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Yes, Dad-Lawyers Can Take Parental Leave -- But It's Not Easy

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 22, 2015 10:40 AM

Working for a large firm has its perks. Aside from the salary, you get to set your own hours, take unlimited vacation, even go on parental leave when you have a new child. Good luck taking advantage of any of that, though. Billable hours tend to trump all else.

Lawyers who are new or expecting parents often find that, in the firm's eyes, the work-life balance should always tilt towards work. Fathers in particular face extra pressure to put work before family. But for dads who want to be present at the start of their children's lives, taking parental leave is difficult, but not impossible.

Daddy Track vs. Partner Track

It's fine to spend time with your kids, so long as it doesn't distract from your work. That's the often unspoken -- and sometimes directly spoken -- message fathers hear when considering taking parental leave after the birth of a child. A recent survey of BigLaw attorneys by Above the Law showed that "men are being seriously stigmatized," discouraged from taking parental leave, and viewed as uncommitted to their work if they take more than a minimum amount of time off.

One attorney recounted this horrific, but not uncommon story:

There is an "unofficial" policy that I heard of through word of mouth from a couple of other new fathers that associates can get up to 4 weeks paid paternity leave with the approval of their practice group chair. I asked for two weeks paid paternity leave and was told that I had to use my five remaining vacation days for the year and would not get any paid paternity leave and that I should be grateful I have a job. I then was subsequently criticized and reprimanded for having low billable hours in the month in which my son was born.

Faced with such stigma, you'd think dad-lawyers might give up on family life altogether. That's not the case, however. The survey showed that the average dad-lawyer took 6.3 weeks of paid parental leave, while mothers took 14.33 weeks. And despite the unspoken pressures to treat billable hours like your only child, 81 percent of firms offered flexible hours, and 72 percent offered reduced hours to new parents.

4 Tips for Making Parental Leave Work

A recent piece by the San Francisco Bar Association examined Bay Area dad-lawyers who made paternity leave work with their careers -- without getting stuck permanently as associates. Sure, they didn't take the generous months-long leaves that are becoming standard perks in the tech world, but they were able to devote significant time to their new families. Warren Braunig, with the litigation boutique Keker and Van Nest, took between four and six weeks of leave after each of his children were born. Jeff Kayes, a lawyer at Morrison & Foerster, snuck away for a relatively brief two and a half weeks -- but he still made partner.

How did these lawyers get away from work long enough to learn their children's names? The SF Bar identified four tips:

  1. Work where leave is encouraged. Ask potential employers what benefits are available to new parents and ask them to identify successful attorneys in the firm who have taken advantage of them. Smaller firms and government work tend to be better when it comes to not stigmatizing parental leave.
  2. Get your team on board. Let them know this isn't a vacation and you won't be checking email all day.
  3. Prepare in advance. Don't just let your firm know that you're popping one out, but spend time weeks beforehand to inform clients and opposing counsel and to reorganize schedules and responsibilities.
  4. Get ready for transitioning back. One of the worst parts of taking parental leave is coming back. That brief will seem even more pointless when it's replacing weeks spent with your newborn, so consider whether you want to ease back into a full schedule or jump right into the fire to take your mind off homesickness.


Fathers Who Fight Back

Some lawyers who don't find that perfect fit for parental leave have been fighting back against their firms, too. A former lawyer at Dechert sued the firm for retaliating against him after he took leave for the birth of his child. 

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, most new parents are entitled to up to 12 weeks of at least unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. That includes the right to return to work without retaliation. Dechert settled the suit in 2013 and Rebecca Pontikes, the lawyer who represented the Dechert associate, says that she is often approached by other attorneys who've been punished for taking leave. That suit "has not been without effect," she told The New York Times, though we can't imagine it was great for the associate's career either.

As the Dechert suit shows, it can be difficult for new dads to take parental leave. It might even mean finding a new firm that shares your commitment to balancing family and work. But it's not impossible -- and very few fathers who take time away from the firm to spend time with their kids end up regretting it.

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