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Ready for the Backlash Against New Mommies?

The Careerist

September 28, 2016

6411524241_9134d65855_zMaybe Donald Trump has sensitized me to the plight of men who feel they're not getting a fair shake. Or maybe I'm just skeptical of what seems to be too good to be true.

In any case, I'm getting nervous about some of those wonderfully generous policies aimed at women, particularly new moms. I'm talking about the way that law firms and corporations are tripping over themselves to show how how much they want retain women.

Though these policies are almost never described as benefiting women exclusively, we all know they do. And therein, I think, lies the problem.

Take Proskauer Rose's new leave policy. According to The Am Law Daily, under the firm's new program, "primary caregivers returning to the firm from parental leave will be able to work on a 75 percent schedule for six months while receiving 100 percent of the pay."

I get that new mothers might not want to plunge into full-time work, but what's with the 100 percent pay stuff for part-time work? Moreover, won't all this generosity breed resentment, particularly among men and the childless?

"I think it's a positive development," says Morrison & Foerster partner Carrie Cohen. A mother of four, Cohen says she didn't hesitate about taking full leaves. She adds that she took two six months (unpaid) for her last two kids while she was at the U.S. Attorney's office. Easing back—and with full pay—"could make a difference in whether you go back," she says. Besides, she adds, "it's only six months."

Other lawyers are less enthusiastic about the policy. Two lawyers—one male, the other female—both mentioned (independently) that they have pets that need love and attention too. "Can I get full paid time for that?" one asks (in jest, I think).

The catch is that good intentions don't always make good policy. "It's well-intentioned but the 'primary caregiver' language is problematic," says Joan Williams, a professor at Hastings College of Law. "It sends the message that there's one person who's taking care of children and one person who's the main breadwinner." She adds, "and wink, wink, this is really for women." The effect, she says, is that "women are stigmatized."

So what's the better policy? Williams says both primary and non-primary should get the same benefit—even if it's less generous as a result. Gradual return to work with pay based on the amount of time worked would be non-stigmatizing, she explains.

So far, Proskauer says it has received only praise for its policy. Joanne Ollman, who head's the firm's professional resources, says she doubts there will be a backlash. "We're not that type of firm. People care about each other, so it would surprise me if there's resentment."

I don't doubt that Ollman means what she says. But even if it proves true that there's wide support for the leave policy, I still wonder if this is the magic bullet. Will women stay and make partner as a result? Or is it creating a Pink Ghetto—one for lawyer mommies?

I know I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. But that's what I do.

vchen@alm.com

 

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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