Orrick in San Francisco
Orrick in San Francisco (Jason Doiy)

Just in time for Father’s Day, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe is expanding the relatively generous parental leave policy the firm introduced two years ago.

Orrick is tweaking its “onramping” period—the first month after lawyers return from primary caregiver parental leave, when they can take on half of their usual workload and still receive full pay—to allow its rank-and-file to set a predictable schedule in which they work no more than six hours in any given day. The firm is also increasing non-primary caregiver leave for attorneys and staff, and it will contribute $250 to a 529 college fund for its employees’ new babies from now on.

Those changes build on the policy Orrick adopted in 2015, which allows primary caregivers to take 22 weeks of paid parental leave and an additional nine months of unpaid leave, and which firm leaders say is the most liberal at any major U.S. firm.

Orrick’s chief talent officer Siobhan Handley said that lawyers who had taken advantage of that leave made it clear in conversations with her that the firm’s two career coaches, its flexible work arrangement and onramping period had helped ease their return to the office. But they also noted that because the policy didn’t previously specify how many hours per week returning lawyers should spend on call, it sometimes resulted in very intense periods of work, followed by slow periods.

“Within the onramping, we felt like there was room for improvement on this notion of predictability,” Handley said. “I think that is an incredible challenge for young parents, just trying to plan your day … Even during busy periods, we’re going to have these guardrails so that we set a policy that helps attorneys manage and plan, and also to have that dialogue with others on the team.”

Orrick’s decision to extend paid parental leave for non-primary caregivers—from four weeks to six weeks for lawyers, and from two weeks to three weeks for staff—was driven less by requests from parents and more by the firm’s desire to stay ahead of the curve in the legal industry, Handley said. Orrick is also adding a two-week onramping period for non-primary caregivers.

Asked why staff received less parental leave than lawyers, Handley said that because Orrick employs many more lawyers than staff members, it’s more feasible for the former group to cover for one person’s absence. She added that two weeks’ leave is also the legal industry standard for staff.

“When I was out on maternity leave, there were other staff members who were stepping in and picking up my work,” Handley said. “There isn’t the same ability to be flexible.”

Though it’s early to draw conclusions about the effect of the changes introduced in 2015, Handley said the firm has received plenty of positive feedback and seen a slight uptick in the number of people taking advantage of the policy. The increase in the number of men taking primary caregiver leave has been particularly striking—from five out of the 33 associates who took primary caregiver leave in 2016, up to eight or nine this year, Handley said. She attributes that bump to the policy’s gender-neutral nature.

When the 2015 changes were announced, Orrick chairman and CEO Mitchell Zuklie said one of the policy’s primary goals was to attract and retain women lawyers, and that exit interviews with women leaving the firm had helped convince him of its necessity. Handley said that the firm doesn’t have enough data yet to know how that’s going, in part because most of the women who worked at Orrick in 2015 are still at the firm, so it hasn’t conducted exit interviews with them. But anecdotal evidence has been encouraging, she said.

Aaron Scherzer, a senior associate in Orrick’s appellate litigation group in New York, had his wife give birth to twins 18 months ago. He said that although he was completely satisfied with the time he was able to spend with his sons—four weeks of secondary caregiver leave right after they were born, and then another 12 weeks of primary caregiver leave once his wife went back to work—he would have taken advantage of the six weeks of secondary caregiver leave that Orrick is now offering if it had been available to him at the time.

“After the four weeks I certainly wished that I’d had more time at home right at the beginning, when you’re exhausted,” he said. “You want to be there when they’re so little and so precious and need lots of extra hands on deck.”

The onramping period also proved valuable to Scherzer’s family—specifically “being able to leave work for bath time, which is certainly a two-person activity when you have twins”—and he thinks the changes Orrick is introducing will make it even more effective.

Another Orrick senior associate, litigator Shaila Rahman Diwan in New York, said she expects the policy adjustment to make her upcoming parental leave, which starts in six weeks, go more smoothly than the one she took a couple of years ago. 

“After my last leave, I came back to a very fulfilling but demanding caseload,” she said. “I used the resources I had at my disposal to navigate those demands … [But] the onramping period was an expectation about what onramping would be. It was not a clearly defined number. Setting that expectation makes it easier for you to push back and say, ‘I really love this case, I really love working for this client, but I am onramping this month and I can’t take this specific assignment.’”

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