Read a Thank You note from Mock Trial
WLA Supports the local Mock Trial Competition. Read the full thank you note here.
Read an interview with Erica Flores Baltodano, 2018’s Outstanding Woman Lawyer, who helps empower women
Erica Flores Baltodano—2018 Outstanding Women Lawyer Award
In 2012, the Women Lawyers Association created the Outstanding Woman Lawyer Award to honor a female attorney in San Luis Obispo County promoting the advancement of women within our community. The Outstanding Woman Lawyer Award known as the OWL Award is presented annually, in March, in honor of Women’s History Month, followed by a speaker addressing elimination of bias for continuing education credits. Two years later, we created the Rising Star Award allowing us to also recognize younger lawyers, having practiced seven years or less, but who are no less in their actions promoting the advancement of women.
Both of the Awards honor our mission statement, which is promoting the advancement of women. Yet, this task can play out in a variety of different ways. The first two recipients of the OWL Award, Angie King and Jacqueline Frederick, and the first recipient of the Rising Star Award, Janet Wallace were all honored for their involvements in organizations that work tirelessly to advance women. Other recipients, Alicia Valdez Wright were honored for her implementation of a program, Incarcerated Women Legal Education Project and Jennifer Alton for her efforts mentoring female students wishing to become attorneys. The common thread of all the recipients’ actions is that in their own way they contributed to ensure women are gifted the benefit of continuing to advance.
This March we presented Erica Baltodano with the Outstanding Woman Lawyer Award for her work, writing and speaking engagements that have assisted and inspired women. She accepted graciously and shared some of her thoughts.
What motivates you to practice the different types of law which are your firm’s specialty?
I have always been dedicated to social justice and I have a deep passion for education and writing, so my entire legal career has reflected these values and interests. After a decade of legal and policy advocacy in the areas of environmental justice and civil rights law, I opened a plaintiff-side employment law firm in San Luis Obispo with my husband in 2011. Serving individuals facing wrongful termination, retaliation, discrimination, harassment and wage theft, the firm focused on complex class action wage and hour litigation in state and federal court. Nearly all of our cases were handled on a contingency basis, making access to quality legal services available to even the lowest wage workers. The firm merged my husband’s extensive employment litigation experience with my advocacy and firm management experience and it combined our joint commitment to access to justice and community education. With two young children, having our own practice allowed us to find a work-life balance that worked for our family and also afforded me the opportunity to write, teach, and do other community advocacy and education outside of employment law. My husband left the firm in 2018 when he was appointed as a Superior Court judge, but I continue to assist local individuals with their employment needs while serving the community in various volunteer roles.
What are some of the challenges you face litigating workplace discrimination cases based upon gender?
The issues I face as a female attorney are no different than the issues all working women face: there’s simply not enough hours in the day! I wholeheartedly believe women can “have it all,” but not without sacrifice and it becomes a personal choice when, where, and how to make those sacrifices. I stand by my past decisions to shape my working world around the needs of my children regardless of the limitations that may have put on me professionally, but that isn’t to say I am not now looking forward to shifting the balance as my kids are getting older! I fully embrace the fact that the careers of some professional working women are simply not going to follow a traditional linear path. When I get frustrated by the choices I, as a working mom, have had to make with respect to lawyering and parenting, I need to look no further than my own clientele to be reminded how grateful I am to simply have choices. Most of us work because we have to, but so many women—single mothers, poor women, and many women of color—have very little choice about the sacrifices they must make and they also tend to be the first to fall victim of abuse and exploitation in the workplace. Across the spectrum, we have a long way to go in supporting women in the workforce.
How have sexual harassment cases changed from when they initially became an actionable claim?
Over the years my firm has handled sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims on behalf of a range of women, from low-wage restaurant employees to mid-level insurance brokers to highly educated professionals at international firms. The one constant across time and industry is the fear and self-doubt associated with speaking up and the amount of validation and reassurance that needs to accompany legal representation. On one hand, the “me-too” era is beginning to help overcome the feelings of isolation, shame, and fear that often lead women to stay silent, but we have a long way to go in in terms of women’s experiences of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and even rape in the workplace, being believed. On the other hand, the situation for low-wage female workers who never could afford to speak up in the workplace and undocumented female workers who have always faced implied or explicit threats of deportation for speaking up about unlawful workplace practices (and worse) have been silenced even more in recent years. Certainly, women who are absolutely covered (regardless of legal status) by California’s laws against wage theft are more reluctant than ever to speak up and even though employers are prohibited from reporting or threatening to report undocumented workers to authorities in retaliation for asserting their rights under the law, an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and other actions against immigrants at the federal level have undoubtedly had a chilling effect in workplaces across the country.
Why are pregnant women in the workforce still facing discrimination?
It boggles my mind that pregnant women in the workforce still face discrimination, but it continues to happen at all levels of employment across the country. My firm has negotiated severance packages for female attorneys who faced adverse employment actions on account of pregnancy, we represented a woman who was fired from a service industry job after she announced her pregnancy, and we vigorously litigated a lawsuit on behalf of a women who attempted three times to obtain medically necessary temporary workplace accommodations during a high-risk pregnancy, but the employer refused and she ended up giving birth to a premature baby who died minutes later. Pregnant women are either presumed to be incapable of continued work while pregnant or they are ignored, retaliated against, or fired if they request short-term help. Women’s brains do not shut down while pregnant, but they are also not superhuman. Unfortunately, despite laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender (which includes pregnancy discrimination), laws that require an employer to make good faith efforts to accommodate disability (which sometimes includes short-term disability based on pregnancy), gender neutral parental leave laws, and cultural shifts toward more egalitarian childrearing, women still bear the brunt—physically, economically, and otherwise—of having children.
At the Women’s March in 2017 you said, “our very humanity will be our force and our power,” tell us more.
It was one of the greatest honors of my professional and personal life to be invited to deliver the keynote address at the first march organized by Women’s March San Luis Obispo (WMSLO) in 2017. As I took the stage, I felt a great responsibility to capture the emotions of the 10,000 people standing before me. I knew I could only do that by speaking from my heart. I spoke my truth as the daughter of a Mexican-American father and Jewish immigrant mother, the wife of a man whose family came to this country as a refugees, a legal advocate who has dedicated her career to social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice, a business owner committed to workers’ rights and the human dignity of immigrants, a human being concerned about the health of our planet and its people, a mother of two boys, and a woman. Acknowledging the feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and especially the exhaustion many of us who have been working toward equal justice our entire lives were feeling, I said our diversity, our strength in numbers, and our very humanity will be our force and our power. This was a sentiment taken directly from the organizing goals of WMSLO, but I truly believe that we are stronger together and that our individual life stories and collective life experiences will supply the power we need to protect our rights, our safety, our health, our families, and our very democracy. One of several calls to action I made that morning, as raindrops mixed with sunlight, was the need to educate ourselves and our children and be teachers when necessary and students always. In the last couple of years, our responsibilities to ourselves, our families, our country, and each other have increased on a daily basis. We simply cannot ignore what this moment in history represents for us and our country, but we must not underestimate what each of, as women, lawyers, and mothers, have the power to change.
Who inspires you and why?
While I am inspired by a number of women and men who have touched my life personally or because of their contributions to history, I also find myself deeply moved by the simple acts of humanity and compassion of ordinary people. For example, I was inspired by the local couple who made a vow to care for an immigrant family’s children if the parents were ever detained; the judge who confirmed to an incredulous girl during a courtroom field trip that girls really could be judges and then pointed out that a majority of our County’s sitting judges are women; the principles who have made house calls to assure immigrant families that applying for free school lunches will not get them deported; the educators and advocates I know who are now elected officials making important changes in policy while changing the tone of local government; the moms I know who help each other because sometimes it does take a village; the graduates of our County’s Behavioral Health Treatment and Adult Treatment Courts who heroically share their personal stories of sobriety and healing at
their public graduations; the law students I teach who deftly juggle jobs, children, and school; and a countless number of attorneys in our community who volunteer their time, skills, and dollars to support seniors, veterans, and families in crisis at San Luis Obispo Legal Assistance Foundation.
What did your Mommy Esquire essay series teach you, if anything, about combining motherhood and lawyering? Is it about women lawyers figuring out a successful balance or might it be about workplaces changing, both or something else?
My Mommy Esquire series of essays was an attempt to merge lessons from my life in the law (at the time I was managing partner of a law firm with a team of attorneys, support staff, and two office locations) with lessons from my life as a mother. As much as my dual roles informed one another, I ultimately found that it was my two boys and a more-than-supportive, super hands-on husband, who have helped me do both jobs better. The reality is that combining motherhood and lawyering is difficult. We must not stop working toward a future where law, public policy, and cultural norms better support parents and families in the workplace. But in the meantime, we must simply recognize that the career paths of attorney moms are not necessarily going to be linear, and they may not be traditional. The most important lesson Mommy Esquire taught me was how important it is to validate the lessons we learn, the sacrifices we make, and the individual paths we take in the quest for that balance.
What guidance might you give to the future generation of women lawyers?
Over the years, I’ve learned that the careers of professional working women with kids are rarely going to follow a traditional linear path. This doesn’t mean we stop working toward laws, workplace policies, and the cultural-shifts necessary to make work-life balance healthier for all of us, but let’s lift each other up as we go—by respecting the choices each of us make and recognizing that for every choice we may get to make, there are a countless number of working moms with very few choices to make who are simply guided by survival.
Essentially, be kind, be supportive and be brave.