Employment lawyer Renee Coover talks up pregnancy rights from the TEDx stage
Published in 2019 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine on January 24, 2019
Renee Coover stands in the center of a large red circle on a stage at Dominican University. Plush purple curtains drape behind her. Ear piece in, jewels strewn around the high-neck of her coral dress, Coover cuts a poised image as she addresses a graphic that appears on two screens flanking her. It’s a map of the world, with three regions highlighted: Oman, which borders Saudi Arabia; Papua New Guinea, off the coast of Australia; and the United States of America.
“These are the only three countries in the world that don’t offer paid maternal leave,” Coover tells the crowd. There’s a collective gasp.
“Now, granted, in the U.S., we do have the Family and Medical Leave Act, but that should not be confused with the paid maternity leave that is being offered by the rest of the world. FMLA is not paid leave. And it’s only offered by companies who employ more than 50 employees, and it’s only offered to employees who’ve been with that company for more than a year.”
It’s 2015, and the employment lawyer is on stage to deliver her TEDx talk, “A Message for Women: Taking Back Your Pregnancy Rights”—which the Washington Post identified as one of seven necessary TED Talks to guide women from pregnancy to parenthood. Then Coover adds the kicker: “Some may assume maternity leave is like a vacation,” she says, and those in the crowd who know better laugh. “But I can tell you from my personal experience, as I’m now currently on maternity leave, that is far from the truth.”
Since her TEDx, Coover has added another child while growing her employment law niche at Chicago’s ByrdAdatto—she’s one of only a handful of attorneys nationwide representing physicians, nurses, estheticians and entrepreneurs who want to run fully compliant med spas. “We found out pretty quickly there really weren’t many lawyers in that area, where you’re representing doctors and nurses outside of the traditional setting,” she says.
But the presentation still looms large.
“I’ll never forget the moment in the talk when the crowd gasped and realized that our country’s maternity leave policy is commensurate with third-world countries,” she says. “Pointing out that this is something taken seriously in every other corner of the world is critical.”
How did it come about? A group called TEDx Oak Park Women wanted to do a curated collection of TEDx talks from local women, and a friend thought Coover might be a great fit, since she deals with pregnancy discrimination in her practice. “My friends—extremely smart, capable women—have confided in me that they were afraid to tell their employer that they were pregnant; I’ve had the same experience,” she says. “In this culture, once you tell an employer, it feels very uncertain. Some women fear what might happen to their job.’”
For Coover, a product of “the pageant life” and a trained opera singer, getting on stage was no big deal. “The more difficult thing about the TED Talk for me was memorizing everything, and figuring out all the design elements for the presentation.”
Coover is pleased at strides made at some big companies, such as Netflix, which offers men and women an entire year of paid leave. But the story is different at smaller companies.
“They may not think they have the money for someone to go on maternity leave. But it’s a lot more costly to replace someone then it is to give paid leave. And you run the risk of losing good talent. And this idea of ‘pregnancy brain’ or ‘mom brain’ that’s thrown around … studies show that many working moms actually manage their time better. There has to be a total change in thinking, and it has to start from the ground up.”
Coover’s husband, also a lawyer, is paying attention. As a result of her talk, Coover says, he was inspired to approach the partners at his firm about updating their policy. “He told them, ‘If you want to retain talented women in their 30s, we need to be competitive.’” Not only did the firm update its maternity policy, but it provided for paternity leave, too.