Helping New Moms: Melody Cross and Lucy Bickford

Melody Cross (MC) is an attorney at Schiff Hardin LLP and a member of the Finance group in the firm’s Chicago office. Melody represents financial institutions, institutional investors, corporations, and other entities in a variety of financing matters including senior secured and unsecured financings, private placements, mezzanine financings, cross-border financings, and other structured financings. She has also represented businesses in other financing matters, including work with a national university as borrower in connection with tax-exempt bond financings and bank credit facilities, and the negotiation of ISDA and EEI master agreements on behalf of various energy market participants.

Melody was honored by the Law Bulletin Publishing Company as an “Emerging Lawyer” in its 2016 edition of Leading Lawyers. At Vanderbilt Law School, Melody was special projects editor of the Vanderbilt Law Review. She wa5s also made a member of the Order of the Coif.

Lucy Bickford (LB) is a member of the Private Clients, Trusts and Estates practice group in the Chicago office of Schiff Hardin LLP, where she helps individuals and family groups develop plans that reflect their values and preserve their assets. Specifically, Lucy advises on estate and gift planning; charitable planning; minimizing transfer taxes; particular assets such as artwork and substantial retirement benefits; family investment entities; cross-border issues; estate and trust administration; estate and gift tax returns; valuing closely held companies; prenuptial agreements; asset protection; and trust and estate disputes.

Schiff Hardin selected Lucy to participate in the 2017 Leadership Council on Legal Diversity Pathfinders Program. At Northwestern University School of Law, Lucy was an associate editor of the Northwestern University Law Review and she graduated cum laude.

Melody and Lucy helped create Schiff Hardin’s New Moms Group, a go-to resource and support network for women returning to work after having a child. They discussed this successful initiative with Law Practice Today.

Why did you think a New Moms Group was needed?

MC: I realized how lucky I had been coming back from my first maternity leave. There were two women at Schiff Hardin who, like me, practice in the corporate transactional “deal world,” and who had recently returned from a first and second maternity leave, respectively. I leaned heavily on each of them for advice on how to navigate my transition into maternity leave and my transition back afterward, and so I felt prepared, supported and connected (to the extent possible as a first-time mom, anyway). However, at a firm networking event I realized this experience was not universal. Women in Schiff Hardin’s other offices, smaller practice groups or who were recent lateral hires were missing out on both the sense of community and practical advice that I was able to get over a few casual lunches. The question became how to connect moms and give them the benefit of our community when time, differing practice areas and geography were all in the way.

What brought the idea into a reality?

MC: Advocacy, energy and flexibility. To get an idea like this off the ground we needed sponsorship from our law firm, an active group of participants to put energy behind it, and a willingness to let the group grow and shift from the original plan. At first, we envisioned the group would just be an email list of new moms willing to mentor others going out on maternity leave. But when we approached the head of Schiff Hardin’s Women’s Networking Group with our plan, her advocacy helped us turn a simple email list into a regular meeting in a conference room with lunches and video conferencing across offices. For the cost of a lunch and some space at the firm, we found ourselves in a room with strong, intelligent, working mothers (or mothers-to-be), energized and ready to make our new group a success. We call ourselves the “New Moms Group,” and the focus is on expectant mothers or those with children under the age of five, though we actively encourage the involvement of others who wish to act as mentors.

What has the New Moms Group accomplished since it formed?

LB:

  • As Melody recognized, not all of the women at the firm felt like they had access to the same information about maternity leave. One of the first things we did was write a Frequently Asked Questions piece to inform women about the ins and outs of maternity leave. It includes the people to notify about a pregnancy, advice for planning a leave of absence, a description of the correct forms to complete, the possibilities for alternative arrangements (e.g., flexible schedules and reduced hours), and a heads up about workflow issues that can arise in a maternity leave year.
  • With the help of our senior leaders, we have made simple but important changes such as ensuring that offices have locks and refrigerator space for moms trying to pump.
  • The group is also an avenue for networking. For example, we asked the firm to purchase tickets to a luncheon where Anne-Marie Slaughter was speaking so members could invite clients.
  • New Moms Group members recently provided feedback about our experiences with the firm’s back-up care solution before the plan contract was renewed this year.
  • We work with the firm’s recruiting team by speaking with candidates who have young children or who are interested in the New Moms Group as they look to the future.
  • We have tested and evaluated programs that the firm is interested in piloting, such as a course for women on maternity leave called Mindful Return and the breastmilk shipping service MilkStork.

Has anything surprised you about the group?

MC: We hoped that the group would help other moms with young children feel more connected and less alone, but what we did not anticipate was how the work the group was doing would unite with the goals of any law firm and to our own development as attorneys. As a self-led group, each member has the opportunity to take the helm at a meeting, sharpening leadership skills and providing practice at leading a large group with participants across the country. Our grassroots initiative has a tangible impact on retention and recruitment of working moms by building an internal community with the full support of the firm. We naturally and authentically connect with clients and referral sources who are also parents or grandparents, because the firm gives us space to practice being our parent selves and professional selves together at the same time. Finally, the group provides an opportunity to have a voice and visibility in our firm—and that perhaps was the most unforeseen result—realizing that the work we were doing was seen and valued at the highest levels.

What is next up on the New Moms Group agenda?

LB: Challenges are common to new moms at any law firm—maintaining enough (but not too much) workflow during transitions in and out of maternity leave, advancing your career at a steady pace while also raising young children, and avoiding misconceptions about new moms in the workplace. We want to maintain and encourage open communications at Schiff Hardin about these issues. With the firm’s backing, we will continue to advocate for ourselves and each other, educate our attorneys about new mom issues, and play an active role in diversity efforts generally. Meanwhile, we will continue to provide a forum for discussing topics relevant to new moms and pregnant women.

How can the New Moms Group’s successes be replicated at other firms or organizations?

LB: Individuals who want to start an affinity group should ask for support—and employers should give it. One important ingredient is to have passionate senior advisors to provide wisdom, feedback, and access to workplace leaders and management. With those key advisors, time, and space (and free food), people with common interests can discover the power of community at work.

An affinity group should set a positive and constructive tone. The more closely aligned a group’s objectives are with an employer’s broad imperatives, the better chance there is in attracting participation and support for changes. When we frame the New Moms Group’s needs and wants with those goals in mind, we are working toward the success of the entire firm while advancing our agenda as well. This makes it easier for firm leaders to champion our efforts, and our group gains more influence across our organization.

Any final words of advice?

LB & MC: None of us want to feel like we are reinventing the wheel or that we can’t reach the people or information that can influence our careers. This is especially true for women who are finding their identities as working moms, sorting through childcare issues and working to advance their careers with less time than ever before. Banding together to share information and experiences is a powerful tool for women (and employers) to improve attorney retention during this phase of life. It can build workplace loyalty and pride of place. Ultimately teams provide better services to clients when team members bring their whole selves to work and embrace their diverse qualities and ideas.

About the Author

Sherrie Boutwell is a founding partner of Boutwell Fay LLP and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.

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