The dirty little secret is out. Some lawyers have families at home, and even small children who occasionally require care and feeding—preferably without sacrificing their parents’ careers.
Dechert announced this week that it will no longer distinguish between primary and secondary caregivers with a new policy offering at least 12 weeks of paid leave for all U.S. employees—both lawyers and business service professionals. A day later, Susman Godfrey said it would provide unlimited paid parental leave to its associates, also regardless of gender or caregiver status.
The changes—and a raft of similar moves over the last year or two—aren’t taking place in a vacuum. More firms, facing new client expectations and competition for talent, see promoting work-life balance and women lawyers as a business imperative. And they’re also taking heat from within.
In April, three female Morrison & Foerster associates filed a $100 million class action against the firm in California, alleging the firm nudges mothers and pregnant women onto a “mommy track” that allows for less pay and fewer promotions. (The firm hired Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to contest the claims.) Other lawsuits brought by female associates and partners in recent years have also raised claims related to motherhood and child rearing, as part of broader gender bias allegations.
Law firms also have to grapple with complaints lodged outside a courtroom.
On Tuesday Above the Law reported, citing anonymous sources, that during a business and tort litigation group meeting at Jones Day’s Cleveland office, women in the group were “encouraged” by practice leader Stephen Sozio to tell management if they were pregnant or planned on becoming pregnant in the next year for budgetary reasons.
In a statement to The American Lawyer, Jones Day said the report was “not accurate.”
“Sozio’s actual remarks were simply to thank all in attendance for their hard work on behalf of firm clients and to request that, if anyone is presently planning a leave of any kind (including clerkships) next year and would be comfortable sharing the information, it would help the firm in doing its annual budgeting,” said Heather Lennox, partner-in-charge of Jones Day’s Cleveland office, in a statement. Lennox said the request wasn’t mandatory and no one was expected to detail their reasons for anticipating leave.
Even as many firms scramble to adopt more liberal parental leave policies, they are still butting up against entrenched attitudes and conflicting expectations—both from longtime partners and would-be parents.
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe adopted one of the industry’s more generous parental leave policies in 2015, allowing for primary caregivers to take 22 weeks of paid parental leave, in addition to nine months of unpaid leave.
Last year the firm expanded its policy, extending parental leave for nonprimary caregivers from four weeks to six and tweaking its “on-ramping” period to allow lawyers to set a schedule where they work no more than six hours a day.
“I think Big Law is continuing to be in a fierce battle for talent, and when we look at our numbers and people leaving, the biggest reason why people leave is work-life [balance],” said Siobhan Handley, the firm’s chief talent officer.
That’s pushing firms to re-evaluate family leave policies, given the greater insistence, primarily on the part of the millennial generation, on not compromising between being a good parent and a successful lawyer.
The moves aren’t limited to leave policies, Handley said. This year Orrick rolled out a pilot parent-to-parent coaching program where parents who returned from leave a year or two before serve as mentors and coaches for lawyers coming back from leave.
“What we’ve actually found is that sometimes the leave is the easier part of the whole parenting experience, it’s really about when you come back and how do you then manage your life,” Handley said. “So we’re spending a lot of time looking at that, and additional support there.”
Of course, all of these policies are pointless if no one takes advantage of them, said Diversity Lab CEO and founder Caren Ulrich Stacy.
“The tough part is not creating or announcing the policies, it’s getting people—both men and women—to take advantage of the offering,” she said.
Law firms need to reiterate constantly that parental leave policies are backed by management and the partnership as a whole, encouraging partners who support other lawyers taking leave and punishing those who are dismissive, she said.
“Associates will then have to see others take it—and not get penalized from a compensation and advancement perspective—before they will believe it’s actually supported culturally and by the influential partners who control work and client contacts,” Ulrich Stacy said.
“Leave policies are not a ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ scenario,” she said. “Leaders have to do the hard work to weave them into the fabric of the firm.”