By Martha Waggoner
When attorney Lauren Newton of Charlotte was one week out from a Cesarean section, she was told she had a court brief due in 30 days. While the judge was sympathetic, the opposing counsel was not.
“I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t drive a vehicle,” Newton said at a news conference Tuesday.
She hopes a new rule regarding parental leave and court calendars will prevent similar situations. Under that rule, attorneys can now take 12 weeks off from court appearances for parental leave within 24 weeks after a birth or adoption. Previously, their total leave from court schedules was three weeks.
“In the very same way that we care about the people who are served by our courts, it is important that we value and support the people who work in our courts and bring those services to them,” Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said in announcing the rule change for North Carolina’s approximately 20,000 attorneys. The extended time off “is just a really humane way” to treat attorneys, she said.
In May, Gov. Roy Cooper also extended parental leave for state employees under the governor’s oversight, effective Sept. 1. That policy provides for eight weeks of paid maternity leave after giving birth and four weeks for the partner of someone who gives birth or to care for a newly adopted or foster child.
North Carolina Advocates for Justice, an association of legal professionals, led the campaign for the change, with the support of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys and the state Attorney General’s Office.
“This new rule will contribute substantially to the ongoing conversations about lawyers and wellness and what we can do to ensure that the legal profession remains a long-term, sustainable career choice for all,” said Kim Crouch, executive director of NCAJ.
After she gave birth more than a year ago, Newton said she got a small extension on the court brief, but not the one she sought and ended up working on her maternity leave anyway. That child is now 18 months old; she also has a 5-year-old.
The change comes after a meeting in February between the various legal groups and the chief justice’s professionalism commission. In addition, employees of the state Administrative Office of the Courts will get eight weeks of parental leave, a change that Beasley said affects about 100 workers.
Beasley indicated that more family-friendly changes are ahead for North Carolina’s court system. The commission members have been discussing total wellness for attorneys, including mental health, she said.