Margaret Zhang L’15 always knew that she intended to use her law degree to help make the world a more equitable and fair place — she just was not sure how. She spent much of her time at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School doing pro bono work with the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic (CASAC), one of the Law School’s oldest student-led pro bono projects, which focuses on providing information and resources to clients who are navigating complex matters of child custody and child support in Philadelphia. However, even once she graduated, she was still unsure of what area of public interest law she would ultimately decide to practice following her two post-graduation clerkships.
It was not until Zhang attempted to obtain lactation accommodations for the bar exam — which she had planned to take just a month after giving birth to her son— that she realized firsthand what it was like for many people in the workforce who struggle to have their healthcare needs met during and after pregnancy.
“The process [of getting accommodations] was very eye-opening to me because I was a person with nearly three years of law school under my belt at that point, and I still found it so challenging and so stressful,” Zhang said about her experience as a third-year law student, trying to preemptively obtain accommodations for the bar exam she planned to take during the upcoming summer. “Having done all this work in law school with low-income communities, I felt that someone less privileged, on top of all the other challenges that they might be facing in their lives, may not really be able to navigate the system in a way that made sense. I started thinking about [these issues] and learning about [them] and feeling that … our society needed to improve.”
During her clerkships, Zhang continued to learn about civil rights and employment discrimination. Afterward, she joined the Women’s Law as a Law Review Fellow to lead their initiative on pregnancy and lactation issues, which is where she currently works on both client representation and policy projects that support and protect pregnant and lactating people in the workforce, in schools, and in the criminal justice system.
Zhang’s counseling work often involves negotiations with workplace personnel to ensure that her clients get the support they need during or after their pregnancy. Zhang notes that her personal experience helps her to better relate to and empathize with clients throughout the process, which can be particularly helpful during times her clients are in crisis situations.
“Even if I’m not fixing the situation right away, I can tell how meaningful it is for my clients to have someone who understands the situation and who can tell them that the law in some cases is on their side, that they’re not making things up, and that they do have a perspective that is valid. Just clarifying the crisis into a pathway forward seems to be very valuable to my clients and I’m grateful that it means so much to them and that I’m able to provide that,” Zhang said.
For Zhang, reducing her clients’ stress levels is about more than good client service. She points to numerous studies that have shown that stress during pregnancy is linked to serious health outcomes for both the parent and the baby; that, paired with the nation’s racially disparate maternal mortality statistics reminds Zhang that the work she is doing at the Women’s Law Project transcends sex equity alone and instead is truly intersectional civil rights advocacy.
Through her work, Zhang has observed that many of her clients who are Black or women of color are more likely to have been pushed into lower-income jobs as a result of intersecting systemic inequities, which results in them having more health complications when they arrive to the Women’s Law Project. Zhang’s belief is that, even if she and her team cannot secure the result her client wants, the services, support, and empathy that she and her colleagues provide to the client are “critical regardless of the result,” because they may help to alleviate some of their stress, which may result in a healthier pregnancy overall.
“It does not repair all the damage that society imposes on these vulnerable populations, but I think it’s valuable because we get in there and help people where sometimes it feels like others are failing them,” Zhang said.
In addition to her client counseling, Zhang regularly works with coalitions to advocate for legislation that would better protect and support pregnant and breastfeeding people on a broader scale. Much of the policy advocacy in these areas underscores the gap between protection from discrimination and guarantee of accommodation. For example, while the law is clear on prohibiting pregnancy-based discrimination in the workforce, employers are not often legally required to provide accommodations, such as a place to sit or more frequent bathroom breaks, for pregnant or lactating workers. Zhang notes that frameworks to alleviate these problems exist and much of the support is bipartisan; unfortunately, the issue is often simply not seen as a priority by legislators.
“Feeling trapped in your own body when you are pregnant and feeling like the world is not supporting you is a very harrowing experience,” Zhang said. “At that time, I think that most pregnant women hope that the world accommodates them, because they are doing something that, across history, has been universally recognized as something that is necessary for the health of humanity. And yet, the world does not see it that way.”
Zhang credits Penn Law’s commitment to pro bono service with empowering her to explore different areas of the law and encouraging her to use her legal education as a tool to help to make society more equitable.
“Ultimately, the ability for me to do so much pro bono in law school and the support the Law School gave us to do pro bono was really important. So much of the law doesn’t make sense until you see how it affects real life people on the ground,” Zhang said. “Penn’s opening of a window into a side of the world that doesn’t happen inside its walls was important to make sure I understood the context of how the law works in the real world.”