Attorney Mike Boulette was surprised with six full weeks of paid paternity leave at his new law firm. He was even more surprised when told to take it. All of it.
The law does not have a reputation as a parent-friendly profession, and rightly so. Lawyers work long hours, on short deadlines, with high-stakes. Many of us work through soccer games, school conferences, piano recitals, and well after our children are in bed. Lawyers have developed an almost masochistically workaholic machismo in which hours billed become a point of pride, even if those hours were during our kid’s school play.
While outside forces no doubt play a role, think here of the judge who refused to grant a continuance over a lawyer’s maternity leave, lawyers themselves bear much of the blame. We tend to be hyper-perfectionists—zealous advocates who put our client’s interests before our own, and often before our family’s. Put enough of us together and the effects compound. And big law firms often sit at the apex of this workaholic ethos.
For years, the push for work-life balance at many of large law firms has been framed as a women’s issue. Give working mothers flexible schedules so female lawyers can be home for their children, presumably while their spouses work. But as Leigh McMullan Abramson recently wrote for The Atlantic in Law Firms Are Learning: Work-Life Balance Isn’t Just for Moms, times are changing. And frankly, they should.
In 2013, I accepted a job at Lindquist & Vennum, one of the largest law firms in Minnesota. My wife was three months pregnant. Having spent my first few years out of law school in a firm that could fit at your kitchen table, I had no idea what to expect. What I knew was there were showers down the hall from my office. Showers. That could not be a good sign.
When I told the firm about my wife’s pregnancy I received a string of well-wishes, but also information about a generous, six-week paid paternity leave, which could be taken (in whole or in part) any time within a year of my daughter’s birth. I was also told my billable hours expectation would be adjusted to zero while I was on leave. For those not in legal practice, this is a Golden Ticket. Like any good lawyer, I assumed they weren’t serious.
They’ll hold it against me. I’ll never make partner. If I’m gone more than a few days, no one at the firm will never take me seriously. I thought. All the voices of self-doubt echoed in my mind, until I confessed to a colleague I intended to take a week of leave. At most. Maybe not even that. I practically apologized as I winnowed down my time out of the office.
He stopped me short as I braced myself for his story about how he was back the same day his kids were born. “No,” he said “You’ll take it all.” Not just one week or one month. All of it. Without working from home. And not just for me—though I needed it more than I could have imagined—and not just for my family—they did too—but for every other working parent in the firm. Because my parental leave, every lawyer’s parental leave, was about creating a culture where parenting isn’t a gender issue. More than two years later, I know he was absolutely right.
Changing how law firms operate isn’t just about putting better policies in place. It’s about rooting out the gendered notions of parenting that make these policies silently inaccessible to male lawyers while creating unspoken but pervasive penalties for female lawyers.
Despite the increasing prevalence of family-friendly leave and flextime at law firms, the policies are only effective when paired with a firm culture that genuinely supports parents of both genders. “Some major law firms have formal paternity-leave policies on their books but many of them still lack a culture in which men feel comfortable utilizing those polices,” writes Abramson, “Male lawyers…often receive mixed messages from superiors: They’re allotted significantly less parental leave than their female counterparts, they’re implicitly discouraged from taking leave at all, and those that do take leave say they feel stigmatized.”
Attorneys of both genders are stuck, wrote Anne Marie Slaughter recently for the New York Times in A Toxic Work World. Slaughter claims a “bad work culture is everyone’s problem, for men just as much as for women.” And these observations hold true not just in the legal profession, but more broadly. The Wall Street Journal recently reported: “Many men choosing to work part time find themselves renegotiating their schedules or fighting the impression that they aren’t committed to their careers.” Conversely, women are more likely to be negatively impacted by requesting flexible working arrangements, and less likely to actually receive those working arrangements when requested.
Yet, seemingly for the first time, there is a genuine desire for change. Millennial fathers are overwhelmingly committed to the importance of paid parental leave for both parents. And younger workers of both genders value more egalitarian marriages and equal parenting. Law firms are feeling this press for change no less acutely than Silicon Valley or Wall Street.
Living these values is not just a human resources matter. They cannot exist by unilateral decree of a managing partner in a corner office. They must be lived out each day, not just by individual lawyers, but by law firms, the bench, and the bar. We must value our role as parents alongside our role as advocates. And when a new parents’ leave comes on the heals of a major court filing or the eve of trial, we must tell them exactly what my colleague told me: go be with your family.
Law firm culture, like our work culture more broadly, is changing. But change depends on a shared commitment from lawyers and law firms big and small. It requires the support of lawyers not just to our own families, but to the families of those alongside us in the trenches.
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