People thought I was joking when I told them that I was taking four weeks off after my wife and I welcomed our third boy earlier this year. My law career was in full swing. My billable hours were strong.
As attorneys, productivity is primarily measured in billable hours. Our time is our most valuable asset. To break away for an entire month would clearly reduce my billable hours for the year. How could I afford to step away from the office for four weeks? Will other attorneys question my commitment? How would clients respond?
According to a Boston College study, 89 percent of men surveyed said paternity leave is important; however, few dads actually take paternity leave. In talking to other young fathers who are practicing attorneys and other South Florida professionals, many are back in the office within one week. Some returned to work the next day!
I offer my experience taking paternity leave and why I encourage other professional dads to embrace this time away from the office.
Since 2012, I have had the good fortune of working with amazing colleagues to help grow the land use practice at Akerman LLP, working with clients on the transformation of emerging neighborhoods including the Design District and Wynwood. Without a doubt, I absolutely love what I do.
When our first two boys were born, I recall using just a few vacation days and priding myself on how little time I was gone. Although my firm offered paid paternity leave, I never considered it. I found myself cutting back on sleep to juggle family time and work. There were weeks when I spread myself thin. Frankly, I wasn’t present the way I should have been at home.
Last year, I was inspired by my fellow Akerman partner, Michael Mena. As a newly elected Coral Gables commissioner, Mena sponsored an ordinance to expand the city’s parental leave benefits for its employees—legislation that reinforced the importance of being strong fathers AND successful professionals.
Despite a growing book of business, I decided that it was important to break away from the office to contribute full-time at home to support my amazing wife and my boys.
I am so glad that I did. It gave me a meaningful break from work to cherish our new baby boy and to connect with my two older boys. I also gained a new appreciation for the physical intensity of being with the kids every day, which had me ready to come back to the office with a fresh perspective.
Looking back, the key factor to “owning” my paternity leave was my commitment to preparing myself, my colleagues and my clients. I met with my partners a month prior to my anticipated leave. I spoke with clients individually to make sure that they were comfortable with the transition. I had a chart assigning a point of contact for each client matter and identified upcoming deadlines or action items pending. And my legal assistant was terrific. Because I spent a full month preparing, I could set aside the anxiety and know that things would not fall through the cracks during my absence.
For professional dads inclined to take a formal paternity leave, here are three potential benefits:
- A healthy sabbatical. Working excessive hours will eventually take its toll on your physical and mental health, family relationships and career. Time away for paternity leave is a great opportunity to rest your brain muscles and re-engage in regular physical exercise. For me, it was a weekly tennis lesson.
It’s difficult to come home from the office and turn off the “volume” on work. Paternity leave gives you time to listen and laugh with your kids—to experience life with them. One of my favorite moments was joining my 4-year-old son on a weekday field trip to the Redlands, something I could never otherwise do. I smile every time I look at the photo of us eating a giant sticky bun at Knaus Berry Farm.
- Respect from clients and peers. I found that taking a well-planned paternity leave may actually increase your professional stature at work. First, it shows clients and colleagues that you are a family man. It also shows self-confidence
- Developing transferrable skills. Being a full-time dad requires managing a household and juggling schedules, expanding your ability to multi-task and performing under pressure. Most men would return to the office improving upon time-management and multi-tasking skills.
Taking time away requires delegating work, creating opportunities to assess talent in the office and hopefully building more capacity on your team. There were several attorneys at the firm who took on more responsibility and maintained excellent client service. In this respect, my paternity leave helped build trust with associates while giving them an opportunity to gain more experience and confidence working independently.
Every dad should consider their circumstances and do what is best for them, their family and career. For those fathers considering an extended paternity leave, I hope my experience encourages you to embrace the decision with gusto, plan ahead and make it count. Without a doubt, your children will forever benefit from the time they spend with daddy.
Steven J. Wernick is a partner with Akerman in the real estate practice group. He focuses his practice on land use, zoning, and urban revitalization in Miami’s emerging neighborhoods. Wernick also sits on the board of directors of Children’s Home Society of Florida, the oldest and largest child welfare provider in Florida. He lives in Miami’s Coconut Grove with his wife, Emilie, and their three energetic boys.