The Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association supports a proposed parental leave rule that would require judges to postpone a court case when a lawyer asks for a continuance to attend to their newborn child.
The parental leave rule became a focal point of a State of the Florida Bar 2017 presentation Thursday when nine women raised their hands to show they’ve met resistance getting a continuance to take care of their newborn child.
The JWLA sent a letter to The Florida Bar Board of Governors, stating it strongly supported the proposed rule, which would require the judge to grant a continuance for parental leave.
The March 30 letter said the proposed rule was the only way to create fairness across the state and help parents thrive.
About 70 lawyers attended Thursday’s meeting sponsored by the JWLA at The River Club Downtown.
The parental leave issue came up last year when The Florida Bar’s Diversity Committee said it had found evidence that some judges weren’t seriously considering lawyers’ parental leave requests.
The Diversity Committee adopted a resolution for a rule on judicial procedure that would force judges to grant such requests.
The proposed parental leave rule comes as more women lawyers in Florida are reporting hostility and gender bias in the justice system.
That was revealed in a survey released in December by The Florida Bar’s Young Lawyer Division. It found that about half of the 400 lawyers questioned had experienced some level of hostility or bias.
A statewide Gender Equality in the Legal Profession survey is scheduled to be released in May.
Bill Schifino, president of The Florida Bar, raised the issues in his presentation Thursday, saying he’s heard from some Florida Bar members who believe the parental leave issue should be left to the judge’s discretion.
Others, he said, have remarked that parents could use the recent birth of a child to “game the system.”
The Rules of Judicial Administration Committee has disagreed with the Diversity Committee, refusing to recommend or draft the rule addressing family leave.
On May 26, The Florida Bar Board of Governors will vote on the proposed parental leave rule, which would require that judges grant such continuances unless it would cause substantial harm to participants in the case.
The association’s letter summarizes the experience of one lawyer who works for a small law firm and had recently given birth.
The letter states she requested, but was denied, a continuance in her court case.
As a result, the letter states she was “forced to go to trial over 200 miles away from her 7-week-old newborn daughter in Jacksonville, whom she was breastfeeding.”
Because she had been working on the case since the start, and was intimately knowledgeable about the facts, she couldn’t turn the case over to another lawyer, the letter said. Furthermore, the letter said, the judge was reluctant to give her breaks during the trial to pump breast milk to feed her child and maintain her supply.
“Effectively, her choice was to tell her client to get a new lawyer or to go to trial no matter the circumstances related to her health and the health of her child,” the letter states. “This is not a choice that any attorney should have to make in the absence of substantial prejudice to the opposing party.”
The Florida Bar is tackling other issues this year, including:
• Trust account oversight. The Bar is working with a software vendor on an accounting program that could help lawyers, especially those at small firms, better oversee trust accounts and reduce the number of client complaints to The Florida Bar.
• Florida legislative issues. The Bar opposes proposals that would implement judicial term limits, allow the legislature to override appellate court rulings, and a judicial pay-by-performance bill that would increase the salary for judges who push cases along and clear court dockets.
• Constitutional Review Commission: One of the topics being considered by the commission, which reviews the Florida Constitution once every 20 years, is a proposal to restore voting rights for non-violent felons. More information is at revisefl.com.