that surrounding the lasting remnants of sexism in the legal profession. The harsh reality is that sexism is still a pervasive force in many professions. “I got really lucky in my career that I came into this firm with two younger male partners who never treated me differently, but I know from just listening to some of the situations that my friends from law school have encountered and some of the biases and prejudices that they have had to go through, that young women need to know that just because we have made leaps and bounds in the last 30 years, we are just still not there yet. There is always going to be a little degree of ‘hey that’s not fair,’ ‘why does this attorney treat me differently?’ or ‘why does he get those cases and I get these cases?’ These are all things that I have discussed with my female attorney friends.” Laci says that one of the biggest gender injustices that she believes female attorneys face is maternity leave.
The maternity leave policy in the United States is often regarded as the worst parental leave rules among first world countries. Sadly, the choice to have a child often leaves a woman at a disadvantage compared to her male colleagues. “A lot of my female attorney friends struggle with maternity leave—it comes down to how do you stay competitive and on the partnership track when you know that you’re going to be out of the office for three months, at least. I think the decision of how to balance having children and advancing in their career is one of the biggest challenges a lot of women face. It’s so hard to decide when is a good time to start a family and when it won’t set back your career.”
Laci describes how when she delivered her son at just 27 weeks, she was fortunate to work at a firm that was willing to work with her when it came to maternity leave. “I never really took a true maternity leave. My son was in the NICU for three months, so I was very lucky that my firm allowed me to make my own schedule. Sometimes I would just work from the hospital and sometimes I would take Fridays off. I know a lot of my friends don’t work for a firm that is that understanding and they struggled to make it work.” Laci describes how for some women in the competitive legal field, the decision to have children boils down to a constant consideration of how do I start a family and not fall behind? How do I stay competitive with my male colleague who started at the same time as me but now gets a three-month advantage over me? What if I have to go on bedrest?
“I feel like maternity leave is one of the biggest struggles that female attorneys have to be ready for. I personally think the best way to combat this issue is to have a conversation about a firm’s policies before you start a job. You need to know how a firm works with women who plan on having children.” Laci believes that making female law students aware of the real-world issues they will come up against in practice—well in advance—can help them to formulate a plan and find a solution that works.
“Society needs to shift from just encouraging women to go to law school, to encouraging women to continue to practice ten years on from graduation. I know my law school class was a pretty even gender split but now almost ten years on, a lot of women have stopped practicing. Maybe they found that taking time off to start a family put them too far behind, or maybe they selected another field that works better with their family. Whatever the reason, we need to focus on the fallout problem facing women in this industry. I think that by educating women prior to graduating law school about the real issues they will face in practice, we will avoid female law students amassing a huge amount of student debt and working to pay off the loans, only to realize they want to start a family and their firm won’t work with them.” Laci is thankful society is shifting slowly towards a more equal share of the childcare and domestic duties between men and women, perhaps hastened by the COVID-19 shutdowns which in many cases resulted in both parents sharing in the situation of working from home with no childcare.
One of the last bits of advice that Laci says she wants to impress upon young women who are considering a career in the law is to find a female mentor that you look up to, because that is your biggest resource. “Women have to keep supporting women. We have to help each other to get a foot in the door and give each other opportunities that we wouldn’t find in other places. Women helping each other is the only way that we are going to fill the gap.”
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