Rising Together | Breaking Down Systemic Barriers to Gender Equity in the Legal Profession with MothersEsquire Founder, Michelle Browning Coughlin

Episode 13 | May 9, 2022

00:00:00 00:00:00
Show Notes

Special guest Michelle Browning Coughlin, Founder and President of MothersEsquire®, joins Candice and Tim in examining systemic gender biases in the legal profession and how they hurt both men and women. Michelle sheds light on “the motherhood penalty” across professions and suggests big and small pragmatic changes that legal institutions and employers can make to help support women and parents. Exchanging personal parenting and professional anecdotes, Michelle, Candice and Tim discuss what it means to “parent out loud” in the workplace.

A podcast by Latitude Legal – Flexible Legal Talent.


Michelle Browning Coughlin 00:00

I don’t want to try to keep telling women how to adapt to a system that doesn’t work for them. I want to change the system so that it will work for them, because frankly, I think it works better for men that way, too. And so, I always say the gender equity issues and the motherhood penalty are like a brick wall that’s in front of us. And I don’t want more climbing skills. I don’t want to teach other women more climbing skills. I want to take the bricks out of the wall.

Candice Reed 00:32

This is Leveraging Latitude, Cultivating a Full Life in the Law. And we are your hosts, Candice Reed.

Tim Haley 00:39

And Tim Haley.

Candice Reed 00:40

Please join us on our journey as we discover how to leverage the hard work of becoming a lawyer to achieving success and leading a rich and fulfilling life in the law.

Candice Reed 00:54

Hi, Tim. How are you?

Tim Haley 00:56

Doing great, Candice. Happy Lawyer Wellbeing Week.

Candice Reed 00:59

Thank you. It has been a full week of focusing on attorney wellbeing. It’s such a powerful week. There’s a lot of content that the Institute for Well-Being in Law is putting out, and it’s been exciting for me this week to see how many more posts and how many more of my connections are celebrating and recognizing this week in comparison to years past. So it really feels like we’re getting some traction in this area. And as you know, that warms my heart. I love it.

Tim Haley 01:30

It’s great. I think it’s a good reminder for practitioners everywhere just to have a week, take a breath, make sure you’re taking care of yourself, which is hard to do as a practicing attorney.

Candice Reed 01:39


Tim Haley 01:39

And speaking of.

Candice Reed 01:42

Yeah. So today our guest is someone I am really excited to introduce. I feel like I’m having a big fangirl moment here and I hope I can keep it together.

Tim Haley 01:53

She is, too. It’s for real, yep.

Candice Reed 01:56

So that I don’t make too big of a fool of myself in introducing and talking to her over the next few minutes. With us today, we have Michelle Browning Coughlin. Many of you may know her as the founder of MothersEsquire, and we will get to that in a minute. But I want to tell you a little bit more about her practice and how you can find her if you have any intellectual property needs that she could assist with.

Candice Reed 02:22

So Michelle is an experienced lawyer presently with ND Galli Law, which is a woman-owned law firm. She advises clients regarding trademark, copyright, trade secret, rights of publicity matters, and works with her clients on every stage of brand development from trademark searching, selection and prosecution, to domain name and social media strategy, to licensing and enforcement. That, right there, is enough to make her fabulous, right? But there’s more. Listen. Michelle has been included in Chambers, Rising Stars, and Top Lawyers, Louisville, as well as Business First’s 40 under 40. She was also included in Louisville Business First’s 20 People To Know in Law in May, 2021, and has received numerous other awards recognizing her contributions to the legal profession.

Candice Reed 03:17

Now, how I came to know of Michelle is through her work on issues relating to gender equity and her founding of MothersEsquire, which is a national nonprofit organization which has nearly 8,000 members nationwide, including me, and advocates for gender equity, motherhood, and caregiver issues. In November, 2019, Michelle authored the children’s book, My Mom, the Lawyer, and donated all proceeds of this book to MothersEsquire to support its advocacy initiatives. She also serves on the ABA Commission on Women and is an Adjunct Professor of Gender Law and Policy at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law and Northern Kentucky University Chase School of Law. And she is the mom of two teenage daughters. So let’s all take a breath and just recognize and celebrate the fabulousness of Michelle Browning Coughlin. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Michelle.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 04:25

Oh my gosh, Candice, thank you so much for having me.

Tim Haley 04:29

Michelle has a ton of fabulousness. It’s just a lot.

Candice Reed 04:32

I can’t even think of another word. Here I am, otherwise a walking thesaurus, and I can’t think of anything other than fabulous to describe you.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 04:40

I think it just means that I’m kind of getting old now, because I’ve just had time to do more stuff.

Tim Haley 04:45


Candice Reed 04:47

There’s no way. You’re like the Kevin Costner of the Oscars. I don’t know if you saw his speech where he just waxed on and on about the wonder of the movie industry before he gave his award, but it was pretty funny. I was having a conversation with someone about that earlier this week.

Candice Reed 05:04

Anyway, let’s get back to today and the topic at hand. We want to talk about women and moms in the law, and what we are doing and not doing to support them and what we could be doing better or what changes we should think about or consider or work towards to create a more equal, fair legal profession. So to get us started, Michelle, and to introduce you to our listening audience, tell me, or tell us, why you decided to become a lawyer.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 05:41

Well, that’s a very interesting question, because I didn’t actually go to law school until I was a bit older, actually. I was already a mom when I started law school. And I guess going back, I grew up in a really small town. I was originally born outside of Nashville, Tennessee, but I mostly grew up on a farm in rural Kentucky. And growing up, I was always a really good student, and so I heard over and over again, “Well, you have to be a doctor or a lawyer, a doctor or a lawyer, doctor or a lawyer.” So I actually got a biochemistry degree, got accepted into medical school, started medical school, and decided, “Ugh. I don’t think this is right for me.”

Candice Reed 06:16

Oh, wow.

Tim Haley 06:16


Michelle Browning Coughlin 06:17

And at the time, the conversation that I had with my mom was, “But don’t worry, mom. I’m going to go to law school instead.” Because I think those were the two options that were in my mind, doctor or lawyer. Anyway, I did not go on to law school though, I actually went and got a master’s in social work. And I worked as a social worker for a number of years doing a lot of work that I think was the predecessors to the work that MothersEsquire has become for me and the work on the ABA Commission has become for me, and that is I have always had a passion around social justice and looking at social justice from a systems perspective. I think it’s very easy to focus in on individuals, and we have a tendency to want to focus in on what an individual can do to change a situation. But I’m very big on looking at, what are the systems that need to change in order to support individuals in living their best lives, having their best selves come to work, for example.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 07:17

And so, that’s why I’ve really always steered MothersEsquire, which I know we’ll talk about in a moment, to looking at big solutions, looking at solutions that attack systems rather than telling people things that they can change to adapt to the system that we have. And that’s really one of my foundational beliefs, or foundational sort of advocacy positions, is that I don’t want to try to keep telling women how to adapt to a system that doesn’t work for them. I want to change the system so that it will work for them, because frankly, I think it works better for men that way, too. So I always say the gender equity issues and the motherhood penalty are like a brick wall that’s in front of us. And I don’t want more climbing skills. I don’t want to teach other women more climbing skills. I want to take the bricks out of the wall.

Tim Haley 08:08

So there’s a lot to unpack there. First question I have is, you talked about systems and thinking in terms of systems, that’s kind of opposite to the way most lawyers are taught to think about issues and dive down and think about the granular and fit it into the system as it exists. Is that something that you learned over time or is that something that you came to the profession with?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 08:30

I’ve never had anybody ask me that question or sort of compare and contrast it in that way. That’s very interesting. I truly think my social work background was really instrumental, in that my social work program that I went to was very social justice focused, but still there were opportunities there certainly to become an individual therapist or counselor or work on an individual level. I always gravitated towards the macro sort of approach to things. And so, I think I definitely came to the profession with that, and I think I apply that even in my work, though certainly, I can dig into the details and the granular of a situation with a client when that’s appropriate. But I do think that I came to the profession with that sort of bigger macro kind of view and approach to how to solve problems.

Tim Haley 09:17

That’s great. So let’s talk about the systems.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 09:20

Gender equity and the motherhood penalty is really the foundation of why MothersEsquire has continued to exist. I won’t say that’s why it started, because that’s not why it started. I didn’t know what the motherhood penalty was when I started MothersEsquire. I learned that along the way. I started the group because I was drowning. I was a lawyer. I had two little kids at home, because like I said, I had a kid when I started law school. I had another child during law school, so when I graduated, I had a toddler and a preschooler. And I started out in a big firm. I did very well in law school. And so, I was hired by one of the biggest law firms in town. And I went into the associate class like all the other law students coming out, except I had two little kids at home. And it was very overwhelming at times. And I think coming to it from the background that I had, I had always been able to sort of dive into something and tackle it and get it done. So I was that straight A student. And when I put my mind to something, I got it done. Well, all of a sudden, I didn’t feel like I was getting anything done. I didn’t feel like I could. I would always say “I’m an A+ person doing a C job at everything.” That’s how I felt. And I thought, “I cannot be the only person who feels this way.” And I looked around, and I really struggled to find other people around me to talk to or to connect with or to pattern myself after or just to sort of figure out how to go forward and not feel like that all the time.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 10:43

And so, I thought, “Maybe there’s a…” Well, I actually thought, “Maybe there’s resources out there.” So I looked around, I couldn’t find anything, and I thought, “Maybe there’s a group.” Couldn’t find anything, and I thought, “Well, if there’s not a group, I’m going to start a group.” So I started this little group, and no anticipation that this is what it would become. But then, it kind of became my mission to provide resources to that group. So I would research and I would find articles and I would share articles and I would read all those articles. And over the time, I just came to really want to know, “Is this just me? Am I doing something wrong or is there a systems issue here?” And that’s when I began to really research and learn more about the motherhood penalty, and it really shaped how the group grew from there.

Candice Reed 11:24

So Michelle, how would you describe the motherhood penalty?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 11:27

So the motherhood penalty is a bias that exists based on our perceptions and assumptions about what mothers should be like and what they should do with their time, in short. So it is an assumption about mothers, particularly in the workforce, that they are less committed, that they are frankly less competent, which really gets my goat. I don’t like that one at all. And that they’re just not going to be… They’re not as valuable as a member of a workforce, and therefore they don’t get paid as well. And research bears this out over and over again, that we have these assumptions and perceptions about mothers versus fathers and mothers versus non-parenting employees, that mothers are less available and that they’re just not as valued. And so, those biases, whether we’re aware of them or not, get put on to mothers and then it holds mothers back so they get less chances to be interviewed. Once they get hired, they aren’t as likely to be advanced or given opportunities to advance. They’re often paid significantly less. So if you look at the wage penalty, gender wage gap, there’s actually shown over time some closing of that gap between certain groups of women, mostly young white women. But the gap has actually grown between mothers and fathers. So motherhood is a real economic issue for women. And I think it’s just something that we need to better understand and talk more about, and know how to course correct and change the systems that sort of reinforce the motherhood penalty and reinforce the consequences of that to mothers.

Tim Haley 13:18

So to be clear, this motherhood penalty that you’re describing and the research that you alluded to, is across professions, across industries, is not specific to the legal industry, but we see it manifest itself in certain ways among lawyers and legal professionals. How do you think that the motherhood penalty or how have you seen it manifest itself within the legal profession?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 13:48

Yes, Candice, that’s exactly right. It does go across all professions. Across every education level, we see this motherhood penalty persist. However, in the legal profession, one of the things that I think is particularly challenging is because of the ways that we tend to quantify the productivity, right? Because we do really focus in on quantity of time versus quality of work product. There is certainly a, at least in billable hour models, right?

Candice Reed 14:16


Michelle Browning Coughlin 14:17

And there’s an expectation of essentially perfect quality for everything in the legal profession. But then, we measure success and performance by quantity of time in so much of this profession. And moreover, I think the legal profession both requires and reinforces that always available worker model, that you’re always available, you’re always responsive to clients. That is something that disproportionately is more harmful to mothers. And the reason it’s more harmful to mothers is not the workplace’s fault, per se, so I think there are biases in the workplace that get projected on the mothers that cause them to not have an equal opportunity in the workforce. However, societally, we also continue to have our own perceptions about mothers, and we tend to still disproportionately expect mothers to do more housework, more childcare, more filling out forms. If I don’t show up at a doctor’s appointment, yikes, I’m a bad mom. Tim, what happens if you don’t show up at a doctor’s appointment?

Tim Haley 15:21

Well, it’s happened before.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 15:22

And? Where are you?

Candice Reed 15:24

Oh, he’s at work.

Tim Haley 15:25

I’m at work. Yeah, that’s right.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 15:27

I’m at work. He’s at work. Dad’s great. Dad’s at work.

Tim Haley 15:30

So let me ask you —

Michelle Browning Coughlin 15:31

The expectations are different, right?

Tim Haley 15:33

Is that changing generationally? I know that weird spot in the workforce now where there’s multiple generations out. And I don’t always go to the doctors, but I do sometimes, and sometimes my wife works. And I don’t know if that’s something that’s changing just as the workforce graduates old norms, or if that’s something that you’ve looked at ever.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 15:53

Well, there are studies that show Millennials, I do think that there are changing attitudes. And I do think dads… I think this is a disservice to dads. Please don’t think that I’m blaming anyone or that —

Tim Haley 16:05

I’m not, no. All good.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 16:06

No, I’m just saying in general for your listeners, this is not about blame. I think this harms dads as much as it does moms in so many ways, because I think that for dads who would like to be more involved and who… It’s like two sides of the same coin, right? Because for moms, it says, “You shouldn’t be in the workforce. You shouldn’t be working this much. You need to be in a hundred places at once because you have all these caregiving responsibilities and all of this on top of the work that you’re doing.” For dad’s, it says, “You shouldn’t go to that doctor’s appointment.”

Tim Haley 16:39


Michelle Browning Coughlin 16:39

“You shouldn’t go to that game. You shouldn’t have to leave to go pick up. Your kids shouldn’t show up in the background of a Zoom meeting because your wife should be handling them.” I cannot tell you the number of stories that I have heard from people who’ve had their spouses, their male spouses, business partners or bosses say to them, “Isn’t your wife at home? Can’t she take care of those kids?” But it hurts the dads.

Candice Reed 17:01

That is so true. That is so true.

Tim Haley 17:03

That is true, yeah.

Candice Reed 17:04

So much of what you’re saying, Michelle, is relatable. I feel like I’ve had these very conversations with some of my girlfriends who are also mom lawyers, as well as some of my guy friends who are also dad lawyers. And it reminds me of moments during the pandemic when both my lawyer husband and I were at home working while our daughter was in school from our guest bedroom. And I would hear him explain, “Well, yes, my wife is primarily assisting our daughter with school, but she works, too.” So it was almost like he was having to make excuses for when he needed to jump off of a Zoom or end his workday early or whatever, because it was exactly what you just mentioned. The assumption was, “Well, you’ve got full-time support. You can just work around the clock. You don’t have to jump off Zoom because your wife may have a podcast that she needs to record. And so, someone needs to make sure that the kid doesn’t walk through the door or something like that.”

Candice Reed 18:20

And so, I do think that these biases that you’re describing are on point. They are real. They might be changing, but I don’t see a removal of them. For example, I don’t think that we are going to get rid of these biases or get rid of the problem just by bringing in a new generation of parents who are more used to professional parents and maybe just more progressive ideals about the stereotypes of mom and dad. I still think that even with the influx of younger generations entering the legal profession, we’re still battling these biases even when we’re not fitting within the stereotype, right?

Tim Haley 19:10


Michelle Browning Coughlin 19:10


Candice Reed 19:10

It’s like, “How can you still think that about working moms or working parents, when you are literally working with moms and dads who don’t fit that stereotype?”

Michelle Browning Coughlin 19:20


Candice Reed 19:20

It’s amazing how powerful they are.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 19:22

Well, and I think my experience has been watching that get reinforced through sort of a process of socialization within law firms, too. Because if you’re the young male who’s married, so say a heterosexual couple who’s married. And you walk into a law firm, there’s a real clear expectation based on the older partners, the older partners. And you see them, and how are they structuring their lives? How are they making it all work? How are they successful? I think there’s a real strong socialization about what’s okay and what’s right. And I’m not saying younger people aren’t pushing against that, but I think it’s hard to make the change, because oftentimes the employment situation that a younger person finds them in just reinforces that notion again to go ahead and… I’ve seen a lot of young people choose to have their spouse at home even when they’re significantly younger than me.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 20:21

And I started to say this a moment ago and then I got sidetracked. But there’s actually some studies —

Tim Haley 20:23

That’s my fault. I’m sorry.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 20:25

No, no. I was trying to answer your question, Tim, that I’ve seen a study that talked about Millennials actually wanting more of what we call “traditional,” I’m using air quotes for the listeners, “traditional” family structures and that they were still tending to want to shift back to this one parent stays at home, one parent goes to work. And so seeing those structures, and the one parent that stays home though still is very likely to be the woman in the situation. And so, I think things are going to change. I do think that the younger generations are going to push harder for that. I think Gen Z is not going to stand by and say, “I’m going to be the breadwinner dad. And I’m going to…” I just don’t think it’s going to continue, but I think it’s going to be a slow, long process.

Tim Haley 21:14

Yeah. I think non-scientific, right, just completely anecdotal, the changes are all very incremental and very slow and probably slower than what most people like on either side or maybe faster depending on your perspective.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 21:28

We are 135 years away from gender pay equity at the current rate. That increased —

Candice Reed 21:36


Tim Haley 21:36

That’s encouraging.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 21:36

That increased by 36 years —

Tim Haley 21:39


Michelle Browning Coughlin 21:39

… over a one-year period during the pandemic because of the changes.

Tim Haley 21:42

Just over Covid. Wow.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 21:42

Mm-hmm. Which is the longest, I don’t want to say increase or decrease. It was the longest, the most substantial impact on how long it’s going to take us to get there in one year that we’ve seen in a long time. Not surprising, though.

Tim Haley 21:57


Michelle Browning Coughlin 21:57

But yes, I can’t wait 135 years to get to pay equity. We have to change systems. We have to look at that kind of thinking and really think about how we change things, and not allow this sort of gradual slow pace be the only way that things move forward. Because I do think that’s going to happen, but I think it’s much too slow.

Candice Reed 22:19

So what are some of the changes that you would like to see?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 22:22

There’s so many. That’s such a good question. Let’s start with some basics, right? We are one of the only industrialized countries that does not provide paid maternity leave in this world. We do not provide paid maternity leave. This is basic. But not only do we not provide paid maternity leave, we certainly don’t provide paid paternity leave. And let me ask you, what message do we send to people, in the cases where we do provide maternity leave but we don’t provide paternity leave. Talk about this cultural indoctrination of who does what, because we say, “Mom, go home. Take care of that baby for 12 weeks. Dad, see you back at work tomorrow.” We are reinforcing over and over again gender stereotypical roles. We are dismissing fathers as important, key parents. We are totally pushing down their desire to be that parent by not allowing them to have that time.

Candice Reed 23:26

So Michelle, I know that you recently argued before the Florida Supreme Court on the Parental Continuance Rule. Can you tell us what that is and what your argument was?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 23:37

Yes. This relates back to our discussion about maternity and paternity leave and ensuring that parental leave is both granted, paid for, and gender neutral. In court, of course, court is not your employer, so there’s not an employer/employee relationship there. Therefore, they don’t have an obligation to grant any leave for you. However, if you are due to present an argument in a court or due for hearing and you’ve just had a baby, the goal of the Parental Continuance Rule is to have a presumption that a request for leave for purposes of having or adopting a baby would be granted. And so, it is a gender neutral rule and it’s gender neutral for that very reason. As I argued before the Florida Supreme Court, men deserve better than to be treated as second string parents, and women deserve to not have their career interrupted or having their maternity leave interrupted because they can’t get opposing counsel to agree with them for a leave or they can’t get a continuance granted. And so, the goal of that is to sort of complement a paid maternity and maternity leave with your employer.

Tim Haley 24:48

In addition to paid maternity and parental leave, I’ve heard you speak before about how we, particularly as lawyers, need to normalize caregiving. Can you speak to what you mean by that, and how that is one of the systemic changes that we need to make in order to get closer to gender equity in the law?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 25:12

Yes. That’s a really good question, Candice. I have a really great friend who talks about “mom-ing out loud,” which I love that idea.

Candice Reed 25:20

I love that, too.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 25:22

Yes, and so we’re “dad-ing out loud,” right? It’s about making sure that we don’t create barriers to… For example, I was told when I was a young associate that, “Don’t tell anybody where you’re going if you have to do something with your children. Just tell people you’re at a meeting.” Now I’m not saying that that’s bad advice. I’m saying I wish that wasn’t necessary advice.

Candice Reed 25:44


Tim Haley 25:44


Michelle Browning Coughlin 25:44

And I’m saying that if you are a person who has the power and the influence in the place that you work, I would like to ask you to not require people to hide their caregiving responsibilities. And it’s not just about caregiving, it’s about allowing people to bring their whole selves to work. When you first were introducing and saying hello to each other for the podcast, we talked about it being Lawyer Wellbeing Week. Well, being a caregiver and allowing people to have that be part of their identity at work is part of wellbeing. And if you don’t have children, if running marathons is what you do, or if you have a four-legged baby that you love, that’s part of who you are. And allowing people to bring their whole selves to work is part of caregiving.

Candice Reed 26:28


Michelle Browning Coughlin 26:28

And that includes letting us talk about our children. I cannot tell you the number of women, especially somewhat older women, but not older than me, who have said, “I never told anybody at work that I had children. They never knew I had children” because they were afraid of being penalized for having children. And so I think changing the workforce to ensure that we allow people to bring all of themselves, including their caregiving roles, into the workplace, not to have to hide it, I think is really important.

Candice Reed 27:00

I think that is such an important point, Michelle. I can remember as a young attorney, this was before I was even married and a lot before I had my daughter, but I can remember at least feeling the way that you are describing. You know, like not putting pictures of my family in my office. I never brought a date to a work event, because I felt like that was showing too much of my personal self and I wanted to keep the separation between work and personal. But I think that as hard as the pandemic was, that was one silver lining of the pandemic, was that we all brought our whole selves to work for a couple of years.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 27:49


Candice Reed 27:49

We had to. Like I mentioned before, my entire family was working and living in the same space for over a year. And so, all of my Latitude partners and colleagues, they all got to know my daughter. There was no hiding her. She will not be hidden. And she, I think, helped me to even more so embrace all of my strengths. And many of my strengths are derived from being a mom. And I can put those strengths to work for me and my work team on both the personal and the professional. I shouldn’t have to set those aside or I shouldn’t have to set aside a piece of my identity that is so important to me and who I am. And so, I really hope people hear this. It was freeing for me. I remember it was a client who seemingly gave me permission to be human during the pandemic when I was on the phone with her. And I think something happened that resulted in a lot of screaming or something, who knows, but I apologized. And she was much older. She had grandchildren. And she said, “Why would you apologize for being a mom?”

Tim Haley 29:07


Michelle Browning Coughlin 29:08

Oh, I love that.

Candice Reed 29:08

And it was like this aha moment for me, where I realized that that’s what I had been doing. And I refuse to do that anymore.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 29:16

Good for you.

Tim Haley 29:17


Michelle Browning Coughlin 29:17

And I have to say, as a moment of humor here, that my favorite were the numerous stories posted in MothersEsquire about children yelling out about how they had to poop in the background —

Tim Haley 29:27

That’s good.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 29:30

… while somebody was on a… That’s my favorite. There’s nothing better than that. Hysterical.

Tim Haley 29:33

So —

Candice Reed 29:35

Tim, do you have something to add to that?

Tim Haley 29:37

Yes, I do, actually. No, the loyal podcast listeners know that there was several instances I was on either Zoom or a business call where I had to excuse myself to chase my naked three-year-old running down the street. It happened multiple times. But what I was going to comment on, Michelle, was when you’re talking about allowing people to bring their whole selves to work, that’s an echo of another conversation, Candice, that we had on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, where just to create a workspace, a workplace, where everyone can be their absolute best. It was one of the keys to allow them to bring their whole selves to work. And it can mean a whole lot of different things, but it’s an interesting echo of an earlier conversation that at least I found interesting.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 30:23

I’m glad you mentioned that, because as you were talking about this when we were talking about this notion of — Candice, you said how you don’t want to hide that part of your identity. Well, when we think about diversity, certainly it’s so important that we think about the broad categories of diversity that we often think of, and making sure that we are very inclusive. But layered underneath that are lots of other parts of diversity that are so important. Letting people bring who they are to work adds to the intellectual thought that goes into work product and thinking through solutions to problems. And so, diversity, all types of diversity are very important, and that means allowing people to bring their whole selves to work.

Candice Reed 31:13

Absolutely. I’m want to talk specifically about MothersEsquire, both the organization and also a conference that you are hosting next week live and in person, which I’m so excited about.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 31:28

Me, too.

Candice Reed 31:30

But tell me, you mentioned earlier how you stumbled into founding MothersEsquire. What is its mission, and has that mission changed over the years?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 31:40

So the mission is focused on creating community for women, moms who are lawyers, also law students who are moms, as well as lawyers or law students who are contemplating becoming moms or maybe they’re stepmoms, all sorts of definitions of moms, right? We do want to have community for people who haven’t yet become moms but know that is in their path, because we think that we can provide resources and support through the transition of becoming a mother and sort of managing that with your legal career. And so, the mission of it is to create community. And then, on the advocacy side, it’s about elevating women’s voices through things like our partnership with Above the Law, through this conference, and through other opportunities that we can to give women a platform to tell their stories, to give mothers an opportunity to tell their stories. And certainly, we have advocacy projects that we work on.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 32:33

So My Mom, the Lawyer is a children’s book, but it’s really an advocacy project because it’s really about normalizing having a professional mom, normalizing having a mom who’s a lawyer, who works in all sorts of different settings, because we often only see lawyers in sort of the courtroom Law and Order kind of setting. And it’s normalizing things like, “Sometimes dad’s the caretaker and the caregiver and sometimes mom’s at work and she can’t make it to the school program. And that’s okay because there are other people in your life who love you, too, and that they’re going to be there with you.”

Michelle Browning Coughlin 33:06

And so, even the children’s book is an advocacy at first. We also do a lot of work around breastfeeding, ensuring those breastfeeding access because we think that’s a really critical issue that can be a gatekeeping sort of issue for moms, when they first become a mom, they’re trying, and then they run into a really problematic obstacle. And I’m really passionate about this issue, in part because, one, it should be solvable. And it’s like you know when you see that problem that you can fix, you’re like, “Well, okay, let’s fix that. I can’t fix everything, but I can fix that.” Except it’s a lot harder to fix than I thought it would be. It’s a lot harder to fix than it should be. But also because I think breastfeeding represents a moment where we’re kind of saying to a mom, “Well, you can either be a lawyer or you can feed your child.”

Candice Reed 33:51


Michelle Browning Coughlin 33:51

“Which one do you want to do?” And that’s really important. Let me cut to the conference really quick because I’m sorry, I got a little sidetracked. The conference is coming up on May the 13th. It’s going to be hosted in Louisville. We have tried to have this conference for the past two years, and we have had to delay it multiple times, so this one’s happening if we have to show up in hazmat suits.

Candice Reed 34:11

I’ll be there.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 34:12

We are having this conference. So bring your hazmat suit, bring your mask, bring whatever you need. We are having this conference. And most of the speakers are moms and lawyers. We have a couple of speakers who are moms and other professionals, but that are law adjacent. And I think it’s going to be a really great day of really about empowering mom lawyers, and really about thinking about these sort of systems changes.

Tim Haley 34:36

Yeah. Michelle, I’m looking at the agenda now. There’s a lot of really great stuff for all kinds of lawyers, courtroom lawyers, transactional attorneys, and just generally great practice advice and great parenting sessions, too.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 34:49

Yeah. I’m really excited about Rachel Bailey on parenting. She’s a therapist, and she’s coming in talking about parenting like a lawyer, which is really an interesting thing to think about, because there’s sort of traits of being a lawyer and then there’s traits of being a parent, and sometimes those two things can clash. And I think that’s going to be a super great session. Some really key things I’d like to share with you about the conference, though. Number one, onsite childcare paid for by one of our sponsors. So it’s free and accessible to any member who comes, who signs up, and wants to bring their child and have their child in childcare. Number two, we have beautiful clean, accessible, well-stocked breastfeeding rooms on site at the conference space, where the conference is also going to be accessible if you are in that space. So you’ll be able to access at least the audio for the conference. Number three, all of our speakers are paid speakers. I do not want to hear about unpaid labor of women anymore. I am so… Women get asked to engage in unpaid labor all the time. We did not want to have any unpaid speakers. So other than our board members who are attending the conference, all of our speakers are paid speakers.

Candice Reed 36:04

I really appreciate how you are modeling what you would like to see the reality become, or modeling the behavior that you would like to see. It is such a great conference in regard to the agenda. But these extra things, which shouldn’t be extra, right? That’s the point. It shouldn’t be… These should be accommodations, particularly having clean, comfortable lactation rooms. I can raise my hand and say that I absolutely was a nursing mom who had to nurse in a public bathroom or a closet or a utility room.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 36:44

The car, yeah. In a closet.

Candice Reed 36:45

And it’s like nursing bingo or something. Where have you nursed your child or pumped, anyway? Maybe not nursed, but at least pumped. But I think that it’s admirable and also an example of advocacy by putting forth this conference in a way that you feel like that it should be done. All conferences should be done, so thank you for that.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 37:07

Well, shout out to —

Candice Reed 37:07

I appreciate it.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 37:08

Oh, thank you. Shout out to Laura Landenwich, she’s our conference chair. She’s Vice President. She and I have been dear friends for a long time, and she has been really leading the charge here and doing a great job. And I think the question I asked when we started along the path of having a conference was, “There are a lot of conferences. What are we adding to the world by having a conference? What are we giving to the world that’s not there by having a conference?” And I think that’s what we came to, is that ensuring that we are modeling what a conference could look like and should look like, which guess what? Candice, that’s a parenting skill, right? That’s one of those things that moms bring.

Candice Reed 37:48


Michelle Browning Coughlin 37:49

And dads bring to law, is that we model the kind of behaviors that we expect for others. And I do think being a parent is really good training for being a really good lawyer.

Candice Reed 38:00

It ties back to something that I’ve heard you say before about how there’s nobody more equipped for breaking down walls than a mom in her minivan.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 38:11

Exactly. I can do anything in my minivan, I mean anything.

Candice Reed 38:16

It’s like, “Just follow along, people. Watch us lead here.” We mentioned earlier that you have two teenage daughters. What do they think about their mom, the lawyer?

Michelle Browning Coughlin 38:27

Aw, you’re going to make me cry if you ask me that question. My girls are awesome. They are really awesome. They’re in high school, and we’re at that point where that sort of give and take of me learning how to step back a little, but still being there. And it’s a little bit of a dance of, how much do you help? How much do you back off? But watching them go through that and watching them see you, oh my gosh, I really am going to cry, watching them see you as a grownup and not just as their mom and start to be proud of you. And when I share with them an article that’s been written about something that we’ve done, to watch them be like, “Mom, that’s so great. I’m so proud of you.” And my junior, my daughter who’s a junior in high school, asked the teacher who’s actually teaching an intellectual property elective class at her high school, said, “You should have my mom come speak.” And so, tomorrow I’m going to go speak at her high school on intellectual property.

Tim Haley 39:37

That’s fantastic. That’s great. That’s awesome.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 39:38

So anyway, I think they are really proud of me. And, God, there is nothing more in this world that matters to me than that.

Candice Reed 39:47

That is wonderful. I know they’re proud of you. How could they not be proud of you? There are women all over this country who are proud of you, Michelle, who you’ve never even met.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 39:56


Candice Reed 39:57

I was one of them up until just a few minutes ago. I had my own moment that I’ll share. This was back in the fall. We’re now back at school. This year has been on-campus, and like I think most schools do, there was a week in the fall where the kids had a dress up day every day. For anyone who’s listening, Pajama Day is, like —

Tim Haley 40:22

That’s so awesome.

Candice Reed 40:22

The bane of my… I hate it. I hate it.

Tim Haley 40:22

Yeah. It’s the best. It’s the best day.

Candice Reed 40:27

My goal as a mom some days is just to get my kid out of her pajamas. And yet, you’re going to make a whole day around it.

Tim Haley 40:35

Yeah, but it’s so easy to get in the car and go to school.

Candice Reed 40:38

But putting that day aside, there was a day towards the end of the week, I don’t know what the days were. One was Favorite Sports Team Day and another one was Inside Out Day or Wacky Hair Day or something like that. And then, I think the last one was Super Hero Day. And I was in the car with my daughter. We were driving to do some errand, and we were going through all the days. planning ahead. You know, like, “What are you going to wear for Wacky Hair, Wacky Inside Out Day or whatever?” I think one was Generations Day. She wanted to dress up someone from the seventies or something. Anyway, Superhero Day, I’m like, “Okay.” We watch DC Super Hero Girls all the time. This is one of her favorite cartoons. So I’m like, “Is it Wonder Woman? Is it Supergirl?” And she’s in the backseat and just… She’s eight years old, and she just very nonchalantly says, “No, mommy. I’m going to dress up like you that day.”

Michelle Browning Coughlin 41:40

Oh, stop it.

Candice Reed 41:41

I know. And do you know, of course I had a moment right there in the car where I practically had to pull over to the side of the road.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 41:47

I would have to pull over.

Candice Reed 41:50

But that next Friday, she knew exactly what she wanted to wear. She was so proud of what she had put together. And of course, I was so proud that I had inspired her in that small way. And I will tell you, Michelle, that when I took the picture, the very first people that I shared it with and shared that story with was the MothersEsquire membership.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 42:15


Candice Reed 42:15

Because I felt like, “Hey, everybody. Hey, moms. They are watching. They are watching and they understand, and they are proud of us. And they do appreciate how hard we’re working, not just at our jobs, but also in trying to keep it all together.” Right? And so, it was just a moment that I felt like was all of ours, not just mine. So that is a story that hopefully tells you how much I appreciate the community that you have brought together as MothersEsquire, in addition to the powerful advocacy that you and others in the organization as a whole are doing on behalf of women and moms and dads and men and women, in terms of creating a more just and fair and equitable legal profession. So thank you so much.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 43:10

Oh, Candice, thank you. That story just blows me away. And it is exactly what the group stands for, is being that loving community of support to cheer you on, and to just remember those moments and hold those moments with you and celebrate those moments with you. And it just makes my day. I just love that story. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. I am the one who feels grateful. So I needed help, and I created a little group to help me that ended up helping me over and over again in ways that I never knew or expected, because watching people succeed in that way is just all that I could ask for. It means the world to me, so I’m so thankful.

Tim Haley 44:00

MothersEsquire Together We Rise: The Power of Lawyer Moms, Friday, May 13th, Louisville, Kentucky. You could probably Google that, but it’s for more information for registration. There’s a virtual option if you happen to be on the West Coast or East Coast or otherwise can’t make it to Louisville.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 44:17

There’s also going to be bourbon. I’m just saying.

Tim Haley 44:17

Oh. Wow.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 44:24

It’s Louisville. You would not have had a trip to Louisville if you did not drink some bourbon, so there is bourbon.

Candice Reed 44:27

Here we are again, just dispelling all of those mother stereotypes. We’re not going to be sipping Chardonnay on the veranda. We’re going to be —

Michelle Browning Coughlin 44:37

That’s right. No wine and bon bons, we’re going to get some hardcore bourbon, sister.

Candice Reed 44:42

I’m there for it. I am there for it. Well, Michelle, thank you so much for your time and your perspective and your expertise and advocacy and all of it. Just thank you for all of it.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 44:53

Candice, thank you, and Tim, thank you.

Candice Reed 44:54

It’s been a joy to talk to you today.

Tim Haley 44:55

Oh, my pleasure.

Michelle Browning Coughlin 44:57

Thank you so much. I’m really glad I got to be with you all today. And keep mom-ing out loud.

Tim Haley 45:02

Absolutely. The pleasure is ours.

Candice Reed 45:02


Tim Haley 45:03

Thank you so much.

Tim Haley 45:08

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