TIME OFF: Attorney Katherine Katz of BuckleySandler plays with her 11-month old daughter Olivia at a child center. The firm offers 18 weeks of paid time off to lawyers who are birth mothers.
TIME OFF: Attorney Katherine Katz of BuckleySandler plays with her 11-month old daughter Olivia at a child center. The firm offers 18 weeks of paid time off to lawyers who are birth mothers. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi)

In early December, Washington attorney Charles Miller told the District of Columbia Council he opposed a proposal that would require employers to give 16 weeks of paid time off to workers who have babies or need to care for a family member.

Like representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, Miller, a former chairman of Covington & Burling, fears the competitive disadvantage D.C. will face compared to Virginia and Maryland if the city wants to attract new businesses and pass the law. Miller is general counsel of Federal City Council, which represents dozens of Washington business leaders and says it focuses on civic improvement rather than a business agenda.

The business groups also take issue with the costs that implementing the policy would create. It would establish a citywide tax for employers to pool funds to pay for workers’ leaves.

Miller and other Washington lawyers have responded publicly to the proposal, speaking for their clients or from their positions with corporate groups. Yet their own employers — the law firms of which they are often part owners — largely have not taken positions.

Law firms comprise one of the city’s largest private industries with more than 30,000 lawyers and several thousand more staff.

Covington & Burling, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this story when asked about its position on the proposed D.C. law, Miller’s involvement and its current paid-leave policies. Almost 30 other firms in Washington either didn’t respond or declined to weigh in on the proposal.

“I can tell you from my own personal standpoint. I don’t want to talk about the firm. I don’t think it’s appropriate for any law firm to talk about their personnel policies,” said Tony Pierce, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s D.C. office head. Pierce chairs the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which recommends a redrafting of the proposed policy similar to the Federal City Council’s position.

“I would say that the firms are involved. The Board of Trade represents the regional business community, which includes very much the law firm community,” Pierce said. “So when the Board of Trade is speaking, they are speaking as the advocates of the business community.”

GENEROUS LEAVE

Despite not taking a stand on the proposed paid-leave policy, many large law firms in the city already offer generous leave. The paid-leave offerings of law firms exceed the standard lengths of family leaves in many other industries, even at professional-services firms, according to human resources specialists.

On average, female lawyers receive about 14 weeks paid, while male lawyers receive about 6 weeks of paid paternity leave, according to a survey conducted by the blog Above the Law last year. Several large law offices in Washington last month told The National Law Journal they offer 16 weeks or 18 weeks of paid leave plus additional unpaid time off to lawyers who act as primary caregivers for newborns or family members. Generally, staff members at the firms receive fewer weeks in paid time off.

DISADVANTAGE: Representing the Federal City Council, a business group, D.C. attorney Charles Miller said the city’s paid family leave proposal will hurt D.C. when compared with Virginia and Maryland.

Even prior to the D.C. policy’s attention, the industry had paid-leave policies at top of mind last year. For instance, Orrick’s chief talent officer, Siobhan Handley, had looked at competing firms’ policies and realized many New York firms offer 18 weeks paid leave to attorneys. The firm announced in May it would exceed that standard, for one of the longest paid time-off policies in Big Law: 22 weeks for its lawyers who are primary caregivers. Orrick offers 14 weeks of paid leave to staff members who are primary caregivers for newborns and family members.

Other law firms noticed and responded. Todd Rolapp, managing partner of Bass, Berry & Sims in Nashville, remembers getting emails from partners in his firm with the Orrick policy attached. Bass Berry had offered its lawyers 13 weeks of paid leave plus additional time off, yet those who took leave used all the time they could.

The firm subsequently changed the policy to 18 weeks paid for lawyers.

“You can look at the cost of attrition and losing good people, and those costs are really big. The costs of putting this program in place are not as big,” Rolapp said. The firm extended the paid-leave policy for staff members, too, he said.

“It is still a little shorter than the attorney policy. Part of the reason for that is the professional staff certainly have a little more control over their schedules. They’re more predictable and regular.”

FURTHER STUDY

The desire to give nonlawyer workers ample paid time off has drawn the attention of law partners in D.C., too. Gary Thompson, the D.C. managing partner of Reed Smith, has as a pro bono client DC Appleseed, a nonprofit that supports the council’s paid-leave proposal. Thompson helped draft the current paid-leave proposal, city councilman David Grosso said. Thompson said he does not represent his law firm’s position.

“I hope the council takes a good year to thoroughly study and consider these issues,” Thompson said. Another public hearing will be held in February.

Grosso, who is shepherding the bill through the city government, hopes more law firms in Washington will get involved with the politics this year.

“Law firms are at the top of my mind because there are so many in D.C. I think they play a great role in our city and they employ a lot of people,” he said.

Grosso said he has met with business organizations, but wasn’t aware of law firms developing a unified stance. He said he asked some Big Law lawyers in the city to look into what the law firms think as businesses. As of December, he had not heard back.

“I hope that firms will come together or come in one at a time and tell us what the reality is for them,” Grosso said. “If they don’t take a stance, it’s harder for them to come out and make the bill better.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Orrick’s amount of paid leave for staff. The firm offers 14 weeks of paid leave to staff members who are primary caregivers for newborns and family members.