North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley joins members of the NCAJ Women's Caucus and their families, NCAJ Executive Director Kim Crouch and NC AOC Interim Executive Director McKinley Wooten for today's announcement.

Teamwork and Tenacity: The Story Behind the Secure Leave Initiative

February 26, 2020   |   Amber Nimocks

Working Together, NCAJ Members Helped Change the Face of Work for NC Trial Lawyers

When N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley announced last September that the state courts had changed their family leave policy, the news pinged around the globe. State and local media outlets covered the press conference where Beasley and NCAJ Executive Director Kim Crouch announced the change, the ABA Journal followed the story, and legal news sites as far away as Australia took note.

The new policy extends the time new parents are guaranteed away from the trial calendar from three to 12 weeks. This means a trial lawyer who has had a child won’t be called back to the duties of the profession for at least three months, giving that mother or father the opportunity to rest, recover and form a crucial bond with their newborn.

Join members of the Womens Caucus at their Second Annual NCAJ Women’s Caucus Retreat, scheduled for March 6 at the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem.

The publicity the change earned offers proof of how rarely the legal system responds to the personal needs of legal professionals. That the change was made is a testament to the leadership of North Carolina’s judiciary and to the tenacity and foresight of the NCAJ’s Women’s Caucus and the NCAJ members and partners who supported the effort.

“This secure leave change will contribute to the well-being of attorneys and the health of the legal profession itself,” Crouch said. “It is a powerful example of what can be accomplished when members of the legal community work in partnership with one another to create meaningful solutions.”

With the change, North Carolina becomes one of the first states in the country to guarantee that length of parental leave to trial attorneys. It’s an issue that has been bubbling up in other states and jurisdictions across the country. A district court judge in Texas made news in 2018 when he entered a standing rule that prioritized parental leave for expecting attorneys over keeping trials on schedule in his courtrooms. In December, the Florida Supreme Court changed its leave rule to be more accommodating to parents. For the NCAJ Women’s Caucus, the issue rose to the top of its priority list shortly after the group came together.

Finding a Solution

Lauren Newton, organizing chair for the Women’s Caucus, said she and other NCAJ women had long wondered why the NCAJ had no equivalent to the American Association of Justice’s Women Trial Lawyers group. In 2015, a core group held an initial interest meeting for the NCAJ Women’s Caucus at Mountain Magic. Their goal was to support women trial lawyers in a variety of ways. The Caucus mission statement also charges the group “to foster the retention and promotion of female trial lawyers in the areas of practice that serve NCAJ’s mission of protecting people’s rights.”

After forming, Caucus leaders began gathering information on the issues shaping the professional experience for women trial lawyers.

“We noticed that there were more women lawyers, but they were leaving the profession at an alarming rate in part because they were having children and starting families,” Newton said. “So, we asked ourselves, what can we do in North Carolina to make sure women aren’t dropping out? There are more women in law school, there are more women in practice, so why are they not making it to retirement age? Do they not want to practice as long?”

The number of women earning law degrees has risen steadily in recent decades, and according to the American Bar Association, 38 percent of the nation’s lawyers are women. But women attorneys as a group do not see sustained professional success in comparable rates. Only 17 percent of equity partners in big firms and 22 percent of general counsel in the Fortune 500 are women.

More relevant to NCAJ, the 2015 American Bar Association report “First Chairs At Trial” showed that 73 percent of lawyers identifying as trial attorneys are men, with just 27 percent being women. The study further stated that women are significantly less likely to appear in courtrooms — and are significantly less likely than men to occupy the lead roles when they do.

“We wanted to focus on recruitment of women in the profession, so we started sending around emails, and a conversation started about how tough working conditions in the legal profession are for working mothers,” Newton said.

Sarah Olson, who has been on the Women’s Caucus since its inception, helped collect the stories. She said what stood out was that the existing Secure Leave policy affected trial attorneys across many practice areas.

Extreme examples included a criminal defense attorney who had been called to attend court less than two weeks after the birth of her child. Altogether, the data and anecdotes painted a bleak picture: A woman trial attorney who wants to make up professional ground lost during childbirth or adoption faces an insurmountable climb, which might explain why so many just decide to get off the path.

Melissa Abrams, 2018-19 chair of the Women’s Caucus, said the more stories she heard, the more it became clear that the Women’s Caucus had to first address the parental leave issue before it could fulfill its broader mission of retaining and promoting female trial lawyers.

“It doesn’t matter how much time we spend facilitating networking opportunities for female NCAJ members or working to provide trial skills that are particular to female lawyers or doing all the other things the Women’s Caucus was looking to do,” Abrams said. “None of that goes anywhere if our members are continuing to drop out of the practice of law due, in part, to the harsh and often inflexible burdens that would be placed upon their families should they wish to continue as trial attorneys following the birth or adoption of a child.”

Abrams and others, including Olson, Mary Pollard, Leah Broker, Martha Ramsey, Julie Bell and Maria Page, reached out to friends in other legal professional organizations – the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys, American Association for Justice’s Women Trial Lawyers Caucus, the N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys’ Women Litigators Committee, the Women in the Profession Committee of the N.C. Bar Association. They had conversations with Court of Appeals judges, defense lawyers, district attorneys and public defenders. They flexed their individual networking muscles to build a wide coalition.

Pollard, NCAJ president during 2018-19, said the Secure Leave campaign offered a look at how powerful coalitions like those can be.

“I was really surprised at the support we got from some unexpected sectors,” Pollard said. “Maybe the lesson is that we shouldn’t expect that someone in a professionally adversarial role will not share our ideas about how to make the profession better. We’re all in it together. We got support from across the spectrum.”

Pollard outlined the need for the change in a letter to Justice Paul Newby in January 2019.

“In its current form, Rule 26 is adequate for planned vacations but not for parental leave,” she wrote. “The time an attorney needs for the birth or adoption of a child will always exceed the three weeks allotted by the rule. Even with an uncomplicated delivery, parents need several months to recover from childbirth and adjust to the demands of caring for a new baby. To require a lawyer to appear in court or be subject to urgent demands of their practice immediately after the arrival of the baby is detrimental to the child, the lawyer, and the lawyer’s family and clients.”

When members drafted the proposed language for the change, the goal was to keep the scope narrow. They didn’t want to ask for too much, just enough to make a difference.

Once they settled on what the request would be, they faced another hurdle: How best to get the change enacted — propose a legislative fix or work within the court system?

“We spent a long time talking about that and talking to different people,” Newton said. “We wanted to make sure we had all these groups on board before we took either approach.”

A Way Forward

The conversation campaign yielded results when Newby invited members of the Women’s Caucus to attend the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism meeting in February 2019 to present the proposal. The day of the presentation was rife with excitement and possibility. The six months that followed were agonizingly quiet.

Former Chief Justice Mark Martin retired at the end of February, and Gov. Cooper appointed Beasley to replace him beginning March 1. Then in early September, Beasley spread the word to the parties involved that she would be making an exciting announcement about a change to Rule 26.

A celebratory mood permeated the press conference room after Beasley gave her remarks, as moms and dads posed with the Chief Justice while holding their infants and toddlers. Women’s Caucus Vice Chair Helen Baddour watched the Facebook live feed on her computer at work.

“It unfolded the way we dreamed it would unfold,” Baddour said. “When it finally happened, it just seemed so beautiful. I don’t want us to lose that momentum. I want us to carry that on into 2020.”

Olson said the change left her feeling inspired to continue working to make the profession more accessible to individuals who have traditionally been excluded from the practice of law. “I believe all of us should work to leave the profession in a better condition than we found it for those who come behind us,” she said. “When a new parent is in the thick of things, it can be difficult to find the time to advocate for policies that make the workplace more accessible. Those of us who can advocate to make our profession more accessible should do it.”

Pollard said the new policy sends the message that having a family is a normal, expected part of life even for trial lawyers.

“It says that we can do this and come back and continue to move forward,” Pollard said. “And we’re not going to have to jump through all sorts of additional hoops to cover our cases when we come back. That’s just one more roadblock in the way of women’s advancement in the profession. So maybe we’ve removed one little roadblock.”

Baddour said keeping the conversation going between women trial lawyers about women in the legal profession is a top priority for the Women’s Caucus moving forward. In Charlotte, Women’s Caucus members have planned a monthly early-morning coffee date to discuss day-to-day struggles, celebrate wins and generally help one another keep going.

A new lawyer who started practicing in 2014, Baddour said having those conversations with members of the Women’s Caucus has been crucial in keeping her focused and passionate about being a lawyer. “These are women I want to be like,” she said. “And the Women’s Caucus is my forum, my opportunity to get to be around them, talk to them, brainstorm with them. The Women’s Caucus is by far the most important thing I do within NCAJ.”