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Amy Beacom, left, and Rachael Ellison, right.

Generous parental leave is a perk large law firms regularly tout. Winston & Strawn, for example, announced this spring  that it was upping its policy to 20 weeks of gender-neutral parental leave. But it’s no secret that preparing for leave and returning from it are stressful times for busy Big Law attorneys, whose productivity most often is measured by hours billed.

The Center for Parental Leave Leadership, founded by Amy Beacom and based in Portland, Oregon, works with major companies and global law firms to prepare both expecting parents and their managers for leave, with the goals of improving retention and employee happiness. Along with company senior partner Rachael Ellison, who works extensively with large law firms, Beacom spoke about the difficulties lawyers face when preparing for leave and tools they can use to make their leave and return a positive experience. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Law.com: What are things lawyers should do before beginning parental leave?

Rachael Ellison: It’s about planning, communication with colleagues, communication with clients, and thinking about coming back after leave. There [should be] discussions about how they’re going to maintain the same kind of reputation and role in their firm and their family. The other pieces are around how to maintain relationships with clients and with colleagues.

Law.com: Is the expectation that an attorney is going to return at full force?

Amy Beacom: The reality is there’s a difference between what we recommend and what the constraints of their situation may force them to do. In an ideal world, it’s much better for everyone to transition back in and get your sea legs in this new dual role as working parent. But we find, especially with law, the question of flexibility gets a lot of pushback.

Law.com: What might a plan for returning to work look like?

AB: An ideal plan would be that you return to work full time on [a specific date]. You’ve got your child care step-up, you’ve got your spouse or partner helping to make sure you’re making it out the door on time, and you’ve worked with your manager to make sure this plan works. Then you have a contingency plan. It may be, “I have a child that won’t take a bottle, and I can’t leave them with a caregiver.” Attorneys must think through ahead of time to make sure their work is covered if that happens. You’ve already off-boarded everything to people you’ve trained to cover for you while you’re away; they’re competent to do that in case you aren’t able to come back when you’d planned or as fully as you planned.

Law.com: How many Am Law 200 firms are using your coaching services?

AB: It’s a small collection, but more and more are figuring it out and coming onboard. Clients generally come to us when there is someone going on leave and they have the resources to invest in their retention and to support their transition. Some firms may offer it to everyone, but usually it’s more targeted than that. The bigger firms are trying to be more equitable around it and offer it more widely.

Law.com: What does the coaching involve?

AB: Ideally, we come in at least three months before the person is going on leave. We have a proprietary set of assessment tools that we use to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the person going on leave, as well as any assets and liabilities for each person’s unique situation. That includes evaluating all potential issues with their manager, with their team and within the company. From that assessment, we work with them to build their leaving and returning plan, and that is shared with their manager and team. With lawyers in particular, the assessment process helps open conversations that may not have happened naturally, like setting boundaries around client hours or billable hours.

Law.com: What are examples of assets and liabilities for people taking parental leave?

AB: An asset could be they have a manager who has recently become a parent, so they can give them tools and resources. On the flip side, a liability might be a manager who has no positive experience with leave, which can really make the process more difficult. Personality traits or coping mechanisms can be assets—say you’re a person who naturally is flexible and can move quickly in the face of changing situations.

Law.com: Do many lawyers have that “flexible” asset?

RE: Lawyers often have a linear way of thinking about career and life. Parenthood is an experience that turns that on its head. So we are upfront about that. Anecdotally, we see that the stress levels among new parent lawyers are much, much higher than we typically see in the rest of the population of our clients.

Erin Geiger Smith is a freelance writer in New York. On Twitter: @erin_gs


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