Lawyering and Mothering: Dichotomy or Harmony?
The Women in Practice Committee speaks to Elaine Low, a criminal lawyer who is a new mother as well. Elaine talks about juggling practice as a working mother in an essentially male dominated practice area, and how law firms can better support young working mothers.
1. What has your experience been like as a female criminal lawyer?
I remember that, as a law student, whenever I shared my aspirations to be a criminal lawyer, I was often discouraged by friends and relatives. I was told that being a criminal lawyer is very difficult because it was time-consuming and that criminal practice is “too emotional”. I have no doubt these views were most of the time well-intentioned and, to a large extent, may have a ring of truth. As a criminal lawyer, you invest a lot of energy and emotion into your cases because your clients’ lives and liberties are at stake.
Personally, my past eight years of experience as a criminal lawyer has been enriching. As a general litigator, I find that criminal practice – versus commercial litigation – gives me more opportunity to run my files and conduct trials independently. It allows me exposure to open court hearings and trial advocacy to quickly hone my court craft.
The biggest obstacle I find is that clients tend to underestimate female lawyers, especially at the initial stages of the engagement. There are several preconceived notions about what makes a good criminal lawyer (for example, that only senior male lawyers are effective and convincing in court) and most of the time the odds are stacked against me simply because I am female and relatively young. I have learnt to overcome this social bias by being patient and displaying empathy. This makes me more approachable and, over time, helps me not only earn the trust and respect of my clients but also become a friend and true confidante to them.
I was involved as a second-chair in a complex criminal case that was document-intensive and involved 120 charges. I spent a lot of time with the client, discussing his case, reviewing the documents and understanding his narrative. Over time, I garnered his trust and I became so familiar with the facts of his case that my lead counsel and I agreed that I was best-suited to conduct cross-examination of the key Prosecution witnesses.
In another criminal case that involved an Internet love scam and money-laundering charges, our client was a single mother with two young children. I observed that she was extremely reserved and nervous in the presence of my lead counsel, who was a senior male lawyer. However, in the course of preparing for her trial, we had a breakthrough when she began to share with me about her failed marriage, how she and her two children lived in a small rental room with only one bed and how she believed that her Internet lover of six years was her knight in shining armour. My heart broke as I listened to her and I became determined to work harder for her. In the lead-up to trial, we worked together closely and bonded over the common goal to help her overcome her nerves and tell her story in court in a compelling and honest manner.
2. How did becoming a mother impact your practice?
I returned to practice after taking a three-month-long maternity leave. At the start, it was very challenging because the pressure – self-imposed or otherwise – to bounce right back in my career was very high. I was in a criminal trial within four and a half months after delivery and between preparing for cross examination, managing a pumping schedule and figuring out my new identity as a mother, I was spread too thin.
Fast forward a year later, I have become better at managing my time and I try to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. I work remotely two to three days a week and even when I am in office, I try to return home as early as I can and continue work after my daughter’s bedtime or on weekends. Unfortunately, this means I work even longer hours but on the bright side there is no time for self-doubt or procrastination.
Becoming a mother has also made me more compassionate in my practice of community law. I am more sensitive to how family disputes affect children and how our family lawyers can practise in a way that minimises the acrimony between parents and the disruption to their children.
As a criminal lawyer, I have also become more curious about what drives some of my clients to crime and consider how best to help them to get back on track during or after criminal proceedings. In the past, whenever I entered the Mentions Court, it struck me that proceedings were always conducted in a very formulaic manner and that we sometimes forget that the accused person standing at the dock or representing himself is a human being, whose back story and life we know nothing about. Legally straightforward matters like applications to leave jurisdiction or bail applications have significant impact on their lives. For example, a failed application to leave jurisdiction may mean depriving an accused person of his opportunity to visit his sick or elderly parent abroad.
I have acted for clients who are my age, my friends, in the same profession or attended the same schools I did and on the surface appeared to have everything going smoothly in their lives. It is a wake-up call for me, when these clients confess to committing crime, that anyone can easily succumb to temptation or make errors of judgment and end up on the wrong side of the law.
When I think of the criminal cases that I have handled and the role that I play in the criminal justice system, I look at the world as one that my daughter will inherit and hope that in my own way I will be able to make the world a better one for the next generation.
3. How do you think law firms can support working mothers like yourself?
In the post-pandemic era, law firms are more open to considering flexible working arrangements and I believe that these options should be made available to working mothers (and working parents in general). For example, firms can allow at least one work-from-home day or flexible work time can help. Since most law firms already have a timesheet practice in place and systems to track billed hours, these work arrangements should be easy to implement.
Lawyers face pressures to be not only competent and professional, but also efficient and profitable. Unfortunately, mothers are often perceived to be less profitable because they require flexible working arrangements. However, as both a working mother and business owner, I personally believe that flexibility does not equate to low profitability, given the right parameters. It is important for law firms to recognise that working mothers may be busy tending to their young children at specific times of day but this does not mean that they would neglect their duties at work.
On the contrary, we are self-motivated because of our need to support our families. We are resilient because we make the choice everyday to leave our children in the hands of other caregivers in order to pursue our careers. Mothers can be extremely loyal employees as long as we are given recognition and are in an environment that understands the challenges of juggling careers and families.
4. Do you have any advice for female lawyers thinking about starting a family?
To all female lawyers looking to start a family, I am sure you are aware of all the anecdotal evidence of female lawyers who have left the legal profession in order to start a family. I am certain you have your fair share of doubt about whether it is feasible to juggle both family and your career. It is still true in this day and age that the yoke of child-bearing and child-rearing falls mostly on mothers. If you and your partner have decided on starting a family and you wish to continue practice, both of which are very personal decisions, the only advice I can give you is to surround yourself with supportive family members and colleagues. The early days of motherhood can be isolating and overwhelming as you grapple with changes to your body, routine and identity. Do not be ashamed to reach out for help. This may involve activating family members to babysit, engaging a part-time or live-in helper or even asking friends for simple favours or to help run errands.
Carve out time for a simple routine, no matter how short, that will help you unwind, such as a nice hot shower, a quiet stroll or some meditation. Your baby will be front-and-centre of everyone’s attention, especially yours, and so it is important to periodically take a step back and allow yourself to recuperate. I am blessed to have a loving husband who prioritised taking care of me (and my mental health) and constantly reassured me whenever mom guilt and hormones convinced me that I was a terrible mother.
I have also benefited from being part of a network of strong and amazing mothers. You will be surprised at how many other mothers (working or not) are willing to share their knowledge and resources or simply be a listening ear. After giving birth, I reconnected with old friends, developed closer ties with acquaintances and made new friends, all of whom were young mothers who shared the same experiences that I did. It was comforting to know that, in the dead of the night, when I was feeding, changing or rocking baby, there was someone else somewhere out there doing exactly the same, just one text message away. Misery loves company!
And eventually, even if it does not feel like it, life will eventually regain some degree of normalcy and you will find yourselves comfortable in a new norm!