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FEBRUARY 2013 NEWSLETTER - Generational Perspectives
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Generational Perspectives on the State of Women in Law

Editors Note:  Inspired by the many speakers WLALA has presented over the years, we’ve taken notice that we can all benefit by sharing our experiences, wisdom, ideas and hopes for the future.  For the younger generation, it is easy to forget how far we’ve come and the paths those before us have paved.  For the older generation,  the focus on work-life balance and the drop-out rate among younger attorneys may seem disappointing.  In this “Generational Perspectives” series, WLALA will feature articles written by female attorneys of all ages – from those who have been practicing for more than 35 years to those who recently graduated from law school -- to share their thoughts on how far we’ve come and where we are headed. 

 

Generational Perspectives

by Denise Yoakum

I am Aidan's mother for the rest of my life and love it. I am also a deputy district attorney in the hard core gang unit in the largest county in the country and love my job.  I have not had many role models in my office for advice on being a mom and an attorney. I do not want to do either role exclusively, as they both make me who I am. I continue to learn (with the help of my son and husband) what makes us happy as a family, what makes me a better mom and wife, and what makes me a better attorney. The journey of balancing my work and home life has made me a stronger person and professional, and resulted in a great sense of fulfillment. I hope to become a role model for other women who want the same things I do.

When I was pregnant, I did not think twice about being able to manage both motherhood and my job. I knew women could do both. That view, however, was challenged when a male attorney asked me who was going to take care of my son while I was working. Apparently, his wife was a stay-at-home mom and he disapproved of women with children working. What was interesting to me was he had not done many trials, whereas I had already established myself as a trial attorney. I wondered who was he to judge me? As it turned out, this was only the beginning of my learning that some of my colleagues and supervisors were going to pass judgment on my abilities to continue as a trial attorney and be a good mom. 

Indeed, soon after my son was born, another attorney informed me that if I did not attend happy hour every week, I would be gossiped about. There was no way I could attend with a new baby, and I really did not want to. I felt at that point, I was being subjected to a double standard, and that I would have to work harder to prove I could do both.

Some women attorneys have asked my opinion on whether or not they should have children. I have been able to share my experiences of being both a mom and an attorney. I tell all of them the same thing:  trials will always be there, but your chance to be a mom may not. Some have indicated a desire to do their first murder trial before their first pregnancy, as if this in some way proves something. Will they be passed over for promotions if they become a mom? Maybe. I had interviewed for a supervisor position and was asked who would take care of my young child if I had to work late. Perhaps that is a reality of being a woman and a mom when you are trying to move to management—that it will be harder to convince the bosses that you can handle it. I have also learned that newly pregnant attorneys have been afraid to tell their supervisors they are pregnant. I wish that would change. I also wish that men and women could be more supportive of each other and not limit themselves to one role be it professional or parent. I have heard similar concerns from defense and private attorneys who are moms. It seems we all share fears about double standards.

I remember my first murder trial—not so much the facts of the case, but that my son was teething and I was up late at night working on the trial. Fortunately, my son got his first tooth, and I got through the trial with the jury returning a first-degree murder conviction. Both were celebrated!

My son started kindergarten this year. I went to his first parent-teacher conference, then went to work and cross-examined a gang member charged with multiple murders. Over time, and so that my work and home lives can run as smooth as possible, I have learned to multitask, work smarter, and be more organized in a different way. I completed the most jury trials in the gang unit over the last two years, with outstanding results. I was the only woman and mom in this unit. Despite my trial accomplishments, and unlike some others, though, I did not receive a raise, or a promotion, or any special recognition. What I did gain, however, was my own sense of personal pride and confidence in my abilities as both a mom and an attorney. When my son tells me he is proud of me, I get the same sense of satisfaction.  In the end, I have come to realize that being a mom and an attorney provides me with balance. I do not have to do either exclusively. And while I may not be the best in the world at either role, I am happy doing both.

I have also learned that I can bring different perspectives to both of my roles. For example, my son’s school recently had his first field trip. While some of the other mothers were focused on not being allowed to attend along with their children, my concern was different. I wanted to know who was driving the bus. This, I suspect, was due to my exposure to numerous criminal acts due to my job. I called the school and asked for the name of the bus driver and what the school knew about him. I was told I was the first parent to ever ask that question and that they would get the information for me. The school called me back with the bus driver’s name and told me all of the background checks the driver went through and when. I told the other moms what I found out and they were glad I had inquired.

Being a mom has also made me a better attorney. I have learned I want to be a good person and an employee not only for myself, but for my son as well. I no longer make time for office gossip, and find I really do not glean any satisfaction from it. Instead, I just want to get my work done and help others in my profession. Sometimes I work through lunch and take work home, and that is okay for me. I understand that the work I do is helping protect the community and is making it a safer place for my family and friends.

I do not ask to be treated differently because I am a woman, and I do not ask to be treated differently because I am a mom. I do, however, ask for the same amount of respect that others in my profession receive when they earn it from the work they do. My journey is ongoing and I have seen some changes. For example, my office now provides a limited amount of part-time positions to attorneys. I have a supervisor who has two children of his own and he does not downplay my ability to be both a good mother and a good prosecutor. A female colleague without children has told me that she admired me and thought I would make a great supervisor because, in part, of how I have been able to handle being both a mom and a trial attorney.

We have very few women in management in my office, but perhaps the ones that are could be mentors to other women. Maybe the administration could provide training or suggestions to women with or without children on how to succeed as  equals. We will need to continue to work hard to prove the stereotypes wrong.  We still have a long way to go as women and as moms. Some days are going to be easier than others. I know, however, what makes me happy—and that is being able to be both a mom and a trial attorney.

 

Denise Yoakum is Deputy District Attorney IV for the San Bernardino County Courts.

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*If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact the WLALA Communications Officer, Amy Brantly at abrantly@susmangodfrey.com.

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