Family values

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Big news: most law firms no longer consider a lawyer’s decision to start and raise a family to be an implicit violation of the employment contract. Many women lawyers can now take nine months or more of maternity leave and return to find their jobs still waiting for them and their career prospects not greatly dimmed.

This is good news, of course, and I applaud the architects and pioneers of parental leave acceptance. But in many firms, parental leave allowances are simply part of an effort to staunch the hemorrhaging of young talent. Firms have learned that if they want to keep young lawyers around, they could start by accommodating these lawyers’ desire to have kids and to be with them during the first several months of their lives.

But that young talent probably will continue to drain away regardless, because it’s not just about getting time with a newborn. Consider that for many of these lawyers, the hard part comes when they return to work and find the firm demanding exactly the same hours and dedication it did pre-leave — if not more. I know a lot of ex-firm lawyers for whom that was the breaking point.

Why do so many lawyers still have to choose between a fulfilling career in a law firm and a fulfilling role as an involved parent? There are always tradeoffs, naturally: you can’t be a high-powered, high-paid lawyer and still spend hours on the playroom floor with your kids. But lawyering and parenting don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And more to the point, the firms seem to keep mistaking the symptoms for the problem.

Law firms are businesses trying to turn a profit. But they’re hamstrung by how they go about it — by their addiction to the billable-hour system. When you sell your services, compensate your workers and evaluate your future partners on the volume of hours billed, you will disproportionately reward those lawyers who have few if any commitments outside the office.

If time equals profitability, and if profitability equals profile and promotion, a firm inevitably will exclude lawyers who want or need to spend time away from work (a group that remains overwhelmingly female). There are thousands of excellent lawyers who fall into that category. They form a vast pool of top-quality resources that continue to slip away from firms addicted to the billable hour system. Is the system worth that?

This post first appeared as the editorial in the March 2007 issue of National.

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