JACKSONVILLE — The Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association (JWLA) has been added to the list of groups supporting a proposed rule that would ensure judges grant continuances for parental leave, provided it would cause no substantial harm to the opposition.

In a letter to the Florida Bar Board of Governors, the JWLA said it “is supportive of additional education for judges on the disparate impact of such rulings, [but] education is insufficient to correct the problem. Passage of the proposed rule would increase consistency and fairness across the courts of Florida.”

The Report and Recommendation from the Florida Bar Special Committee on Parental Leave in Court lays out the language for the proposed rule. It reads: “A motion for continuance based on parental leave of the lead attorney in the case shall be granted if made within a reasonable time after learning the basis for the continuance unless substantial prejudice to the opposing party is shown. Three months shall be the presumptive length of a continuance granted for parental leave absent good cause for a longer time. If the court denies the requested continuance, the court shall state on the record the specific grounds for denial.”

Jennifer Shoaf Richardson, an associate at Jackson Lewis and president-elect of the JWLA, explained some of the thought that went into the association’s support for the proposed rule. 

“The bar last year released a survey of young women lawyers, and it found overwhelmingly that they’re still experiencing gender discrimination, both overt and implicit, and sexual harassment,” she told the Florida Record. “And they’re having problems doing things like getting first chair trial experience. They’re hired in equal numbers for associate positions, but they don’t become partners in the same proportion that men do. So the rule is so much more than a three-month delay of trial, it really is a way to normalize equal parenting responsibility, which is known to be a method of narrowing the pay gap as well."

The rule is facing substantial opposition, according to Richardson. 

“Some of the things I’ve heard have been, ‘It’s a slippery slope, what’s next, how much discretion are we going to take away from the judges,’" she said. "Another comment that has been made is that firms will game the system. I find that comment a bit ridiculous. I’ve not noticed a lot of pregnant women being made first chair of trials for the purposes of a continuance. You’re timing would have to be extremely precise to be able to do that.”

Another objection, Richardson said, is that there are ambiguities to the rule. 

“What is parental leave?" she said. "Is it just birth, or is it for adoption, or is it if you need to take care of your child? So there’s that ambiguity in the rule. But many rules have ambiguities, and the courts can sort that out with opinions. That’s something they’re well-equipped to take on.”

The JWLA is not the only group to throw its support behind the proposed rule. The Florida Association for Women Lawyers, the Florida Conference of Circuit Judges, the Miami-Dade chapter of the FAWL, the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, the Pinellas County chapter of the FAWL and the Cuban American Bar Association have submitted letters or resolutions to the Bar Board of Governors in favor of the rule.

“The bar is trying to address gender bias in the workforce right now,” Richardson said. “Only so much of it is in the bar’s control, but the Rules of Judicial Administration are some things that the bar can recommend that the Supreme Court adopts, so this is the tangible stuff that the bar can do to advance gender equality, whereas they can’t mandate pay gaps or 50 percent of equity partners are women. You know, that will not happen.”

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