Photo by Kelly Sikkema
Over the last few years, more law firms have implemented gender-neutral policies to retain talent and increase equity. But firms will also need to change the culture to see an impact.
As our collective understanding of gender norms continues to evolve, the parental leave maternity and paternity leave polices have become antiquated. Until recently, American women have often been considered the primary caregiver for their child(ren), while men were expected to stay at work. However, today’s social norms around the idea of “household” have shifted substantially, making it imperative that modern leave policies do as well.
According to a list compiled by Chamber Associates in 2019, women working in law firms receive an average of 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. Fathers, who are assumed to be secondary caregivers, only received an average of 5 weeks of paternity leave—with some firms offering as little to three days or no leave at all.
The circumstances under which new parents return to work also differ. For working mothers, the expectation that they will be the primary caregiver, and therefore receive more generous, if any, options for parental leave, has damaging consequences for their career and compensation outcomes. When men have children, many receive a “fatherhood bonus” in which they experience an average earnings increase of 6%. Women, however, often suffer from a “motherhood penalty” in which their pay decreases by an average of 4%.
Creating equitable paid parental leave and return-to-work policies, regardless of gender, will be key to creating parity for working mothers and fathers.
Within the past year and a half or so, many law firms have taken measures to equalize parental leave in an effort to improve gender equality in the legal profession. One of these efforts is the change from maternity or paternity leaves to parental leave, allowing new fathers who are acting as primary caregivers to take advantage of the greater amount of time off that comes with being a primary caregiver. These policies also positively impact LGBTQ+ families, single-parent households, and other family structures, as they are much more inclusive and comprehensive. Firms like Goodwin Procter LLP and Munger Tolles & Olson LLP now offer 18 weeks of paid parental leave for lawyers, regardless of their gender or caregiver status.
As it stands, some parents could benefit from more generous leave options, regardless of gender or caregiver status. For one, having only 16 weeks of leave can make it substantially more difficult for working mothers to breastfeed for 6 months, which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The implementation of “Ramp Up/Ramp Down'' policies may help remedy this issue. These policies allow lawyers to reduce their hours before taking parental leave, giving parents-to-be more time to prepare for their new lifestyle and departure from the firm. Upon their return, lawyers gradually return to their full workload, building their hours up over the course of a few weeks or months. By easing them back into work, new parents are less likely to feel overwhelmed and can better adjust to their previous schedule. More agile and remote work arrangements also make it easier to ramp up or down before or after taking parental leave.
Many law firms have stated that these policies create a work environment that better includes, supports, and retains working parents. In addition to increasing parental leave benefits for their lawyers, many firms have begun to expand these benefits to their staff as well—creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace for all employees.
Parental leave could help reduce the stigma around “paternity” leave
While standardizing parental leave policies is a step in the right direction, a real cultural shift won’t take place until parental leave is normalized for both mothers and fathers. Many male lawyers often do not take their full leave in fear of hurting their careers. As one law firm associate shared, many associates and partners who had utilized paternity leave were ostracized, often thought to have a poor work ethic, and be less-committed to the firm. He also stated that there were three “unspoken” rules revolving around paternity leave in the firm’s culture. These norms included that: (1) fathers should refrain from taking paternity leave; (2) if they chose to take leave, it should not exceed two weeks; and (3) if an employee diverges from these norms, he can expect that there will be consequences. These standards, which have become so ingrained in the firm’s culture, have the ability to dissuade fathers from taking advantage of their paternity leave for fear of retribution.
In Sweden, which mandates fathers to take at least some of the 16 months paid parental leave, a 2010 study found that for each month a father takes off, the mother’s earnings rise 6.7% (as measured four years later). This policy also enabled a more equal division of work within the home, allowing for a positive effect on mothers’ careers. Though mandating leave paternity leave remains a gender-normative and potentially exclusionary policy, the outcome for Swedish mothers shows us the power of making leave and child-rearing roles more equitable. Removing gender-specific parental policies altogether will also enable more fathers to take parental leave.
We have seen multiple advances regarding parental leave in law firms over the past few years. Hopefully as more firms implement gender-neutral parental leave policies, and encourage all employees to take full advantage of these policies, legal workplaces will become more equitable environments for not only women, but all working parents.