She Created MothersEsquire: To Help Support Lawyers Who Are Mothers

Oct 23, 2018 | Work Wardrobe

When Michelle Browning Coughlin started her law career, she already had two daughters — an infant and a toddler.  

“I was struggling with trying to figure out how to manage the expectations of being a lawyer and a mother,” says Michelle, 42, now an intellectual property protection and litigation attorney with Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs. “A lot is built into our culture about what it means to be a good mom. That creates such pressure on women, and there’s already a lot of pressure in the legal profession.”

Women represent at least 50 percent of students in law school, but over time, the representation of women in the legal field drops off sharply. “I couldn’t help but think the pressure was why we had all the attrition,” Michelle says.

According to the American Bar Association, while almost half of all associates going into the field are women, the large majority of “staff” attorneys, who are not partner eligible, are females. In addition, only about 15 percent of equity partners in law firms are women, and fewer than two percent of equity partners are women of color. About five percent of firm managing partners are women. “By the time we get to age 50, only 25 percent of women are still practicing at all,” she says.

“There’s not a pipeline problem,” Michelle says. “There’s a leaky, gushing hole in the pipeline.”

So, in 2013, Michelle started a Facebook group, MothersEsquire, to support lawyers who are mothers and to try to make the workplace more equitable. The group has grown to nearly 3,000 private members, who get not only advice, but referrals, resources, connections, and more.

“How do we identify the holes and plug them?” Michelle asks. “I appreciate that there are programs for negotiating for women, and for developing women in leadership. My concern with those programs is they reason that women aren’t successful because there is a flaw in them. No, there are systemic barriers pushing people out of the field. We don’t need to tell women to get more grit and lean in more. We need them to keep doing their best and break down the wall.”

Michelle cites a research study where three identical resumes were sent out — one with a man’s name, a second with a woman’s name, and a third with a woman’s name which listed her as a PTA volunteer. “The assumption was that the woman with the PTA reference was a mother,” Michelle says. “She received 72 percent fewer callbacks than the man, and 50 percent fewer than the other woman. She was offered $13,000 less in salary than the man, and $11,000 less than the other woman.

“That says women lawyers are less committed to work and less competent to work,” Michelle says. “You could be a superstar rocking along, and have a baby and have unconscious bias directed toward you. This is an undercurrent in all professions, not only for women who are lawyers.”

With MothersEsquire, “we want to remove systemic barriers to women’s success in the legal profession,” Michelle says. “Hopefully that will have ripple effects into other sectors.”

One of the group’s projects was collaborating with the Louisville International Airport on its planned Mother’s Room, a private room for nursing mothers. Construction on the room will begin in the fall. “There was no place for women to pump,” Michelle says. “Lawyers are often traveling. If (breastfeeding) mothers don’t have a place to go, that’s an issue. We did a letter writing campaign to the airport. They were already thinking about it.”

As an intellectual property attorney, Michelle keeps her work wardrobe simple and professional, wearing mostly suits. “My philosophy is, if it’s clean and it fits, I’m going to wear it.”

She prefers solid pieces in dark colors. “I like Anne Klein and Calvin Klein suits. I tend to buy everything on sale. I love the clearance rack, especially at Von Maur.”

On the day we met, Michelle was wearing a floral navy and white skirt with a navy cardigan and a white blouse.

On other days, she might wear a black suit with an ankle pant. She pairs the suit with a white blouse and a really cool necklace and maybe open-toed shoes. For another outfit, she also loves a solid cotton navy shift dress from Lands End. “You could wad it up in a ball and take it out and it would look great,” she says. She wears it with a colorful jacket from Talbots and her favorite Clarke pumps. “Best shoes I’ve ever had.”