Apr 12, 2024 - Economy

Why a big law firm is rolling back parental leave

Illustration of a baby wearing a bib with a calendar on it with marked out days

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Last month, the big law firm DLA Piper quietly cut the amount of parental leave it offers non-partner lawyers by six weeks.

Why it matters: Businesses almost never cut these benefits — indeed employers, especially law firms, have consistently expanded the amount of time off given to new parents for more than a decade.

The big picture: Employers don't offer parental leave out of the goodness of their hearts.

  • They do it because leave is important for recruiting and retention, particularly of women — who make up only 28% of partners at U.S. law firms. (Yet a majority of associates are now women.)
  • Expanding leave is good marketing, too. For a stretch of years all a company had to do was announce an increase, and a glowing article would follow.

Zoom out: The firm's pullback could signal a broader retrenchment in some of the big work-life benefit expansions that took hold in the hot labor market of 2022.

State of play: Starting in May, DLA will offer new parents 12 weeks of parental leave — down from 18 and less than the 16-week average for most big law firms.

  • But birth mothers will have more leave than everyone else. If a lawyer gives birth, they're eligible for an additional six weeks of medical leave.

What they're saying: "As a law firm, our top priority is to provide consistent, exceptional client service," said Geneva Dawn Youel, DLA's communications director, in an email.

  • "To meet that goal, we need to strike a balance of providing our lawyers competitive benefits while also ensuring that the firm has proper coverage of client matters. We have done so here."

Between the lines: If the firm thinks 18 weeks of leave is a disservice to clients — what about the birth mothers who take all those weeks? Will they wind up losing out?

  • It's a reasonable fear. Nearly a quarter of lawyers surveyed by Major, Lindsay in 2021 said they've faced negative consequences — lower quality assignments or fewer advancement opportunities — after taking parental leave.

Follow the money: Slashing paid leave benefits could also be a cost-cutting measure and a way to avoid layoffs or other belt-tightening measures.

  • It also makes sense if retention isn't a priority. Lawyers no longer plan on staying with firms for life, says Hilarie Bass, the former co-president of Greenberg Traurig and former head of the American Bar Association.
  • "What is the point of making this enormous investment paying for months of paid leave," she says. "And they may not finish the year they'll be gone to their next law firm."

Still, cutting parental leave is a bad idea, says Bass, who now runs the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion.

  • "I think it's a really short-sighted approach. I think it's going to hurt them competitively in the recruiting world."
  • And in retention: "This is absolutely the kind of thing associates leave firms over — because even if they aren't immediately impacted by the change," Rubino writes. "It shows how little the firm actually cares about their non-partner attorneys."

Zoom out: Knowledge workers, including attorneys, expect employers to offer some leave — even if they don't plan on having children anytime soon.

  • A generous policy is often seen as a proxy for an employer's commitment to work-life balance, says Andrew Glynn, a managing director and legal recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa.
  • Glynn says a firm recently expanded its leave policy — to provide equal amounts of time to parents whether they adopt or give birth or use a surrogate —  because one lawyer asked for this in hiring negotiations.

What to watch: So far, no other firms have followed suit — but Big Law is a lock-step world, so it's not something to rule out.

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