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LEGAL CENTS: The ins and outs of family leave

By: Jane Pribek//November 5, 2014//

LEGAL CENTS: The ins and outs of family leave

By: Jane Pribek//November 5, 2014//

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Jane Pribek is a former family law attorney and Wisconsin Law Journal’s editor-at-large. She can be reached at [email protected].

I am almost always late.

So 13 years ago, when my obstetrician told me the due date for my first baby, I assumed she would take after her mother and show up late. Instead, she came a week early.

And there I was a few days later, trying to clear the hormonal fog from my brain long enough to finish writing a story for a deadline I thought would have arrived long before my daughter.

The next time around, I stopped working a solid two weeks before her sister was born.

Waukesha attorney Anthony Cotton suffered the same fate when his first son joined the family about 18 months ago.

“It just didn’t occur to me that he could be early,” Cotton said. “I don’t know why.”

His second son is due Dec. 27, and Cotton is telling the local courts, opposing counsel, clients and prospects that he cannot commit to anything in the second half of December.

That kind of planning is essential to pulling off a relatively stress-free family leave.

Deciding whether to spread the word

Once the happy news of a pregnancy arrives, there are two schools of thought regarding letting others know. Some wait until the end of the first trimester, while others broadcast it right away.

It’s a personal decision. However, if you’re throwing up often or nodding off during meetings, perhaps it’s better to remove the guesswork and just enjoy the sympathy and even a little pampering.

Milwaukee lawyer Lauren Triebenbach said she began looking ahead early on to who would cover for her on the files she couldn’t close before her son’s birth. She also alerted clients of her pregnancy and told them who would replace her.

She said she got everyone comfortable with the idea as soon as possible.

Coordinate who’s covering for you

About halfway through her pregnancy, Triebenbach started updating the “shadowing” attorneys regularly about the matters they would be covering and made sure that everything for each file was on someone else’s calendar as well as hers. Then several weeks before her due date, she began drafting memos to the files so they could be picked up fairly easily.

However, not every practice is amenable to stand-ins.

Cotton, for instance, said his criminal defense clients tend to hire him, not the firm, and for anything substantively affecting their rights, they don’t want a last-minute replacement. He said he understands that because he felt the same way when the obstetrician said she might not deliver the baby if she was unavailable.

So for Cotton, parental leave means referring some prospective clients to other attorneys in the firm or to other firms if the timing is such that he knows he cannot commit. It’s a financial hit.

But, with some planning, it’s worth the trade-off.

Staying in touch after the birth

While on leave for three months, Triebenbach was not completely gone.

“I tried to make myself available for quick questions,” she said.

But she offered words of caution.

“Don’t be shy,” Triebenbach said, “about making it clear if you’re being asked to do too much, too soon.”

She knew she would go back to work, she said, but, like many exhausted new mothers, felt conflicted about the return as it got closer. To help her get used to the idea, Treibenbach said, she arranged for someone to watch the baby when she went to doctor appointments or on errands.

When she finally returned to work, it wasn’t such a shock to her or the baby.

Returning to work

It can be a difficult decision, but those who liked their jobs before starting a family probably should go back on whatever terms work best for them, their clients and their co-workers.

“Give it a shot,” said Katherine Rist, a Madison lawyer and mother of two. “You might be surprised at how much you enjoy getting back to work and a sense of normalcy.

“It’s hard to go back. But it’s really hard to stay home, too.”

Rist said she had a moment of clarity on her third day back from leave after her first child was born. She said she realized the baby was fine and she was showered, dressed, enjoying a cup of coffee, using her degree and happy to be there.

But it’s important for those returning to work to ease themselves back into a routine, said Madison lawyer Erin Murphy Barbato.

“Don’t take on too much,” she said. “And if you’re having a tough time, know that it will pass, whether it’s a teething baby, a child who’s sick or a client that’s really difficult.

“It will get better.”


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