A new parent's 7-step guide to seamless networking
Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick.
How do you take time off from work and go on parental leave, yet maintain important relationships with people in your network? As a new parent, this can be particularly difficult with the demands of a newborn child: feedings every two hours, recovery from the delivery process (and pregnancy in general), sleepless nights, doctor's appointments. The responsibilities seem endless.
Yet when I went on maternity leave with my son, I maintained the appearance of active involvement in bar and professional associations to the degree that many of my colleagues did not realize I had taken leave.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma against parental leave in the legal industry. Women face stigma because the burden of their work falls on their colleagues, and some people even see maternity leave as a “vacation.”
Men face some challenges as well, and they also deal with additional stereotypes because women are still considered the primary caretakers for young children—and of course, the men were not the ones who were pregnant. But as all new parents know, a newborn requires an enormous amount of attention, which robs the caretakers of sleep. A lack of sleep leads to a host of problems with concentration, focus and safety. Thus, all new parents could struggle with meeting all of their new and old responsibilities and get burned out.
I worked at a large law firm for almost four years and had an intimate relationship with billable hours and constant client demands. I took parental leave while I was a federal judicial law clerk. The hours and demands differed, but like all positions in the legal field, particularly involving litigation, the cases continued to flow and required attention. Now that I work in academia, the demands on my time are still preset but allow for more flexibility.
Here are some quick tips for maintaining your professional network as a new parent without burning out. See which ones, if any, you can incorporate into your schedule.
1. Set clear boundaries.
If you don’t plan to do substantive work while on leave, make that clear in your away message on your email service and voicemail. If you have an away message, you must be careful not to reply to emails or risk sending mixed messages.
I was fortunate that someone handled my caseload while I was on leave. Thus, I did not need to check my email or voicemail at all, which I did not have connected to my phone in any event. When I returned to work, I took the whole first day to clean out my email inbox and started fresh from there.
Not everyone is that fortunate. But to the extent that you can limit interactions that require or will solicit an immediate response, avoid them. Ask your administrative staff, close colleagues and others to monitor your cases or projects for emergencies only.
Make arrangements for someone to cover any emergency hearings that come up (in case a judge sets a hearing without much notice). And make sure you have a suit handy that still fits in the event that all else fails. Most new parents end up putting on some weight, given the lack of sleep. You don’t want to show up to a meeting or court in something too tight.
2. Attend a couple of major, high-profile events that offer a lot of visibility with a minimal time commitment.
Because your time is limited, you should focus most of your efforts on activities that have the potential for the greatest results. Make a list of all the major networking events that happen throughout the year, and choose two or three you enjoy and are high profile. Keep in mind the costs of attendance, the time of the event and location. You want to make sure that you can manage the logistics of attending without adding stress to you and your partner.
For me, this strategy included attending a couple of annual events held by the local chamber of commerce and bar associations in my area. These events easily draw between 300 and 500 attendees. I arrived early, stood by the entrance to say hello to everyone I knew, sat down for the first half of the event and left discreetly during the program when everyone was seated. By using this strategy, people within my network recall seeing me at the event, even though I was not there the entire time. And I was able to get home early to tuck my son into bed, so he did not feel my absence too acutely.
3. Send the occasional catch-up email to colleagues and set up virtual coffee dates.
Taking care of a newborn is undoubtedly exhausting, but there are many quiet moments when feeding or rocking your child to sleep. This is a great time to do some catch-up. A quick email giving an update and asking for one in return can be completed in 10 minutes. You never know; the email can lead to an opportunity later down the line for you or the old friend.
4. Post updates about your work on social media.
When I was a new mom, I’d read interesting articles and share them on social media, especially professional sites like LinkedIn. This practice kept my profile active and at the forefront of other active users. These interactions are low stakes, likely to spark conversations and keep you up to date on your industry and practice area while on leave. You may also have some milestones occur during parental leave, even though you started working on those projects before taking time off. Make sure to post those as well. No need to follow a hard and fast schedule; do it as time permits.
5. Do the occasional nonstressful, flexible-deadline activity, like writing a brief article or volunteering for a one-day project.
My idea to write this article came from reading another one written by a lawyer offering tips on preparing for an appellate argument. The article is a quick humorous read and gave me the idea to write this one for new parents.
Consider which activities you enjoy doing that give you pleasure rather than invoking stress, and consider doing those during your parental leave. Many volunteering activities provide networking opportunities and allow you to give back in a meaningful way.
6. Every day presents a potential networking opportunity, so always represent yourself well.
This idea does not mean that you have to have a full suit on, a fresh haircut or a full face of makeup every time you venture outdoors. You can be casual, but make sure your clothes are clean and fit relatively well, you avoid wearing pajamas to the supermarket or the mall, and observe basic hygiene. It takes a little effort and planning to make sure you are presentable when you run errands. Keep this in mind when planning your day and networking activities.
7. Always remember to have fun.
When your colleagues see you, whether on social media, virtually or in person, you want to demonstrate that you are enjoying your time (and make sure you are, in fact, enjoying that time). Yes, it can be exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating.
Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick is an associate professor at the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She teaches criminal law and constitutional law and assists graduates with bar preparation. She is the founder and director of Diversity Access Pipeline, a nonprofit organization that runs the Journey to Esquire Scholarship & Leadership Program, blog and podcast to promote diversity and create access for law students. She is the author of Finding Joy in the Journey to Esquire: A Guide to Renewal for Lawyers and Law Students.
ABAJournal.com is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.