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Trying to Get Pregnant? Management Would Like to Know.

Vivia Chen

October 9, 2018


Pregnant-1245703_1280I am so grateful for white, middle-aged male partners. If it weren't for them, I honestly don't know what I'd write about! 

Take  Stephen Sozio, the co-leader of Jones Day’s health care practice who also chairs the firm’s litigation department in Cleveland. At a recent office meeting, he apparently "encouraged" women to tell management if they were pregnant or planning on be, reports Elie Mystal at Above the Law. 

Oh, I know all you blue state, coastal types are getting all up in arms about this. But pipe down. Sozio didn't ask for some nefarious reason. According to Above the Law, Sozio was just inquiring so that management could plan its budget for the upcoming year. You can't blame a guy for fiscal planning.
 
Besides, I'm not sure he did anything wrong—legally, speaking. From what I can tell, all he did was ask—and nicely too. (He also expressed understanding that women in their first trimester might not want to disclose their pregnancies to him; in that case, he suggested that women contact his administrative assistant instead.)
 
"Asking about pregnancy is in itself not illegal, if done in a respectful way," says employment lawyer Gerald Hathaway, a partner at Drinker Biddle. The tricky part is asking the question appropriately. The woman who's put on the spot might wonder "whether giving that information has some impact on employment decisions being made about her, even when the decision has nothing to do with pregnancy status," explains Hathaway. "So while not illegal, it is not advisable." 
 
Not advisable is putting it mildly, says Kamee Verdrager, who sued Mintz Levin for gender discrimination related to her pregnancy in a case that dragged on for several years. (It was settled in December 2016).

"In my opinion, that is definitely an unlawful inquiry," says Verdrager. "There are several things at play: the imbalance of power, the invasive nature of the question and the potential for evidence to support an inference of discrimination."

She adds that she tried and won a case for a female client several years ago in Massachusetts in which "the single act of discrimination/retaliation was one conversation where the employer aggressively demanded information about my client’s child care plans." After the pregnant woman refused to provide specifics, but indicated her intention to return to work full time, the employer fired her, citing her "nasty and disrespectful attitude," says Verdrager. 

From a "business perspective," adds Verdrager, "asking such a question exposes the firm to tremendous liability."

Permit me to be more blunt: It's just stupid to ask female employees about their baby plans.

So how is Jones Day dealing with this little public relations calamity? It issued a statement by Heather Lennox, partner-in-charge of its Cleveland office, that says, in part: "Mr. Sozio’s actual remarks were simply to thank all in attendance for their hard work on behalf of Firm clients and to request that, if anyone is presently planning a leave of any kind (including clerkships) next year and would be comfortable sharing the information, it would help the Firm in doing its annual budgeting." (Sozio has not yet replied to my request for comment.)

Nice attempt at spin, but I think it's obvious that Sozio put his foot in his mouth.

These days, most firms are much savvier about how they deal with these issues in the workplace. They know what to tout, like their awesome parental leave policies, flexible working arrangements and how they pay for overnight shipment of breast milk. Most firms would not want to be known as the one that asked women to put their pregnancy plans on the firm calendar.

But I'm not here to slam Sozio. I don't believe he was out to get mommies. He's simply a bit out of it about the dos and don'ts of handling women's issues. Maybe he didn't get the memo about unconscious bias and all the insulting/insensitive/dumb/possibly illegal things male partners do or say to women at the workplace. 

Remember, you can't expect every guy to be "woke" just because it's 2018 and #MeToo is the raging topic of our day.

So let's be nice to the hapless white guy from Ohio and give him some time to catch up. It's the least we can do.

vchen@alm.com 

 

 

 

 

 

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The finesse it takes to do this appropriately is lacking in most lawyers. So, they shouldn't do it. Also, law firms notoriously discriminate against women. If I were up for partner, there's no way I'd confess my pregnancy plans/ I could see that being a reason to delay my partnership.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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