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Competition for a more diverse crop of employees is driving law firms to expand paid parental leave benefits, with at least four firms making changes in the last two months.
Paid parental leave has become the shiny new thing for employers in 2018—big name brands like Walmart, Starbucks, and Microsoft have all made headlines with updated policies. In the legal field, a handful of firms also have updated their policies to offer more leave, make the time off gender neutral, or add new types of benefits for parents.
“We wanted to ensure there was a level of consistency to enable people to do their work and manage their personal lives given the number of hours we require of them,” Jennifer Philpot, chief people officer for international law firm White & Case LLP, told Bloomberg Law. “We were also hearing from employees that our policies weren’t up to par.” White & Case now gives 12 weeks of parental leave to all legal and business services employees, regardless of gender.
For boutique intellectual property firm Desmarais, 12 weeks of parental leave for all employees—plus an additional six to eight weeks of leave for birthing mothers—is intended to give the firm an edge in attracting diverse talent from the small pool of law school graduates the firm targets. Desmarais looks for lawyers with a science and technology background, “and that makes it even more competitive to recruit for those people,” Partner Justin Wilcox told Bloomberg Law.
“We want to ensure we have a diverse workforce, and if we want to have long-term success in recruiting and retaining women lawyers, then we need to give them the flexibility they need for these life events like having a child,” Wilcox said. Desmarais announced its new policy in October, and began giving employees the additional benefits at the start of this year.
Despite recent employer announcements of expanded time off, only 17 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid parental leave, according to data from the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
California, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia require employers to provide some form of paid family leave, but there’s no federal mandate.
Big Law firm Fenwick & West LLP expanded its paid parental leave policy in November, offering birthing parents up to 22 weeks of leave, and non-birthing parents 16 weeks.
“Fenwick has always had a competitive parental leave policy, but our recently expanded program is at a market-leading level among large law firms,” Margo Lamont, Fenwick’s director of compensation, benefits, and HR systems, told Bloomberg Law in an email.
A month before Fenwick’s announced change, Susman Godfrey LLP rolled out an unlimited paid parental leave benefit for women and men associates.
Meanwhile, some firms are going beyond increasing leave in their attempts to appeal to a broader segment of the lawyer population. Both Fenwick and White & Case offer career coaching for new parents when they return to work after leave.
Fenwick also provides parenting and family therapists, and lactation support for breastfeeding at work, Lamont said.
But will stereotypical workaholic attorneys with an endless need for billable hours embrace the new leave programs?
Desmarais has had one staff member and two associates take parental leave this year. One of those staff members had just returned from leave when the new policy was implemented, Wilcox said, and she was able to take an additional four weeks of parental leave to make up for the discrepancy between the old and new policies.
At Fenwick, two attorneys—both fathers—recently went out on full parental leave, Lamont said. “Our culture supports and encourages all parents to take the full leave offered,” she said, “and we are thrilled to see that early adoption has been very positive.”
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