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Family Lawyer Jessica Markham: Career and Motherhood on Her Own Terms

By Thai Phi Le

February 28, 2017

On its website Markham Law Firm itself states what is generally known: Options abound for those looking for family law attorneys. But what sets apart the Bethesda, Maryland, firm from competitors in this crowded legal market is that all four of its attorneys are women. It also has fostered an environment that recognizes the demands of the modern-day career woman, giving its attorneys options that work best for their individual needs. One is a part-time attorney, another works hourly, and a third is full-time salaried. In 2016 three of the four attorneys were either pregnant or on maternity leave.

Over the next three weeks, we will profile each of them and their different experiences with maternity leave, as well as the challenges and joys (hello, time alone to drink coffee!) of juggling their careers with family.

We begin with D.C. Bar member Jessica Markham, who opened her family law firm in August 2015. We first spoke with Markham in 2016. She has since given birth to her second child and is currently on maternity leave.

Jessica MarkhamIn 2013 you took maternity leave for the first time while working for a small firm. How was your process for preparing to take time off?

It’s hard at a small firm. For almost all of my cases, no one else was working on them. I had a fantastic paralegal who really helped the transition. I had supportive partners I knew could handle the cases and agreed to take on certain ones when I left.

I had a document saved on my desktop that had all my cases, up-to-date statuses, and a to-do list that I tried to maintain every single day. At least once a week with the due date approaching, I would sit down with [the different partners], even if it was just for 15 minutes, and say, “This is what’s happened, and this is what needs to be done.”

My paralegal knew every single case generally and what was going on to the best of her understanding. She knew how to record my outgoing voicemail and update my out-of-office [message]. She knew where everything was and how to get things to people.

The three weeks before my due date, every day before I left work I felt like I had to leave my office in a condition that somebody could find everything and pick up where I left [off].

How much time did you take off?

I took exactly 12 weeks. I didn’t want to be checking email during my leave. That wasn’t the easiest thing for everybody, but I felt very strongly about it. I had been there for a long time, so I think that I was able to say, “Look, I’m not checking email while I’m gone.” They had to respect that. If I hadn’t been there for so long, I don’t know if it would have gone over as well as it did. 

How were you able to actually stay unplugged from work?

My paralegal checked my email every day. I had been notifying clients for a long time, and they knew generally when to expect me being gone. I didn’t get any major surprises, but in family law, we get old clients coming back for old issues all the time—or new issues in old cases. So if someone who hadn’t been in touch in a few years contacted me, I wanted them to have a live person to respond to.

There were occasions where [my paralegal] would forward an email to my personal email or call me, and then I would respond, but I wasn’t checking email every day.

Good for you. It’s hard to remove yourself.

I had to. It’s easy to get sucked in and I wanted to be present. I didn’t want to miss out on anything. And frankly, I wasn’t totally rational! The first week, I would cry because I was happy. I would cry because I was overwhelmed. I would cry because I was worried. Nobody tells you the first week that babies would not breathe regularly. She would stop breathing. [imitates sound] “Oh my baby is choking!” [laughs]

But I do think being in a smaller firm, it is a reality that if one person is gone, it is a financial hit to the firm. You feel an obligation to your partners. At the same time, they feel an obligation to you to not trample on your maternity leave. There’s a balance there.

Being at a small firm, do you think it was harder or easier to take maternity leave?

My sense is that at the very large firms, there’s the emphasis on billing, billing, billing, billing. I didn’t feel the pressure of “Oh my god, I only billed x hours.”

When I was pregnant, I had morning sickness. I had one month where I had five migraines. I had a lot of appointments. Toward the end, I had a really bad back. I was lucky that I didn’t feel like I might lose my job because my hours were down. I don’t know if people at large firms have that pressure. 

Now that you own your firm, what do you do to help your employees have an easier transition?

My office happens to be all women. Four of us are married. Three of us have children. I know the realities of having to juggle your family and all those responsibilities and also being a litigator. I’ve tried to start the dialogue early. What are your priorities? If it’s better for you to be hourly, let’s talk about that. If it’s better for you to be salaried and get vacation, then let’s talk about that. I want everybody to feel they are getting what they need and their arrangement is fair. I want [my employees] to know [their] job is safe and that [their] priority should be [their] family.

So flexibility is important to you as an employer?

At the end of the day, I’m a small firm. I think [my employees are] compensated fairly. Could they go somewhere and make more? They could, but I think the quality of life aspect here is good.

There are days when my daughter runs to the door and hugs my leg and says, “Don’t go!” Some days I have to shake her off my leg and go to court, like I did this morning. But other times I can say, “I’m going stay a half hour and do a puzzle with you.”

Sometimes people get here at 8:30, and sometimes at 9:30. As long as we’re all doing good work, we’re taking care of our cases, and the clients are getting good service, I’m going to be okay with that.

How do you think the parental leave process could be improved?

There’s a double standard for mothers and fathers. My husband’s current employer has three months’ leave for fathers as well. I haven’t really seen any others. It sets up fathers to be less involved from day one because they’re not there to do the heavy lifting. They might be there the first or second week, but they miss out on the enjoyment. They miss out on the bonding. They miss out on learning to do a lot of the things that need to be done. It puts the woman in the position of being the primary caretaker from day one.

Anything else you’d add about your experience?

It’s definitely hard if you want to get ahead, go to networking groups, and do all the things it takes to get more business and grow your practice. You also have to devote nighttime and mornings. We all want to be with our children and there are only so many hours in the day. It’s really hard to balance everything.

I wanted to own my own business. In the back of my mind, when you go on maternity leave, you feel like you’re inconveniencing people. There was a nice feeling like if I do have maternity leave again, then it can be completely on my own terms. I don’t think as a business owner [that] I could not check email for 12 weeks. That absolutely would never happen again. That would be a downside. The flip side, I’m not beholden to anyone.

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Since our conversation in May 2016, you’ve had a second child. How is maternity leave now that you’re a business owner?

My son was born January 27. It was a Friday. I didn’t check email for the weekend. That following Monday, I was not responding to emails but forwarding them out. Everyone at the office is joking that I only took off the one day that I gave birth.

It’s not an ideal situation, but I like working. I wanted to make sure that everything was taken care of. I wanted to make sure no clients slipped through the cracks. I was able to make sure I don’t have any litigation scheduled for the next 12 weeks.

How is it working out, especially since you wanted clear-cut time off when you had your first child?

It’s been working great. I’ve been coming in three to four days a week for three or four hours. My husband got six weeks off and took an additional week. He or my mom has been coming in and I’ve been working with the baby here [in the office].

It’s much easier having him here than pumping, which is what I did with my daughter. I took off 12 weeks then and pumped for a year and had to do it five times a day. I was constantly stopping, pumping, washing parts, and microwaving the parts to disinfect them. It’s so much easier with him because I can stop for 10 minutes a couple of times to breastfeed him, change a diaper, and we’re good.

The women here are amazing. They’re going above and beyond to make sure everything is taken care of and encouraging me to not worry and not check in so much, but I want to make sure that my staff doesn’t feel abandoned. Constantly our conversations are me [asking them], “Are you okay? Do you need anything?” and [them asking] me, “Are you stressed out? Are you worried? Everything is under control.” We are constantly checking on each other.


Next week, we hear from Chanel Dolinsky, who owned her own firm for over a decade in Florida, left to become a stay-at-home mom, and then decided to return to work for Markham Law Firm on an hourly basis.