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How to Craft a Meaningful Parental and Caregiver Leave Policy

Much has been written recently about the generosity of parental leave policies for lawyers at major firms. Clearly, availability is not the issue — it is the fear of using the leave that haunts the industry.

Kathleen Brady, PCC

Attorneys worry about the effect that using the policy will have on how their commitment to their firm is perceived. They worry that they won’t be staffed on significant matters, which will impede their progression toward partnership. They also worry about the impact their actual commitment to work will have on their family responsibilities.

In other words, your policies may look good on paper, but do they actually serve the needs of both the institution and its individuals? The goal is to design policies and protocols that empower caregivers to create workable solutions to progress in their careers and tend to their families. Yet unlike other policies, the framework for this one needs to be driven by the caregivers’ needs, not the firm’s. Tending to the needs of your workforce first ultimately serves the firm best.

Start by examining your current policy:

  • What do you call it? Language affects implementation and usage. Most firms have moved away from the gender-specific “maternity leave,” opting instead for “parental leave.” While that is a step in the right direction, many policies continue to distinguish between a primary and secondary parent. That distinction is not gender-neutral and ignores that most families engage in co-parenting to the detriment of both women and men.
  • Is your policy limited to new parents or is it open to all caregivers, including those taking care of a sick or disabled loved one?
  • Is your policy only for lawyers or does it include staff?
  • What is the business imperative?

These may seem like minor points, but your responses will offer profound insights into organizational culture, which is defined by spoken and unspoken values and priorities.

As you examine your policy, consider why you are offering leave in the first place. A report by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being suggests that by taking care of its workforce, an organization is better able to retain talent, serve clients and meet its financial goals. Since the priority of firm leadership is client service and profitability, it is critical to expand their worldview to see that a well-designed leave policy addresses both of those concerns and thus should be a priority.

The goal is to design [leave] policies and protocols that empower caregivers to create workable solutions to progress in their careers and tend to their families.

Designing a policy is the tough part — there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It requires uncomfortable conversations to sort through all the issues. People need to talk to one another to uncover the concerns and priorities of potential users as well as firm leadership. The goal isn’t to create an entitlement policy that caters to every demand of your workforce but rather to create a framework with enough flexibility to empower individuals to create a plan that works for their family, their career development and the needs of the organization.

Implementing Your Policy

Once you have crafted your policy, you then have to announce, implement and monitor it to ensure that using leave becomes part of the firm’s culture. Think beyond a firmwide email and consider methods that showcase the policy to reinforce the firm’s values and priorities:

1. Create model schedule options to define acceptable hour arrangements and how bonuses will be calculated.

2. Designate a point person to facilitate leaves. Duties should include:

  • Before leave: Help design a leave plan to transition matters. Discuss if and how the individual wants to be kept in the loop while they’re out.
  • During leave: Acknowledge it is a major life event. Send a gift to new parents, or offer a thoughtful gesture like a card or muffin basket to a caregiver to let them know they aren’t alone.
  • Upon return:

    – Create a reorientation program to welcome people back: tend to logistics and paperwork, review available resources and arrange lunch. Schedule time with their practice group leader who can update them on matters and introduce them to any new hires.
    – Encourage them to talk to their practice group leader to establish best practices should the need arise to be out of the office or travel for assignments. Communication is critical to avoid misunderstands.
    – Ensure some professional and client development activities are held during business hours so they can continue to grow.

3. Monitor it! What gets measured gets improved. Look at hard data and anecdotal information. Compare usage and challenges by gender, office and department. The data will help you determine what tweaks are needed to ensure using the policy is an acceptable cultural norm.

Finally, educate the community about the challenges of caregiving and the importance of not making assumptions about people’s commitment or availability. Gently (but continuously) remind everyone that thoughtless comments and even well-meaning assumptions create unnecessary awkwardness and undermine the organizational objectives. Honest communication is the key to success.