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Law Firms Botch Parental Leave for Men, Families, Survey Says

May 11, 2021, 9:00 AM

Law firms fall short on paid parental leave for men and non-traditional families, according to a survey by legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.

Only 23% of large firms offer 14 to 20 weeks of paid paternity leave, compared with 43% that offer the same amount of time for maternity leave, the survey found, underscoring the expectations gap between young associates and the older layer of partners and leaders.

“There is a lot of pressure around gender parity, but while some firms are announcing gender neutral policies, the others are keeping quiet,” said Summer Eberhard, a managing director in MLA’s associate practice group and co-author of the survey, in an interview.

The issue of discriminatory paternal leave has been simmering with a new generation of law firm associates. It grabbed the spotlight in 2019 with a lawsuit brought by two married former Jones Day associates, both of whom had been Supreme Court law clerks and worked in the firm’s elite appellate practice in Washington. The case could go to trial next year.

According to the survey, 43% of firms in the Am Law 100 are providing between 14 and 20 weeks of paid maternity leave. Typically, eight weeks of that is medical leave reserved for childbearing parents.

“It’s important for firms to pay attention to gender neutral policies to retain and support their top talent,” Eberhard said.

Even when paid parental leave is available to both parents, using the benefit can have downsides, the survey found.

About one-third of survey respondents said their partnership prospects were negatively affected following parental leave, and 16% reported that their access to more challenging work was affected after taking such leave. Only half reported that they were offered flexible or part-time working arrangements upon returning from parental leave.

Denial of higher-level work, origination credit and partnership—all of which factor into compensation— can stem from not being sufficiently visible to partners, according to the May 3 American Bar Association study of the reasons women leave their law firms. Women associates are hired in equal proportion to men but wind up comprising only about 24% of law firm partners. That percentage has stayed flat in recent years.

In the Jones Day suit, the plaintiffs claimed the firm’s family leave policy, which offers mothers eight additional weeks of paid disability leave regardless of whether their physical condition calls for it, was discriminatory under federal law.

Julia Sheketoff left the firm, and her husband, Mark Savignac, was fired in 2019 after he complained of leave inequity.

Jones Day argued that Savignac’s claim he was entitled to the same leave as his wife was “legally indefensible.”

Earlier this year, a federal judge allowed the couple to add retaliation claims, stemming from the firm’s public comments about their legal efforts, to their case.

Some firms have been moving to close gaps in parental leave. They include Kramer Levin, which in early 2020, announced its 12-weeks of parental leave policy would apply to new parents whether the situation was a birth, adoption or foster child placement. That is in addition to paid disability.

In March, Akin Gump, Hauer & Strauss enhanced its adoption benefits and included surrogacy benefits for its U.S. personnel. The firm also announced a new program with a fertility benefits management company to help families with infertility treatment, adoption and/or surrogacy.

Those responding to the MLA survey, conducted last fall, were largely in their early 30s—prime parenthood time for many lawyers.

Overall, 22% of respondents said their firms offered support for adoption, and 9% said their firms provide benefits for surrogacy and egg freezing.

Respondents, who included more than 150 associates, partners and of counsel, at a number of AmLaw 100 firms, said law firm leadership plays the most significant role in leave policies.

“There is parental leave on the books, but how many people actually take it?” said Kate Reder Sheikh, a managing director of the MLA’s associate practice group and the other co-author of the study. “There may be a lot of partners who were not directly involved in their children’s early stages and don’t encourage such leave.”

The prospect of losing annual bonuses can also affect such decisions, said Eberhard. “Dads will be hesitant to take leave if they think it will affect their bonus.”

Even as flexibility in work schedules is an increasingly visible factor in attracting and retaining lawyer talent, 19% of those responding to the MLA survey said their firm’s parental leave policies had not been updated in a year.

“It’s a soft benefit, but parental leave has a very direct effect on how people view their firms. It’s a driver for associates,” said Sheikh. “And there are significant strides that still need to be made.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson at egolson1@gmail.com
To contact the editor on this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloombergindustry.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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