Janie Schulman of Morrison & Foerester, Janice MacAvoy of Fried Frank and Alicia Handy of Latham Watkins. (HANDOUT)
Most lawyers I know are a bit uptight. They don’t usually reveal too much information, particularly if it might cast them in a negative or controversial light. They don’t even like to admit to having a cold, lest their professional armor appears tarnished.
Why, then, would lawyers working at major law firms, the epitome of corporate discretion, go public about their own abortions? Weren’t they worried about the reaction of clients and colleagues? Did their firms try to stop them? Or is abortion not a controversial subject in the world of elite law firms?
I’ve been curious about those questions since Tony Mauro of The National Law Journal reported that some 113 female lawyers signed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court challenging Texas’s restrictions on abortion clinics. (The high court is expected to rule on the case this summer.) The brief was powerful, both as narrative and symbol. There were personal anecdotes about the women’s abortions, though they were not identified with the individual signers.
I tracked down three of the signers from Big Law to see what possessed them to go public about such a private matter, and how it’s affected their career thus far.
Two partners at big firms (Morrison & Foerster and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson) say that they did consider their clients’ reaction before going public. For about a minute. “I thought about my clients, but I assumed that they wouldn’t disapprove or care,” says Janie Schulman, the co-chair of MoFo’s employment and labor group. She adds that she did not seek approval from the firm’s management committee.
Janice MacAvoy, the head of Fried Frank’s real estate litigation practice, did confer with the head of the firm beforehand about identifying herself as a partner of the firm. (She did.) But she says she wasn’t all that concerned about colleagues or clients. “I work on real estate transactional matters, and my clients skew liberal,” says MacAvoy.
What concerned both women more was getting their families’ approval, particularly their kids’. “Their reaction was, ‘you should definitely do it,’ ” says Schulman about the response from her two teenage kids. MacAvoy got a similar reaction: “ My 17-year old daughter said she would be disappointed if I didn’t do it.”
For Latham & Watkins associate Alicia Handy, though, the concern was how her parents would react to the disclosure. “I was not worried about career ramifications,” says Handy, who works in the firm’s Houston office. “I was more concerned about how my family would react,” adding that her parents—though they knew about the abortion—are very private.
As for getting the nod from the firm, Handy says it didn’t occur to her to ask. So far, she says she’s heard from two of the firm’s partners who’ve expressed support. “A Chicago partner reached out to me, and her subject line was, ‘Thank you.’ ” Though no one from her own office has commented about her role in the amicus brief, Handy sees it neither as a sign of approval or disapproval: “ Lawyers here in Houston are about getting deals done.” But Handy says that even if she worked at a small Texas firm, where lawyers might be more conservative, she would have done the same thing: “I’m aware of how my voice can be used.”
All three women say it’s critical to take the stigma out of having an abortion. They also want to counter the stories of regret from women who’ve had abortions that are used by anti-abortion groups in their campaigns. “We are not some nameless group,” says Schulman. “I like the notion that women like me are showing to the public and the court that [abortion] is not a morally repugnant thing, that women have compelling reasons for having them.”
And what about the negative fallout? “People are supportive,” says MacAvoy, though she admits that she’s heard that “certain people at the firm were offended.” But the angry messages that the women have received come from strangers. “One said, ‘your mother should have aborted you, and the world doesn’t need another $800 an hour lawyer,’ ” says MacAvoy. “ I replied, ‘dude, I’m actually $1,200 an hour!’ “