By LCA Senior Fellow Roxanne Barton Conlin
I had my first child over Christmas vacation during my senior year of law school in 1966. Being a woman law student in 1966 was bizarre, but being a pregnant woman law student and then a mother of an infant was simply inconceivable. I was stripped of my scholarships and fired from a part-time job as a law clerk. I went back to school and to my new part-time job a week after my daughter was born. It was nearly impossible for me to leave my baby every single day in the care of others. I cried, but I did it because I had no options. I was close to my goal of becoming a lawyer. I had three more children, but never had the opportunity to bring them with me to my work. Leaving them behind was among the hardest things I have ever done. I hoped one day I would be in a position to change the way mothers in law and their infants were treated.
In the mid-80s, I joined a small law firm and shortly thereafter became a partner. Our indispensable nurse legal assistant became pregnant with her first child. I persuaded the other partners to permit her to bring her baby to the office with her every day so that she could continue the crucial work that she did for our firm without leaving her infant with others. She had her own office which was soon equipped with all the necessary infant accoutrements. The clients did not object. Indeed, they stopped to see the baby, talk to him, and play with him. He attended conferences, meetings, and once even a court hearing. Everybody adapted. For mother and for baby, it permitted long-term bonding. He stayed in the office until he was a little over a year old. Mom went on to have two more office babies. Another legal assistant had twins. Altogether in that location, there were five or six office babies.
In 1991, I started my own law firm and moved to another building in 2000. We continued encouraging every employee to bring their babies with them to work. Lawyers, law clerks, and staff people all did so. One lawyer had three babies and became adept at nursing and typing at the same time. This is not on-premises child care. It is full-time parenting in the office. There is no time limit for children to remain in the office, but parents usually take them to day care shortly after they start walking.
I was uncertain whether our receptionist would be able to do her job of answering the phone, greeting clients, and making them comfortable while caring for her baby. She did not bring her first child to the office. When she was pregnant with her second child, we discussed it again and decided we would make an attempt to have the baby in the office for a few weeks and see if it would work. It worked. We learned that callers were patient, and clients loved the baby and sometimes stopped by, even without legal needs, just to see her.
Over the years, we have mostly had good babies. I have concluded that they are mostly good babies because they are with their moms, able to nurse and bond. Many have grown up and have turned out to be wonderful people. Maybe they would have been wonderful people whether they were able to be with their moms in the office, but I cannot help but think that the early months in the office with their moms was helpful to them throughout their lives
But, you might say, what if the baby cries all the time? We once had an infant who had colic and cried a lot. We passed him around the office. He still cried, but each person had a limited time to hold him, rather than his mother having to care for him all alone. Colic generally lasts about 3 months. One of mine was colicky, and I had to deal with him alone. I thought I might lose my mind. I am not sure that I would have understood this problem but for my own experience. It was disruptive but not unmanageable and much easier to deal with this infant as a group. And it didn’t last long. He is now an attorney.
But we are trial lawyers. How can you have babies around while trying a case? This has not happened too often for us, but when it does, we have child care people come to the office to care for the infant while mom is at the courthouse. We are located close to the courthouse and so she could come home at lunch. The baby can stay in the office in the evening as long as the mom does and of course, that can be pretty late. Babies generally are stress relievers and trials are stressful so all of us tend to carry the baby with us as we go about our business in the preparing and trying a case.
The move to home of many law firm functions because of COVID-19 may make the issue moot for at least some attorneys and staff, but to get people back to the office, encouraging them to bring their infants may be the key to their return.
I am an evangelist about babies in the office. The benefits in terms of the employees and their families far outweigh any slight inconvenience. It has attracted great lawyers to our small law firm along with very competent, hard working staff people at every level. It does require mature, responsible self-motivated employees. It also requires a flexible office staff and a willingness to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate infants. But the minimal adjustments are far outweighed by the tangible benefits to the parents, the infants, and the whole staff. I encourage every firm to try it. You might find it works better than you thought possible. Certainly that has been true of us.
Iowa Fellow Roxanne Conlin has her own law firm in Des Moines, where she exclusively represents people who have been harmed by others, whether by discrimination, products, doctors or vehicles.
She entered Drake University in 1961, when she was only 16, and graduated from law school with honors five years later at the age of 21. From 1969 to 1976, she was an Assistant Attorney General for Iowa, where she was head of the Iowa Civil Rights section and fought race and sex discrimination. She also rewrote Iowa's inheritance laws; toughened the state's assault laws and blocked a merger of two major utilities that would have hurt the average consumer.
She left the Attorney General's Office to become a consultant to the United States Department of State for International Women's Year. In 1977, she became one of the first two women ever to be a United States Attorney. Roxanne put heroin dealers behind bars and prosecuted white-collar crimes and corruption in public office. She also served as President of the Federal Executive Council, which is composed of the heads of all seventy federal agencies.
Roxanne has devoted much time to individual organizations and causes and community service. She founded and was the first chair of the Iowa Women's Political caucus, and was president and general counsel of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. She has been named by the National Law Journal as one of the fifty most influential women lawyers in America, one of the 100 most influential lawyers in America and one of the top 10 litigators. Her achievements have brought such honors as induction into the Iowa Woman's Hall of Fame and national attention such as selection in 1975 as one of the 44 Women Who Could Save America and in 1976 as one of 44 Women Qualified for Cabinet Position.
In June of 1982, Roxanne won a three-way primary and became the Democratic nominee for Governor of Iowa. She was narrowly defeated in her effort to become that state's first Democratic governor in 14 years, and its first woman governor. She has had many other firsts. She was the first woman president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, a 60,000 member organization of consumer attorneys. She was the first woman to chair the Roscoe Pound Foundation, a trial lawyers think tank. She was the founder and first chair of the Civil Justice Foundation, which provides direct support to grass roots organizations and disabled individuals.
She was inducted in 1995 into the Inner Circle of Advocates, limited to only 100 of the best plaintiff trial lawyers nationwide. Recently, she was thrilled to have a law school scholarship named after her at the University of Missouri. She also received the Rosalie Wahl Award from the Minnesota Women Lawyers Association. She married her husband, James, 56 years. They have raised four children and have five grandchildren.