By Susan Smith Blakely • May 31, 2017•Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
The progress on maternity leave for lawyers has been significant in recent history, and more and more women lawyers are benefiting from law firm policies that are slowly coming into the 21st Century. It is not surprising that the needs of mothers, who actually carry and give birth to the babies, should be the initial focus of parental leave, but the needs of the fathers are finally getting attention, as well. Firms like Winston and Strawn and Orrick, that give both mothers and fathers up to 20 and 22 weeks of paid leave, respectively, are leading the way. Orrick's policy is based on identification as the "primary care giver" but also gives up to 9 months of leave to that lawyer. Consider this in contrast to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act that requires businesses with 50 or more employees to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave to either a mother or father after the birth or adoption of a child. For more information on how the US compares to other countries on family leave, see my former blog addressing those issues.
This progress on parental leave is a big deal. The expansion of parental leave to men not only will benefit male lawyers, but it will benefit families --- meaning it also will benefit women. That is the way it is supposed to work.
According to a recent article in Am Law Daily, men are not only seeing progress on paternity leave at their law firms but they also are looking for opportunities to contribute to the post-birth care taking. And, they are making a list and checking it twice of firms that "talk the talk but do not walk the walk." Unfortunately, it has become clear that, even though some firms have developed parental leave policies to include male lawyers, senior management still has not embraced the concept and can be judgmental about men taking advantage of the policies. The associated stigma can have lasting effects on career advancement in some of these firms. The law profession attracts ambitious lawyers, and the threat of such stigmas is powerful and includes concerns about "commitment" to the practice. That dreaded C-word. Women lawyer/moms know all about it.
We need to celebrate the progress we are seeing. Statistics cited in the article show that, on average, law firms offer 15 weeks of maternity leave and seven weeks of paternity leave and that mothers take an average of 14 weeks off, while fathers take an average of four weeks. These averages likely will increase, and men are now reporting experiences similar to those of their female colleagues, who found it more comfortable to take leave after other women in their firms had forged the way.
Here's how one male lawyer quoted in the article described his experience: "There are a number of other attorneys here who are fathers, and it was helpful to know they had all taken paternity leave and had really encouraged me to absolutely take advantage of it. It wasn't like you should think about whether you would take paternity leave. It wasn't like I was worried about if I should take paternity leave. There was no hemming and hawing over it --- it was a given."
At the same time, however, we must recognize that it is not all about firms doing "the right thing." It rarely is. It also is about attracting and retaining top talent. Firms finally are understanding what has been a theme of Best Friends at the Bar for a decade --- that it is good business to retain and advance the talent of the best young lawyers --- many of them women lawyers.
And that is what we all should hope for. Keep your eye on this issue.
Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law. She is author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another. Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.
Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Lawyerist. Com, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business. Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division. She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law, and she is the recipient of a Lawyer Monthly Women in Law Award 2016.
Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy. For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.