Empowering Women in the Legal Arena: A Conversation with Courtney Miller O’Mara

Today is International Women’s Day, recognizing women for their achievements and helping to advance women’s equality across the world. The 2024 theme for International Women’s Day is “Inspire Inclusion”. At Fennemore, we are proud to support the women attorneys and allied legal professionals who continue to excel and contribute to our firm’s success.

This year, we had the pleasure of talking to Courtney Miller O’Mara, a Director in our Reno office, about her experiences as a woman in the legal profession and what advice she has for young female attorneys entering the workforce:

Are there any initiatives or changes you would like to see in the legal industry to better support working mothers?

I would like to see more formal rules regarding litigation deadlines (discovery, trial, etc.) being extended to accommodate family leave and expected due dates for both mothers and fathers. I have had opposing counsel try to insist that I schedule a major oral argument hearing a couple of days before my due date; Counsel said that if I ended up not being available one of the junior attorneys on the file should handle it. I objected and thankfully the Court agreed it should be scheduled after my family leave. The Bar could benefit from more formalized rules that make it standard professional conduct to accommodate both male and female attorneys with growing families. The birth or adoption of a baby is not a litigation delay tactic, it is cause for celebration, even if adjustments need to be made to a litigation schedule. We should support mothers and fathers in the legal community during those important times, not behave as if the accommodation is some serious inconvenience.

Did you have any female mentors or role models who played a significant role in your career development? Who were they and how did they influence you and your successful career?

Definitely! I have been lucky to have a lot of great female mentors, including my current colleague Leslie Bryan Hart, and former colleagues Ann Morgan and Jennifer Smith. Each of them gave me opportunities to grow my skills and shine. And while they provided plenty of helpful advice along the way, and maybe even a shoulder to cry on from time to time, I learned the most just by observing their style of practice. As they say, more is caught than taught!

What would your advice or message be to young female attorneys on this holiday? And to those who aspire to be career-oriented mothers?

My advice is to not be too short-sighted about what balance is possible, do not neglect business development, and don’t underbuy childcare. On the first point, often we women are starting families during the same years when we are hustling as associates, trying to learn the fundamentals of the business and advance on the partnership track. That is a tricky phase, but is also just a phase. With any luck, but also with some concerted hard work, you will not be living the associate life forever!

When I had my first two babies I was an associate and balancing the demands of that role with being a young mom, which was very challenging. At times I really contemplated leaving the law altogether. I was traveling a lot and spending much more time away from my young family than I wanted. But I knew that it had to get better and that I could eventually have more flexibility because I could see attorneys senior to me had the type of work-life balance I wanted for myself. 

And that brings me to the second point: don’t forget to pay attention to the skills necessary to developing business! Developing business is often an essential ingredient to having the autonomy and flexibility that can be so important to making family life and career life work together.

By the time my fourth and fifth children were born, I had more senior roles and generated much of my own business. The fruits of those business development efforts, plus the support of excellent junior attorneys to whom I could delegate, gave me a lot more autonomy about my cases and my schedule. That makes my practice these days, even with five kids, much less stressful than the first few years when I was a young mom.

Finally, do not underappreciate the importance of quality childcare. My husband and I both work full-time as attorneys. We couldn’t run our practices and manage our large family without some help. Our extended families help us, but we also spend plenty on childcare, including an au pair who lives with us and full-time preschool (the older ones are in full-time public school). We could not manage all of the school drop-offs and pickups, sports practices, delayed start days, and other schedule challenges with just the two of us. A wise fellow-lawyer mom told me years ago that you do not want to make the mistake of underbuying in the childcare department and she was right! I’m very thankful for the other loving adults, paid and unpaid, who help my husband and I with our family.