Somebody asked me, after I returned to the office following three months’ parental leave, “Did you enjoy your time off?”
“I enjoyed the last three months immensely,” I said. “But trust me, ‘time off’ does not in any way describe it.”
If you’ve spent more than a few weeks raising a child hands-on, you’ll probably get that. If you haven’t, you might have a hard time understanding how parenting can be more work than the toughest law job — and can be more rewarding than the greatest law job, too. Similarly, I think most legal employers these days are either clued in to helping their lawyers be parents, or they’re not.
It’s been heartening to hear and read the stories of law firms that do get it: they accommodate within their work structures lawyers’ decisions to have kids. They understand not only the business advantages to that approach — retention, recruitment, and more (set out below) — but also that a law firm community that respects its employees’ personal lives is a triumph of professionalism.
And some firms don’t get it. Their business models can’t maximize production from young parents, and so they accept high turnover rates and the exodus of women lawyers as a tolerable cost of success. What strikes me, even more so than before I spent three months as a full-time dad, is how it’s the firms who are missing out here, not the lawyers. What sensible law firm wouldn’t want to employ a parent?
Parents are the ultimate multi-taskers, simultaneously juggling numerous duties — all urgent priorities and all mandatory — through hard work, organization and efficiency. That’s not valuable to firms trying to leverage the most work out of the fewest professionals?
Parents are tremendous dispute resolvers, balancing both the short-term demands and long-term interests of parties with deeply self-interested viewpoints, usually in high-stress situations. That’s not useful for clients who need conflicts settled quickly and calmly?
Parents are great listeners, reading between the lines of what they’re told and figuring out what someone really needs, earning their trust in the process. That’s not the very heart of effective client relations and marketing?
Parents function on much less sleep than they need. That’s not a survival skill in the modern law firm?
The business case for law firms to recruit and retain lawyers who are parents is clear. The business case for the billable-hour regime and the work-‘em-till-they-drop culture of many firms, which drive away these valuable professionals, remains a mystery to me.
This post first appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2007 issue of National magazine.