Paternity-Leave Stigma at Law Firms Lifting, Ever So Slowly

(This story published on law.com on May 30, 2017. You can read it online with a subscription or download a PDF.)

When Chicago lawyer Lee Muench was planning his paternity leave for his first baby, an offhanded comment by an old-school partner got under his skin.

Muench had asked around about how long other partners and associates took off for paternity leave. The firm as a whole was receptive to leave, but one partner told Muench that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself after a couple of days, and his wife would want him out of the house.

The meaning was clear to Muench: Come back to work soon. Although the firm’s policy allowed 10 weeks, he decided to take four weeks off, feeling he was pushing the boundaries.

 

The older partner’s comment stuck with him after he made his decision, and Muench realized he couldn’t work there long term. One of that partner’s associates also viewed male leave unkindly.

“I knew if I went back to that firm, I would have to work for them, and those comments were symptomatic of who they were as people—they were jerks,” Muench said about the partner and associate. He asked that his former firm’s name remain unidentified so that he could speak candidly about the experience.

It wasn’t a coincidence that after a federal clerkship, Muench moved to Winston & Strawn. It was there—where a 20-week parental leave, regardless of gender or caregiver status, is one of the most generous among Big Law—that Muench said he experienced a cultural shift in attitudes about paternity leave.

“No one remembers I took paternity leave several months later. Once you are back in the fold, you get back in the mix of cases you had and the pace of life,” he said. “When someone is gone, they are gone a stretch, and when they come back, it’s like they were not gone. That’s how I felt here.”

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies with 50 or more employees to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave to either a mother or father following birth or adoption of a child. Many law firms go further than the law requires by offering paid time off to new parents.

In recent years, a number of big law firms, including Baker McKenzie, have beefed up their parental leave policies, in an effort to attract and retain top talent. Some firms increased the available paid time off for both mothers and fathers, although moms still got more time. Other firms—at the leading edge of the trend—offered the same time regardless of gender or status as primary or secondary caregiver.

On average, law firms offer 15 weeks of maternity leave and seven weeks of paternity leave, according to a 2016 survey by Working Mother and Flex-Time Lawyers. Mothers take an average of 14 weeks off, and fathers just four weeks on average. The survey said that law firms offer one extra week of paternity leave compared with one year ago.

Although research has suggested that the implied message inside many firms is for men to cut short their paternity leave—or face a stigma—some dads like Muench say they’re seeing more support from their colleagues to take time off. They’re also benefiting from an increasing base of other dads at their firms who have forged a path to make paternity leave more mainstream.

Matthew Brigham, an associate at Linklaters in New York, said he felt supported when he went on paternity leave after his baby was born in January 2016. He took the entire four weeks available to him. Linklaters is based in the U.K., where paternity leave is widespread and accepted. That culture extends to the firm’s New York office, Brigham said.

“There are a number of other attorneys here who are fathers, and it was helpful to know they had all taken paternity leave and had really encouraged me to absolutely take advantage of it,” Brigham said. “It wasn’t like you should think about whether you would take paternity leave. It wasn’t like I was worried about if I should take paternity leave. There was no hemming and hawing over it—it was a given.”

But Brigham said he knows his firm’s culture doesn’t extend to all firms in the United States.

“I have a friend who was like, ‘I couldn’t believe you would take paternity leave. There was no way I was going to be able to do it,’” he said.

Despite the changing culture at some firms, many lawyer-dads still worry that taking the full amount of paternal leave offered will hurt their careers.

“The problem is that men are too afraid of being stigmatized and too afraid of being held back from promotions,” said Sharon Rowen, who has studied law firms’ policies about both maternity and paternity leave during 20 years of research for documentary films about women in the legal profession. “They feel like people view them as not committed to the firm and that all of that implicitly makes their career path less upwardly mobile.”

Many partners come from a generation in which lawyer-dads still worked 18 to 20 hours per day right after their babies were born, Rowen said. When older attorneys talk about raising babies while working long hours, they might unknowingly perpetuate an implicit bias against paternity leave.

“Young men are very, very conscious of the work culture and how it affects their chance for success,” she said.

To create a culture where men are comfortable taking their full leave, law firms need to take steps to eliminate accidental, implicit bias against paternity leave, Rowen said. The firm and all of its leaders need to outwardly support paternity leave and make sure everyone knows it’s acceptable to take leave.

But the change could take a long time.

There’s such an ingrained societal perception that women are caretakers and men are workers, and that a man’s identity as a worker is more important than his identity as a father, said Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of Oregon who has studied masculinity, fatherhood and paternity leave extensively over his long academic career. Coltrane explained that nowadays, younger workers are starting to demand the work-life balance that allows them to be fully involved, equal parents to their kids. In law firms, associates are pushing the boundaries by taking paternity leave.

“As they move into senior roles, they will be more appreciative of time off. It may change the culture some,” he said.

Coltrane, senior vice president and provost of the University of Oregon, added that there are business perks to law firms that offer good paternity leave.

“You can attract the employees and build loyalty to your firm and you avoid retraining costs. It’s just the right way to keep people happy with their work and job. Particularly at some of these big law firms—or medical doctors and various high-powered financial and bankers—these are around-the-clock jobs. We have an unrealistic image of how committed a person has to be to their work: It’s kind of a macho competitive game to see how much you can put in. It’s not good for people’s health and well-being—or raising kids,” he said.

Although parental leave can benefit both lawyers and, in the long run, their firms, it still costs a lot of money.

Bob Hicks, chairman and managing partner of Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Indianapolis, which just upped its leave to 16 weeks for both primary and nonprimary caregivers, said he estimates that just 5 percent of lawyers there would take leave in a given year. The firm previously gave 12 weeks off to primary caregivers and two weeks for nonprimary caregivers.

The cost is not only their salary and benefits, but lost revenue as well. Hicks said his firm could lose 1.5 to 2 percent of revenue, or $500,000 to $1 million annually.

Hicks said he knows it will take time and a concerted effort to change his firm’s thinking about parental leave, and he expects the culture will change the most dramatically once nonprimary caregivers begin taking leave. The first lawyer recently announced he would take the full 16 weeks under the new policy.

Hicks has planned to make a “big deal” about the new policy at an upcoming employee retreat, he said. He also will caution older attorneys that if they talk about their experiences raising children without taking leave, younger attorneys might think they should not take time off.

“People don’t intend to be dismissive of our policy, but they talk about their days,” he said.

Both partners and associates will hear it from the top that lawyers will not face any stigma when they come back to work, he said.

One partner at Winston who’s spreading the word for lawyer-dads to use paternal leave is Sean Wieber. He took paternity leave when his two daughters were born in 2011 and 2014, and he has since become an advocate for paternity leave. He speaks on the topic and has taken groups of male lawyers to lunch to talk about leave. Wieber said he likes working with other lawyers who plan to take paternity leave, because it shows they’re balanced people.

“I’ve encouraged folks to plan for it and take it,” he said. “I guarantee from my perspective when I look back and reflect on my life on my deathbed, I won’t turn to my daughters and say, ‘I wish I worked more.’”

Still, it’s uncertain whether widespread use of long, extended paternity leave policies will catch on.

Andrews Kurth Kenyon associate Joe Buoni in Houston said he didn’t think twice about taking all two weeks of leave the firm gave him when his second daughter was born in January 2016. He said he’s never known of another associate who did not take the full two weeks.

“There wasn’t much to think about,” Buoni said. “I was really busy at the time before and after the baby was born, but it wasn’t really an issue.”

But Buoni said if he worked at a firm that offered him four of five months, he wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving his cases for such a long time.

At Winston, Muench could have taken five months off work when he and his wife had a second daughter in November 2016. He decided upon a two-month leave.

Muench explained that as a new associate, he had only recently formed strong relationships with colleagues and secured a steady flow of work and billable hours. He wanted to take the longest time possible to help his wife and daughters, but also wanted to get back to work without harming his hours. He didn’t have to, but Muench said his own anxiety prompted him to still “stay on the grid” and work about 40 hours a month during his leave.

At Taft Stettinius, Hicks acknowledged that lawyers might hesitate to take four months of leave because of worries over billable hours. For that reason, the firm decided to change the financial goals for lawyers who take parental leave.

“We treat the four months off as if they were working full time and give them credit as if they were. It would be a naked, ineffective policy if we didn’t change their billable hour goals and other goals for the leave,” he explained.

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