Daily Dispatch

Nothing But the Ruth!

Is Paternity Leave for Lawyers an Oxymoron?

By | Mar.09.15 | Balance, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Nothing But The Ruth!

Nothing But the Ruth

Recently I attended the Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference for men who blog about fatherhood. I didn’t realize there was such a strong community among dad bloggers. They are active parents and exceptionally genuine about their triumphs and tribulations related to being dads. (I was invited to field legal questions related to blogging and copyright, trademark, and disclosing when you get free products.)

One panel at the conference discussed what employers are doing to support men who want to be involved fathers. In the U.S., it’s often seen as a badge of honor to eschew time off following an illness, injury, or the birth of a child. If an employee takes paternity leave, it puts him at risk of landing on the “daddy track” where he’ll likely be overlooked for promotions. A recent study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family found that 96 percent of men took off two weeks or less following the birth of a child. However, it appears that more companies are offering paternity leave and more people feel comfortable taking it.

What Do Working Lawyers Have to Say?

This panel made me think more seriously about how paternity leave and fatherhood are handled in the legal industry. I created a post on the “Lawyers Subreddit” on Reddit, asking if paternity leave was offered, and whether people actually took it. Here are some of the responses:

“My previous firm had, I think, four weeks of paid leave. I never saw anyone take more than two weeks. My current firm has some form of leave, but it’s not a lot, and most people take very little.”

“It’s available at our firm. But when your income is based off of your billings, you’re taking a financial hit. Not to mention that the other lawyers have to take on your work to see it gets done, increasing the burden on others.”

“[F]or every day we take off for vacation or sick leave, we are expected to make up those hours on weekends.”

“Both of my prior firms offered family leave (six weeks paid for women, two weeks paid for men) but billable hours goals were not adjusted for those taking this leave. So, dad could take his two weeks but still meet his billable goal and be eligible for a raise and even a bonus for billables exceeding the goal.

“But mom (recovering from a major medical condition and likely the primary caregiver and source of food for a newborn) taking six to 12 weeks is not likely to recover that hit to her billables, so she misses her bonus and raise during the year after she gives birth. But also, her billing records will always show that she had a year that she failed to meet the goal.”

“I’m solo. What is this ‘paid leave’ you speak of?”

Now, there are law firms that understand that people have obligations to their children. I have at least one lawyer friend who regularly leaves the office in the midafternoon to pick up his kids from school, making up the time at night and on the weekends. I’m pleased to see that flextime is permitted; but I wish more firms understood the value of paternity leave — both for the employee’s family and the firm. When a firm doesn’t acknowledge that employees have lives outside of the office, what else are employees to think that they are but a commodity to the firm, judged only by their work and not who they are as an individual? I would not be surprised to learn that associates and others have declined offers or left firms because the expectations related to fatherhood didn’t comport with their values.

When employees realize that they have the transferable skills to find a good job that allows them to be active in family life too, employers will be under pressure to cater to their needs or risk losing talented lawyers to someone who will.

So what’s the answer? If you want to attract and keep lawyers and staff who are interested in raising families, ask them what benefits would help them be an effective employee and a good parent. And why not offer the same amount of paternity leave as maternity leave — and encourage both men and women to take as much time as they need, and adjust billable requirements so they can still earn a bonus?

Better yet, why not ask all employees what you can do to make their lives easier?

Ruth Carter is a lawyer, writer and speaker. She is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing her practice on intellectual property, social media, First Amendment and flash mob law. Ruth is the author of the ABA book “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Follow her on Twitter @rbcarter.

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