There’s been much discussion in the legal industry lately about female- and family-friendly workplaces. Working Mother came out with its 2019 ranking of U.S. law firms that “utilized best practices to recruit, retain, promote and develop women lawyers.” The magazine identified 60 law firms where women make up at least 37% of new equity partners. These firms offer extended parental leave benefits, and many include reimbursements for egg-freezing and fertility treatments.
That’s great—on paper. But in my experience as a law firm associate and now as a recruiter, saying you’re female- and family-friendly doesn’t mean much if it’s not ingrained in your firm’s culture.
Take the recent spate of stories on how taking a long parental leave can threaten a woman’s partnership ambitions. These stories bear out what I hear from associate candidates all the time: The official policy is one thing, but the reaction of partners on the ground to taking advantage of that policy is something else altogether.
So what can law firms to do to be truly family-friendly?
Gender-Neutral Parental Leave
Am Law 100 firms offer fewer than five weeks of parental leave on average for secondary caregivers. Across the U.S. as a whole, seven in 10 fathers took off 10 days or fewer as their full leave—a practice that hurts not just dads but women and entire families.
Parental leave policies that are gendered or rely on disability payments do not treat adoptive parents equally, nor do they account for the role that a new nonbirthing parent plays in a baby’s first months. They also create gender imbalances in families by hindering that parent from participating equally in child care. In fact, gender-neutral parental leave can help ease the gender pay gap and boost equality in the workplace.
The first truly progressive step that firms can take is to decouple the ideas of “family-friendly” and “female-friendly.” We need gender-neutral parental leave, and we need it to apply equally to all different family structures.
We also need training for partners and supervisors to respond positively to announcements that parental leave is being taken. A candidate I worked with received the old “wink wink” when he announced that he was taking six weeks of parental leave. The partner said, “Sure, six weeks, we’ll see about that! Hopefully your job will still be here!” The candidate left shortly thereafter, and we negotiated his full leave at his new firm.
Firms also need to honor the circumstances when a parent goes to reduced time to care for their family. I was recently speaking with an associate who went down to 80% time and explicitly asked that she not be sent pressing items between 5 and 7 p.m., when she’s feeding and bathing her baby. Inevitably, she receives a proper fire drill email during those hours, and then frustrated emails that she hasn’t responded—also within that same 5 to 7 p.m. period.
Don’t Punish People
Lawyers should not lose a year of seniority in the partnership hunt by taking parental leave. Until parental leave is fully gender-neutral, and until men take as much leave as women do, this policy is inherently prejudiced against women. You should not be docked a year for taking four months. If firms want to make qualified, excellent female lawyers into partners, they will do away with this antiquated toll.
On a related note, firms shouldn’t disqualify candidates from promotion to partner if they happen to be on leave during partnership decisions. Being on leave should not make that person ineligible. Not only is earning partnership a long road that is not defined by a period of recent months, but the optics of being out on leave and making partner suggest to associates that they really can have it all.
Offer Leave From Day One
Parental leave should not be a special benefit that accrues with service. It shouldn’t be gained through longevity and loyalty to the firm. It’s much more fundamental than that. While it’s not ideal to take a leave immediately, the firm is making a long-term investment in its people—and being out on leave at the beginning should be a non-issue in the grand scheme of things.
Paper policies are insufficient to creating a family-friendly workplace. In order to continue to recruit and retain top talent, firms should make these deeper, cultural changes a serious priority.