Even though a global pandemic rages on, businesses are reopening their doors in an effort to jumpstart the economy and return to some semblance of normal. But while some businesses go back to the office, the operating status of schools and child care centers is still uncertain, leaving law firm associates at home with their children in the same boat they climbed into several months ago.
As law firms think about returning to the office, it would serve them well to take a closer look at the real-life situations all of their people are navigating before making blanket decisions. Law firms will need to manage associates who have children at home differently and recognize the reality of the situation without creating a second class of corporate citizens. These are some of the top considerations and steps they should be thinking about:
Identify the relevant employees. There are many questions that cannot legally be asked, but simply polling current associates and other staff about who they live with and what responsibilities they have for children should be sufficient. Without this, those who need help may not speak up for fear of appearing weak or compromised.
Link those employees with resources. After firms have identified the associates and staff in need of connectivity around child care issues, formal access should be given to a suite of resources, including a human resources partner who is specifically assigned to them. They should be educated around what the firm offers. For instance, one of my clients is reimbursing its staff and associates for their use of child care providers via Care.com. One associate mentioned that if parents are all mixing in the office, it would make sense in the current moment to have a dedicated child care center for the firm. Make sure associates are aware of their rights around taking a family leave, if necessary.
Offer those who have significant child care responsibilities a variety of accommodations. Consider letting them take a temporarily reduced schedule; work set hours that are staggered with a co-parent (if applicable); or have more autonomy over their caseload, perhaps accomplished by working exclusively with one partner. Firms will have to determine what accommodations are possible within their unique system, while acknowledging that the status quo is unsustainable for many parents.
Provide mandatory HR training for partners about how to interact with associates around these issues. One of the main pieces of feedback I’ve heard from younger lawyers is that their firm has issued comforting, humane guidelines for those working from home with kids, but that the partners they interface with are not abiding by them. Some sensitivity around these issues is important and may be less fluent in those partners who were not hands-on parents themselves.
Delineate a ramp for associates to get back up to speed once this crisis has passed. Assign an internal coach/mentor to work with them to make sure that their long-term trajectory is not negatively impacted. That is the main concern I am hearing: Associates, many of them moms, expressing a deep fear that they will never be able to get back on the fast track to partnership. Knowing that the firm acknowledges this concern and has a plan for righting the ship would go a long way. In the words of one female associate I work with, there is a fear that “COVID will create a lost generation of associates who are parents.”
The reality of this situation is that parents without child care have fewer hours available for work. It’s just that simple. What is avoidable, to some extent, is the anxiety around that fact. Firms would do well to sprint to the front of the pack in managing associates with kids at home. Not only will that ensure that a tranche of associates isn’t simply left in the dust post-COVID, but it would engender significant goodwill that is necessary to retain these talented associates once the crisis passes.