Heather Asher

Winston & Strawn LLP Expands Attorney Parental Leave

Winston & Strawn LLP recently announced it  revised its parental leave policy to allow all attorneys, regardless of whether they qualify as a “primary care giver,” to take 20 weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child.  The leave can be taken in one or two periods during the first year following the baby’s birth or adoption.  This generous leave period is accompanied by other support mechanisms to help attorneys transition into and out of leave, such as providing a leave liaison for each attorney (who will actively communicate with the attorney and the attorney’s practice group leader), a career coach and “ramp down” and “ramp up” periods with adjusted billable hours requirements.

Eva Davis is a Winston & Strawn partner and Co-Chair of the firm’s Private Equity Group.  She agreed to talk with Ms. JD about the purpose and goals of the new parental leave policy.

If the new parental leave policy lives up to its highest potential, what will it look like?  How is the firm planning to measure its success?

If  this program is fully utilized by all attorneys it will have lived up to its highest potential.  We’ve won if every parent uses the policy.  We’ve really won if our attorneys who are parents choose to remain at the firm when they have small children.  We’re hoping the policy  sets a tone within the firm culture that improves retention of both men and women.  It’s hard to say with certainty that people leave because of the difficulties of raising children.  However, attorneys, both men and women, are more likely to leave the firm between 4 and 8 years following law school graduation which, not surprisingly,  coincides with the period when most of our attorneys are having children.  So, we can fairly assume that the demands of young children are at least a contributing factor to firm attrition.  Retention is particularly important because some attorneys who opt out, completely leave private practice and don’t return.

We wanted to make a bold statement with this policy.  We wanted to convey to our lawyers, and especially to millennial attorneys, that we care about them and their families and we are  invested in them over the long term, including in any periods when they might have small children at home.   To communicate this message, we decided to be a leader on this issue and a first-mover in an area we believe is extremely important.  This new policy has been a part of firm discussions for about a year. Those discussions were centered on what we could do to create a culture of support, respect, retention and reward. 

I’m not aware of other law firms with a similar policy right now. If other firms start adopting similar policies, that would be a really great outcome (even if we lost our competitive advantage with respect to this particular policy).

What were the top reasons that sold this policy to the firm?

The policy is all about talent and all about the retention of that talent.   In adopting this policy (and others), we have been working on ways to make our policies more gender neutral because sometimes eliminating that distinction can reap direct and indirect benefits to all of our attorneys.  For female attorneys, this new policy can indirectly reduce unconscious bias and stigma that female attorneys may face during the years when they may be choosing to have children and during the time when they take leave – now that the men can (and we believe will) take the exact same leave.  For example, a partner may need to staff an important matter or develop an important long-term relationship with a key firm client and may assume that a female attorney who’s 30-35 years old  may be going to have children sometime soon.  The partner may worry that she may be less reliable or unavailable during certain periods.  The partner may instead choose to staff the matter with a male attorney around the same practice year, thinking there is no need to worry about him taking time off for family.  With this new policy, the partner won’t be able to make that same assumption.

For male attorneys, this policy acknowledges that almost all of them in relationships are in two-career relationships and a large portion of those in relationships have children.  We’ve seen that men, particularly millennial men, want to be more involved parents.  It made sense for us to eliminate the primary caregiver definition and just say “you’re all caregivers” and “you should all get the benefit of a policy that allows you to spend more time with your young children.”

And for millennial attorneys, this policy encourages them to use benefits that may have been previously offered on an informal basis.  I’ve noticed that sometimes millennial attorneys are hesitant to cobble together benefits or other flexibility that’s already built into our firm jobs even though a formal policy on a particular matter doesn’t exist.  As such, they often won’t make requests outside of the set policy boundaries.  Making it clear that these benefits are available will hopefully encourage more millennial attorneys to make use of them.

One item that I saw as particularly interesting is that the leave can be separated into two periods.  In what instance do you expect to see someone use that option or find it helpful?

The firm recognizes that attorneys have different support systems and needs at different times.  Maybe grandma is available to visit right after a baby is born or adopted, which means the attorney may wish to take less leave while grandma is there.  The attorney may choose to use more leave time during the holidays when it may be busier due to family obligations.  Or there it may be helpful for one spouse to take a few months off and then have the other spouse take time off later.  Because attorneys are not required to take leave immediately after a baby is born or adopted, it allows them to decide what their needs are.  It’s limited to two periods because taking multiple leaves can make it difficult to respond to practice needs or  to sustain a successful “on-ramp” transition plan.

In addition to allowing men extended parental leave, do you believe this will also help with the stigma that male attorneys can face if they use parental leave? 

Our male attorneys use their parental leave. Of course, a lot of things can vary among office locations, practice groups, etc. Certainly, in my practice group, whenever someone has a child, I strongly encourage that parent to take his  leave.  If he tries to say “well ,I’m only going to take this much,” I push him to take his full leave.  I believe that having a good personal life makes you a better lawyer.  Having the liaisons and career coaches involved in the new policy hopefully means there will be a whole support group encouraging people to take their full leaves and providing them with the tools to do so.

What have you seen as the hardest part of transitioning in and out of parental leave for attorneys?  How will the new transition benefits, such as the parental leave liaison and career coach, assist with those obstacles?

I’ve had two children and have worked on many matters with attorneys that have taken leaves.  Being too busy or too slow when you come back to work can create anxiety.  At prior firms, when I took my leave,  I spoke to an HR person who was familiar with the leave guidelines but who had no idea what was going on in my practice group and certainly wasn’t involved in making work assignments. The purpose of the career coach and leave liaison is to reduce that anxiety by having people working directly with you and your practice group leader to keep you balanced and make for a successful transition.  For example, a few weeks before an attorney returns, the leave liaison may start working with an attorney’s practice group leader to make sure the attorney has assignments lined up upon return – enough to stay busy but not so much that the attorney is overwhelmed with work and the demands of a new baby. 

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