How law firms can embrace being family-friendly

There’s no doubt that for many of those who pursue a career in law it has often meant having to make a choice between investing in work over family life – and the impact of this choice differs starkly by gender. For men, it usually means sacrificing family time. For women, it usually means sacrificing career prospects after starting a family. The reality is it’s a shared problem that concerns everyone with men, women and children dealing with tough trade-offs all round.

But the tide is changing . . . for the better.

Global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright recently announced a parental leave policy update offering 18 weeks leave to new parents in a refreshed gender neutral, inclusive and flexible approach to how parents can take leave. Policy changes include; flexibility in the way parents take their leave, eligibility post probation and the removal of lengthy qualifying periods for subsequent babies, an increased period of up to 2 years in which the leave can be used and ensuring that all families feel included - same sex couples, surrogacy, adoption, kinship and foster care arrangements alike.   The firm have also increased their superannuation contributions to address the well-known superannuation gap that exists for parents taking time out.

Norton Rose Fulbright becomes one of a growing list of progressive employers committed to advancing parental leave equality in Australia where less than 5% of dads take paid parental leave. Even when primary carers leave is made available to men, there’s still a reluctance to use it, explains Emma Walsh, CEO of Parents At Work. “Evidence suggests this is because men don’t define themselves as ‘primary’ carer (a gendered term used mainly to describe provisions for mothers) - gender bias language, a lack of awareness, stigma and access to replacement wage leave all contribute to men’s low take up of parental leave”.

Seasoned lawyer and mother Jackie O’Brien, Partner at Norton Rose Fulbright, shared her thoughts on what she has observed in the industry over the last three decades when it comes to working parents. (This follows on from her article in the Australasian Lawyer).

“I believe that “men need to ‘do’ parental leave too”. It’s critically important to tackling many of the issues that have plagued the gender equity debate in the legal profession over recent decades. I am the mother of two adult sons one of whom is at the start of his legal career. I am hopeful that should he decide to become a parent, his experience in a demanding profession will be very different from what I have observed over the last 30 years, and everyone will be the better for it.”

But as Jackie points out we need more than just good policies to make gender equality a genuine lived experience, even at a progressive family friendly organisation like Norton Rose Fulbright:

“Men have had access to our parental leave policies for some time now, so it’s not that the policies are completely new so much as some streamlining and repositioning which is bringing this way of combining work and parenting to the front of everyone’s thoughts.  This is such a good thing. Modelling different ways of working and managing parental leave is important for all parents – “you can’t be what you can’t see” is just as relevant in this discussion as it is in any discussion about any type of equality of opportunity. I think that policies by themselves are just “hardware” – to make them live and do their work you also need “software”.

So what is the software of a great policy made of? What does it really look like in action? Jackie explains:

“The “software” here is moving from organisational permission to the celebration, encouragement and support of and for men to take up parental leave and flexible working options, for a whole host of reasons.”

“For more than 30 years now I have watched the issue of parenting be almost exclusively the domain of women in the legal profession, especially when it comes to public comment and observation in relation to the so called juggle.”

“How wonderful would it be for those discussions and practices to have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the fact that lawyers have lives and responsibilities in addition to work and that discharging and managing those responsibilities makes them more fulfilled people and dare I say it, better lawyers.“

“And all of that is before one considers the benefit to the children in this equation; this is not a win – win situation, it is a win – win – win – win situation with children, parents, the profession and society all the better for it.”

As Jackie suggests it is more than hope and idealistic beliefs that will get us there. It is important to continue to raise our standards in all areas of business – including the care and wellbeing of lawyers who are people first and foremost:

“It’s true that to make parental leave and flexible working policies genuinely more accessible to more men will mean more care and thought will need to go into how teams are put together and how teams as a whole work and when. Law is a demanding profession built upon philosophies of excellence and service. Given that, I guess we can expect some comments about this being a challenging adjustment, but shouldn’t law firms be doing that anyway?  Isn’t that how you do the best for your talent pool whilst at the same time doing the best for the clients you serve?”

“My point is, changes and challenges in the way people work are really just differences which should create opportunities to work smarter and more collaboratively – they don’t have to be compromises on things like quality and service.”

And that is the point we need to all remember when even a sniff of resistance is in the air when it comes to making our legal environments more family friendly.

Rohan Sridhar, a senior associate in Norton Rose Fulbright’s Melbourne office sums up the benefits to both individual’s and firms’ culture in talking about his experience on the arrival of his son:

“It was an incredibly fulfilling and enjoyable opportunity to have had 3 months of parental leave with our son. The chance to spend time learning to parent was fantastic and certainly contributed to a stronger relationship between the two of us. I was fortunate to have such an understanding environment at Norton Rose Fulbright when it came to taking that time off. Every person, particularly my supervising partner and HR, as well as other partners I spoke to, were incredibly supportive of that decision and made every effort to ensure the process ran as smoothly as possible. It is certainly something I would encourage every dad to take advantage of.”

Thank you Norton Rose Fulbright – you are a leader in law and there will be many law families to come  that will be thankful the practice took a step ahead of the game to make law a people friendly profession.

How family friendly is your organisation? Would you value your employer more if it championed family friendly workplace culture?  Share your family friendly workplace stories with Parents At Work.