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Fireside Chat with Michelle Travis

April 28, 2024

Michelle Travis

"Have a cry, check. Pick myself up, check. Dust myself off, check. And keep going."


I think people of all ages could use this positive mental checklist from time to time to deal with life's ups and downs... Who is the Yoda behind these wise words, you asked? This sage advice actually comes from an animated TV series called Bluey! If you have young kids or are a kid at heart, you may already be playing this heartwarming, honest, uplifting, and relatable show in your household at all times.


Speaking of learnings from children's content, I sincerely invite you to join this month's Fireside Chat featuring Michelle Travis, who is a law professor as well as the author of this amazing children's picture book, My Mom Has Two Jobs, which celebrates working moms in a wide range of professions. The book had sparked some interesting and hilarious conversations between my kids and me - a wonderful way to introduce them to diverse career options in our society and the second shifts at home that working moms have after a long day at work!


Through Michelle's detailed, thoughtful, and heartfelt sharing, I was immersed in her incredible journey as she introduced the mind-shifting and sustainable concept of work/life integration and how she truly embraced and integrated it fully into her life bringing harmony and her best self to both her home and professional responsibilities! Michelle's words were music to my ears and work/life integration is definitely something that I'd like to achieve for a more fulfilling and satisfying life!


Are you with me and the Equilawbrium community?


Without further ado, let’s get started!

Part 1 - Introduction


Hi, my name is... Michelle Travis.

  • Year of call to the Bar: 1994.

  • Type of practice, your role, and where: I am a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where I lead the Work Law and Justice Program. I previously practiced employment law at a large, private law firm.

  • How many children do you have? I have two teen daughters. One is a high school senior who will soon be off to college, and the other is a high school sophomore.

  • What do you do for self-care or stress relief? I find time every day to play with my adorable goldendoodle, whose joyful exuberance and unconditional love is the best source of stress relief.

  • What would you do for work if you weren’t in the legal profession? It’s hard to imagine not being in the legal profession, which was my plan since childhood, but I’ve secretly dreamed about being a ballerina, a mystery novelist, or a travel guide.


Part 2 - The first “Dual 10” Challenge: within the first 10 years post-license


Equilawbrium: Did you have a master plan for your career path? What was the driving force behind your career decisions? What are the important things to consider as you are figuring out your career path?


Michelle: As a new lawyer, I had more of an outline than a master plan for my career; more a sketch than a full blueprint. I loved being a law student, and I knew that I eventually wanted to return to academia, but wasn’t at all certain about the path to get there.

 

My initial decision to practice law at a large firm was driven in part by the need to pay off daunting student loans, but I also knew it would be a terrific training ground. In addition to learning brief writing, negotiation, and research skills, I also learned how to be a self-advocate for my own development needs. I quickly discovered that reviewing financial records in insurance defense cases was not for me, so I convinced the partners to move me into the employment law department—where I got far more client contact and discovered the legal field that has fueled my intellectual passion for almost three decades.

 

I enjoyed advising employers on litigation strategy and representing companies in court. But my favorite part of the job was building relationships with employment decision makers to improve workplace policies and practices to avoid litigation in the first place. That was a teaching role, and it reminded me about the sketch I had for my career plan. I also realized that representing clients required me to focus narrowly on applying existing employment laws, rather than pondering whether the law itself could be improved.

 

So I took a baby step into academia by teaching a night class as an adjunct professor at a local law school, while still handling my law practice during the day. After a semester, I found myself jumping out of bed far more enthusiastically on the days that I got to teach, so I knew it was time to take a larger leap. I negotiated a part-time position at my law firm so I could take a law teaching fellowship, which gave me time to research and write, while teaching a first-year class. It didn’t take long before I was hooked, and I gave notice at my law firm. I was grateful for the opportunities I’d had there, but excited for my next step.


A year later, I had landed a full-time, tenure-track position on a law faculty. It’s been my dream job for over twenty years. I am inspired by my students’ enthusiasm for our profession and by their genuine desire to use the law as a tool for advancing social justice. I also have the time and space to advocate for legal changes to hopefully make the workplace a better, fairer, and more humane and inclusive environment for all workers.

 

For me, the most important driving forces for my career decisions have been my love of learning and intellectual curiosity. No matter what role I’ve been in, I’ve always viewed myself as a student of the law. I’ve also learned to follow my joy, even when that meant moving from a very highly-paid position to one that offers much different types of rewards. One of those rewards was the flexibility to craft a sustainable work/family integration later in my career.   


Equilawbrium: Please list one soft skill that contributed to where are you now and suggestions on how to cultivate it.


Michelle: A soft skill that has served me well on my journey in the legal profession is active listening. Listening to others—particularly those who have different backgrounds and experiences from my own—has been the key to successful collaboration and teamwork, as well as to effective advocacy and persuasion.


Equilawbrium: Please list one hard skill that contributed to where are you now and suggestions on how to cultivate it.


Michelle: The most valuable hard skill that I’ve developed throughout my legal career is my research ability. As a practicing lawyer, research skill was what set me apart as a powerful advocate for others. As a law professor, data is my life blood and my soul food.

 

I cultivated my skill by approaching research as the discovery of each piece in a large jigsaw puzzle. Every new case, rationale, quote, fact, data point, or perspective that I uncover adds greater clarity and coherence to whatever big picture problem I’m tackling. I also approach interactions with people as research opportunities: everyone has a valuable insight that adds value.


Part 3 - The second “Dual 10” Challenge: have kids in their first 10 formative years


Equilawbrium: How did you juggle work/life responsibilities? Is it possible to have a family life and a work life simultaneously and harmoniously?


Michelle: After having my second child, I settled into a work/family routine that I thought was working. I became an expert at compartmentalization. At home, I focused solely on being a committed mom; while at my office, I focused solely on being a legal academic. The problem with this approach was that I felt a disconnect between the different arenas of my life. I felt exhausted and never quite whole.

 

Every night, I found myself assessing my personal “work/family balance” for the day. Had I spent enough time that day as an engaged parent? Had I excelled at today’s professional responsibilities? Inevitably, I would find myself cataloguing the undone “to-do” items in both arenas, rather than all that I had accomplished.

 

I finally realized that the concept of “work/family balance” sets working moms up for failure. “Balance” implies a scale that only allows for direct trade-offs: more weight on the work side means less weight on the family side, and vice versa. The problem is that on any given day, our time allocation between work and family is never even. So on a “balance” measure, we often feel like failures at the end of each day. The concept of “work/family balance” also doesn’t fit our lived experience. Work and family are not separate, but deeply intertwined.

 

My disillusionment with the concept of “work/family balance” led me to the healthier goal of finding a sustainable work/family integration. This has led to an important shift in my perspective.

 

Striving for integration allows me to stop taking stock of my time allocation on a daily basis. Instead, I take a healthier, bigger-picture view. At the end of each week, month, or year, can I look back and feel like I’ve spent enough time with my kids to ensure that they feel safe and loved, and that they are kind, joyful, and curious? Can I look back and feel like my students are becoming skilled future lawyers, and that I am making progress on research that piques my curiosity? If I answer these questions with a “yes,” that is success, even if my day-to-day ebbs-and-flows say otherwise. When the goal is work/family integration, my daily imbalances shift from being failures to instead being the foundation for a beautifully varied, rich, and satisfying life.


Equilawbrium: Having walked the walk, what is the one parenting tip or trick that you wish you’d known?


Michelle: My biggest tip for achieving healthy work/family integration is to bring your whole self to both arenas of your life. This can be as simple as talking about your work with your kids, and talking about your kids while at work.

 

For me, I make sure that my kids understand why training future lawyers is important work, and they are proud of me (even if that means they get television and take-out food during exam-grading time). I also make sure that my law students know that as a working mom, I respect their own need to attend to family responsibilities. Students can bring their children to my class or seek an assignment extension when caring for a sick family member. My students appreciate my commitment to both career and family (even if that means it sometimes takes me a few extra days to grade their exams).

 

When the goal is work/family integration, the inability to compartmentalize is no longer a failure, but an opportunity to connect, learn, and grow.


Equilawbrium: What is your fondest memory of your kids at that age?


Michelle: My fondest memory was making time every day to read with my kids. Over the years, we went from picture books through the entire Harry Potter series. For us, books were a way to share ideas, launch conversations, and simply enjoy each other’s presence.


Part 4 - Achieving Equilawbrium: how to survive & rise from the “Dual 10” Challenges

"When the goal is work/family integration, my daily imbalances shift from being failures to instead being the foundation for a beautifully varied, rich, and satisfying life.
When the goal is work/family integration, the inability to compartmentalize is no longer a failure, but an opportunity to connect, learn, and grow."
– Michelle Travis

Equilawbrium: What was your biggest challenge going through the Dual 10 phase? Any advice for our readers who are living and breathing this phase and trying to survive and excel?


Michelle: My biggest challenge during the Dual 10 phase was focusing on perceived shortcomings in both my professional and my parenting roles. My advice is to ignore the self-doubts and celebrate the synergies.

 

Having a challenging, impactful, and fulfilling career makes me a more enthusiastic and engaged parent when I am with my kids. My career has also given me a unique perspective on different learning styles and diverse perspectives, so I am better equipped to teach my kids the skills, values, and life lessons that I hope to impart.  

 

The reverse is also true. My experience as a mom makes me a stronger, more patient, and more tenacious lawyer and law professor. Raising kids and running a family built my project management, time management, crisis management, and problem-solving skills.

 

Motherhood is also an extraordinary leadership training ground for legal professionals. Being a mom requires expert conflict resolution, negotiation, collaboration, and communication skills. Successful parenting demands keen observation and the ability to mentor and give constructive feedback. Two of the most important lawyering skills are empathy and adaptability, which are the hallmarks of a dedicated mom.


Equilawbrium: What is your take-home message for our readers who are trying to find their “equilawbrium”?


Michelle: Being a successful legal professional and being a dedicated mom is not a zero-sum game. Lawyering skills are mom skills, and mom skills are lawyering skills. Don’t sell yourself short in either arena.


Equilawbrium: What is the one-word encouragement/support that you would want us to remember?

Michelle: Journey.


Michelle and her two beautiful daughters when they were younger!

<<End of Fireside Chat with Michelle Travis>>



**A MILLION THANKS TO MICHELLE!!**



<<Michelle's Biography>>


Michelle Travis is a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she leads USF’s Work Law and Justice Program. Michelle previously practiced management-side employment law in the Bay Area, and she currently serves as a contributing writer for Forbes.com on leadership strategy issues. As a founding member of the Work and Family Researchers Network, Michelle’s research focuses on employment discrimination law, gender stereotypes, and work/family integration. Her recent book, Dads for Daughters, is a guide for engaging male allies to advance gender equity. She has also authored an award-winning children’s picture book, My Mom Has Two Jobs, which celebrates working moms.

 

Connect with Michelle at:


Disclaimer: Any views, information, and personal opinions expressed by the authors or guests are entirely their own and do not reflect or represent those of their employers or clients.

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