Legal Business Blogs

Guest comment: time for law firms to play catch-up on parental leave

Nathan Peart, managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa, says firms must move with the times when it comes to arrangements for prospective parents

Parental leave continues to be a conversation at the forefront of law firm policy development, but it still has a long way to go to reflect the modern norm. As firms examine the changes in the way we work and develop policy that reflects local customs but still aligns with a firm’s ethos, it is also important to remember the people at the centre of this policy – prospective parents.In a recent survey conducted by Major, Lindsey & Africa looking at associates’ experiences of parental leave among Global 100 firms, 71% of respondents had already taken parental leave and 64% planned to take it in the future. These statistics are significant in showing how impactful parental policy is to the associate ranks.

When examining the results further, it is clear that current policy is generally old-fashioned, ignores key societal changes and is not always fit for purpose. Anecdotally, several associates felt frustration with policy overall and wanted actions to be demonstrated at partner level to increase associate uptake of parental leave. Other associates moved to other firms after returning from their parental leave because of frustrations with progression or business development exposure and being seen as ‘not committed’.

One of the most effective ways of influencing behaviour adoption in the workplace is driving change from the top down. When law firm partners discourage taking parental leave and prioritising work, either overtly or through their own actions, associates feel that they must do the same. Paternal leave in particular is still something, according to our research, that has mixed uptake and allowance rates especially among men.

Likewise, policy widely dictates leave based on traditional gender norms and paths to parenthood. Paternity leave largely presumes the father will be the main breadwinner and return to work in a short period and while the UK does offer shared parental leave legislation, it ignores the financial pressures of a new family, focusing solely on the amount of time off. It also largely ignores other routes to parenthood such as adoption or surrogacy, where the experience can be complex and difficult, particularly for LGBTQ+ couples or single parents who will often need extra support.

For prospective mothers, there is also an expectation through natural workplace structures to align everything early on and decide whether or not to start a family. Pressure to beat the biological clock is further complicated by the pressure to commit to an intense legal career and having to choose between career progression or parenthood. This contrasts starkly to the tech sector, where egg freezing has been a benefit since 2017 and allows employees more freedom and time to plan parenthood.

It is also clear that there is a lack of transparency of firms’ policies internally. According to our survey, 54% of respondents were unsure if leave policy was different between associates, partners and staff, yet 74% said policy was the key driver in deciding how much leave to take. If access to key information is a barrier, this only adds to the burden of prospective parents, and it is not necessarily a conversation people want to have with HR at the early stages of their journey. People are more likely to leave their firm than battle an existing policy that offers little clarity.

How do law firms improve their approach to parental leave? The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust forward policy around flexible working. For instance, Ropes & Gray has already announced it is ditching the 5-day week for UK associates. With new working models being shaped, now is the perfect time to evaluate and update parental leave policies. It’s time to normalise flexible working.

Considering the paths to parenthood are important. For any kind of flexibility or change, the motivation is never about doing less work – after all, lawyers are ambitious, hardworking people. But being able to understand the nuances of potential struggles is important when refreshing and creating policy designed to support employees. Putting faith in employees to get the job done, while giving breathing room to build their new family will only increase retention and loyalty. Being creative can help too – thinking about job shares or expanding benefits to offer options such as egg freezing will make staying at the firm that bit more attractive.

Finally, being open and vocal about policy will heighten internal and external recruiting brands. In an area that is typically secretive, transparency could bring your firm to the front of mind of prospective talent.