Guest Commentary: Time for law firms to research about parental leave

Nathan Peart, executive director at Major, Lindsey & Africa, says companies need to move with the times when it comes to agreements for prospective parents

Parental leave continues to be a conversation at the forefront of law firm policy evolution, but it still has a long way to go to reflect the modern norm. As companies investigate changes in the way we work and develop policies that reflect local customs but are still in line with business ethics, it is also important to remember the people who are at the center of these policies – prospective parents. A recent survey by Major Lindsey & Africa looked at employee experiences of parental leave at 100 global companies. 71% of those questioned had already taken parental leave and 64% planned to take it in the future. These statistics are important in showing how effective parental policies are on the associated ranks.

Upon further examination of the results, it becomes clear that current policies are generally old-fashioned, ignoring major societal changes, and not always fit for purpose. Anecdotally, several employees were frustrated with the overall policy and wanted measures to be demonstrated at the partner level to increase employee uptake on parental leave. Other employees moved to other companies after they returned from parental leave because they were frustrated with making progress or doing business development and were deemed “not committed”.

One of the most effective ways to influence behavioral adoption in the workplace is to drive change from top to bottom. When law firm partners discourage taking parental leave and prioritizing work openly or through their own actions, employees feel they need to do the same. According to our research, paternal leave in particular is still something that has mixed admission and admission rates, especially for men.

Likewise, policy largely prescribes leave based on traditional gender norms and pathways to parenting. To a large extent, paternity leave presupposes that the father will be the main breadwinner and return to work in a short period of time. While the UK offers a common law on parental leave, it ignores the financial pressures of a new family and focuses solely on length of free time. Other avenues to parenting such as adoption or surrogacy are also largely ignored, where the experience can be complex and difficult, especially for LGBTQ + couples or single parents who often need additional support.

For prospective mothers, there is also the expectation that everything will be coordinated at an early stage through natural workplace structures and that it will be decided whether a family should be started or not. The pressure to beat the biological clock is compounded by the pressure to embark on an intense legal career and choose between career development or parenting. This is in stark contrast to the tech sector, where freezing eggs has been beneficial since 2017 and gives employees more freedom and time to plan parenting.

It is also clear that there is a lack of internal transparency in corporate policy. According to our survey, 54% of respondents weren’t sure if vacation policies were different between employees, partners, and employees, but 74% said the policy was the primary reason for deciding how much vacation to take. If access to critical information is a barrier, it only adds to the burden on potential parents, and it isn’t necessarily a conversation people want to have with HR at the beginning of their journey. People are more likely to leave their company than to fight against an existing policy that offers little clarity.

How are law firms improving their approach to parental leave? The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the policy of flexible working forward. For example, Ropes & Gray has already announced that it will cut the 5-day week for UK employees. As new working models evolve, now is the perfect time to evaluate and update the parental leave guidelines. It is time to normalize flexible working.

It is important to consider the paths to parenting. Any kind of flexibility or change is never about working less – after all, lawyers are ambitious, hardworking people. However, it is important to be able to understand the nuances of potential struggles as staff support guidelines are updated and established. Trusting the employees to get the job done and the breathing needed to build their new family only increases bond and loyalty. Being creative can help too – if you think about job shares or expand the perks to include options like freezing eggs, staying with the company just gets a bit more appealing.

Being open and open to politics will strengthen internal and external recruiting brands. In an area that is usually secret, transparency can bring your company to the fore of potential talent.

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