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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Joan C. Williams: Advocating for Laws that Promote Work-Life Balance

Professors Robin Feldman, Elizabeth L. Hillman, and Joan C. Williams pursue dynamic and timely fields of legal inquiry.
Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey

Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey

UC Hastings Professors Robin Feldman, Elizabeth L. Hillman, and Joan C. Williams chose to explore hot-button topics in their fields long before those issues became trendy. These professors are just three of the many UC Hastings scholars who have earned stellar reputations for having their fingers on the pulse of what’s coursing through society.

Credit UC Hastings’ academic culture, which fosters thoroughly researched work, vetted by colleagues, that espouses novel legal theories. Spanning every discipline, scholarship at UC Hastings infuses public debate and often translates into policy changes adopted by legislative and regulatory bodies.

Research by Feldman, Hillman, and Williams has triggered changes in legislation and rule making across agencies as diverse as the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Labor. The professors’ scholarly work in the fields of intellectual property, military violence, and work-life balance has been published in world-class law reviews and cited in court briefs; it has also reached mainstream audiences through blog posts and op-ed pieces.

Joan C. Williams: Advocating for Laws that Promote Work-Life Balance

According to the New York Times, Joan C. Williams has achieved “something approaching rock-star status” among work-life advocates.

Case in point: as director of the Center for WorkLife Law, Williams devised innovative legal theories, adopted by the Second Circuit and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), about family-responsibilities discrimination, a rapidly growing area of employment law in which federal court plaintiffs win roughly two-thirds of the time.

“A lot of organizations work for 20 or 30 years to get a law passed,” explains Williams, author or co-author of more than 70 academic articles and seven books, and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. “Our role is different. We seek to achieve concrete change in a three- to five-year span. Sometimes, law is the most effective change-delivery system. But not always: We also have developed best-practice flexibility policies for professional and hourly workers.” The center invented the modern part-time policies in law firms and academia, which keep professionals on partnership and tenure tracks. Its best practices for hourly workers are being built into scheduling software by Intuit. According to Victoria Lipnic, former assistant secretary at the Department of Labor and now an EEOC commissioner, the center’s path-breaking work documenting the work-family conflict among hourly workers, notably Williams’ 2006 report “One Sick Child Away from Being Fired,” helped save intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The center’s interdisciplinary working groups bring together social scientists and activists to produce action-ready research. This model has spread to Stanford and Columbia, which currently participate in working groups co-organized with the center.

The center is developing new legal theories to secure pregnancy accommodations, the results of which will be published in the Yale Law and Policy Review. The center’s “Poor, Pregnant, and Fired” report found that many pregnant blue-collar women are fired every year “for not being allowed to carry a water bottle, for needing more bathroom breaks, for requiring larger bulletproof vests.” As a result, pregnancy accommodations are now a key strategic initiative for the EEOC.

Choosing what to study is “idiosyncratic,” explains Williams, a recipient of the prestigious Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award from the American Bar Association and its Outstanding Scholar of the Year Award. “I was an environmental lawyer who had a baby and learned that the world was not set up for mothers.” 

And today that baby—now a student at Yale Law School named Rachel Dempsey—has become one of Williams’ most frequent collaborators. Early next year, mother and daughter will publish their first book together, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Every Woman Should Know, from NYU Press. “Work-life balance matters deeply to me,” says Williams.

Read more from UC Hastings magazine here.

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