The Problem With Becoming A Parent In BigLaw

Law360—Aebra Coe

A recent lawsuit against Morrison & Foerster alleging discrimination against women who have children illuminates a question looming over the legal industry: Are law firms truly welcoming to mothers, or are their parental leave policies merely lip service?

Whether or not the allegations are shown to be true in federal court with regard to the $100 million proposed pregnancy bias class action filed against Morrison & Foerster at the end of April, a number of experts say the broader law firm industry does have a problem with parents, and especially with mothers.

Many large law firms provide fair to generous parental leave and flexible working policies for mothers and fathers who consider themselves the primary or even the secondary caregiver of a new child, but both research and anecdotal evidence show that many attorneys are hesitant to take advantage of the policies due to a culture that seems to stigmatize those who take time off work to start a family.

“You can have these great policies and benefits, but if you still have a judgment about those who take advantage of the benefits, it ends up harming people,” said Outten & Golden LLP partner Cara Greene, incoming chair of the New York State Bar Association’s labor and employment section. “I think law firms are progressing … but we’re not all the way there yet.”

The results of a study conducted by Working Mother Media released last year showed that while paid maternity, paternity and adoption leave are common among law firms the publication deemed “friendliest” to working mothers, many lawyers at those firms are not using the time off, with most mothers using 14 of the 16 weeks available to them, fathers 4 of the 8 weeks offered, and parents of newly adopted children taking only 6 weeks out of 14.

Other studies have yielded similar results. Attorneys are “considerably more likely” than employees in other industries to think that taking maternity or paternity leave will hurt their career, according to McKinsey & Co. and's report, “Women in Law Firms,” which was part of its broader Women in the Workplace series that spanned numerous industries across corporate America.

There can be a perception among law firm leadership — and others in firms — of those who take full advantage of the leave programs as being less committed and less interested in advancing in their careers, regardless of whether that is true or not, and that presumption is often especially prevalent when it comes to new mothers, according to Greene.

“There are a lot of stereotypes that come in when — predominantly — women return from leave,” she said. “The assumption is that the woman is the primary caretaker and that her attention will be divided. That assumption isn’t made as often about men returning from parental leave.”

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