Boston Globe

Female DA tightens up on maternity leaves

Multiple pregnancies reduce staff, she says

By Tina Cassidy, Globe Staff, 12/14/99

Like many other young female attorneys, Martha Coakley benefited from the support of Middlesex District Attorney Thomas F. Reilly, who made promoting women a top priority.

Coakley prosecuted high-profile cases and gained enough exposure eventually to win election herself as Reilly's successor.

Now Coakley, 46, the first woman elected district attorney in the county, must contend with a sometimes delicate issue in a workplace suddenly crowded with young women in crucial positions.

The DA's office is having a baby boom.

In response, Coakley has tightened up family leave and flexibility in the office, where more than half the staff attorneys are women. She sent out a memo to the staff instructing them that they should adhere to the standard maternity leave guaranteed by law: three months unpaid.

Although Reilly often granted four-month leaves and allowed many new mothers to return to work part time, Coakley said anything more than the standard leave will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Coakley, whose office oversees 35,000 cases with a thinly stretched staff, is hoping that she does not lose more lawyers temporarily to motherhood.

''I think we're going to be OK,'' Coakley said. ''But we don't have a big budget. We don't have any extra staff.''

Eight of the 62 female lawyers on the staff are pregnant, most of them due in the next few months.

Among them are three district court supervisors, who are the ranking prosecutors in those courts, and two child abuse interview specialists.

Three non-lawyers in the office also are expecting babies.

Because state procedures do not easily permit the hiring of temporary employees, Coakley has shifted extra work onto other employees, and called a former staffer out of retirement for a few months.

Jill Reilly, who worked as a press secretary for Thomas Reilly (no relation) when he was district attorney in Middlesex, said the situation Coakley faces is a natural result of the arrival of a high number of young women in recent years, drawn by the office's reputation.

Jill Reilly had premature twins four years ago while at Middlesex and said Thomas Reilly was generous and understanding. She extended her leave slightly beyond three months until she had to return for financial reasons.

''He was really great about it,'' she said. ''But then young women out of college started coming there in droves. ... They came there because they knew the system was flexible. I think that created a lot of things.''

Behind the scenes, Coakley's crackdown has reduced one surprised new mother to tears and has several other expectant mothers concerned about whether three months is enough time for them to bond with their babies before returning to work, according to sources familiar with the issue.

But Coakley and her top staffers - many of them women - said they are trying to be realistic about how much work other employees can absorb for those on maternity leave.

Lynn Rooney, Coakley's deputy first assistant, one of the top two attorneys in the office, had two children when Reilly was district attorney. Now, Rooney is helping Coakley figure out scheduling for the new mothers, and she is doing it on a four-day workweek, an arrangement first set up under Reilly.

The work ''falls on the other people in the particular court to carry those cases through,'' said Rooney, 35, who joined the office out of Boston College Law School. ''It is difficult. But it is the way it has to happen.

''If you get eight people that all go out at once, it could be a really large problem, which is why we have to figure out how long people can be out,'' Rooney said. ''Everyone is notified you have the 12 weeks, you're allowed that by law. What happens after that, well ... we'll look at those individuals.''

Megan Storing, the director overseeing the county's 12 district courts, returned from maternity leave in August.

Running the district courts, where turnover of low-paid assistant district attorneys is a perpetual problem, has been made more difficult by the pregnancies, she said.

''It's one of the more trying aspects of my job in the sense that we have a lot of people we're trying to satisfy,'' said Storing, 37.

Alison Takacs, an assistant district attorney and coordinator of the grand jury who is pregnant with her second child in just over a year, said she will take three months off, a little less than last time.

''I was concerned about what would happen in my absence, seeing that no one else has the experience to cover for me,'' said Takacs, 33.

Fortunately, the retired man she replaced will fill her post during her maternity leave.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 12/14/99.

© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.