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Take a Long Parental Leave and Make Partner? Seriously?

Vivia Chen

July 22, 2019

13950055818442Big Law must believe that lawyers are hopeless romantics. Why else are they selling the fantasy that lawyers can make oodles of money, do cutting-edge work and spend as much time as their heart desires on babies and leisure?

I’m talking about those eye-popping perks making headlines. No, I don’t mean gourmet snacks, yoga breaks or free dog-walking services. I’m talking about unlimited vacations and unlimited parental leaves—benefits that take lawyers away from what they are put on earth to do: create billable hours.

Unlimited vacation policies are proliferating like bunnies across the Big Law landscape. Among major firms that offer this goody: Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft; DLA Piper; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; Kirkland & Ellis; Latham & Watkins; Mayer Brown; Orrick; White & Case. (You can check out Chambers for a more comprehensive list.)

Not to be outdone, litigation powerhouse Susman Godfrey upped the ante last fall by offering unlimited paid (!) leave for new parents—male or female and you don’t have to be the primary caregiver—in addition to its unlimited paid (!) vacation leave.

So how’s the unlimited parental leave working out? (I’m going to assume that people don’t have the chutzpah to indulge in months and months of paid vacations.)

Just beautifully, say Susman lawyers who spoke to Law.com’s Dan Packel recently. The lawyers using the leave policy “depict a firm culture that appears diametrically opposed to the depictions in recent lawsuits targeting Morrison & Foerster and Jones Day, where women who returned from maternity leave allegedly found their work environment changed dramatically,” Packel writes

I don’t doubt that Susman’s uber-generous parental leave policy makes fabulous headlines, but can we get real? Seriously, does anyone really think an associate can take a long leave (say a year or more) at the firm’s expense and not pay a price?

First of all, Susman is not exactly some laid-back, lifestyle firm. It’s an intense, high-stakes litigation boutique. It’s also incredibly profitable, hauling in $2.585 million in profit per equity partner. And it makes a point of beating Cravath, Swaine & Moore in associate pay. (Last year, first-year associates started at $195,000 and got a median bonus of $110,000.)

Not to be crass, but firms are in the business of making money. As profitable as Susman is, what firm can afford to shell out big salaries to nonbillers, especially if a critical mass of new parents opt for extended tours of diaper duty? I think there’d be a partners’ revolt.

Susman’s managing partner Neal Manne doesn’t completely disagree: “We are very much a for-profit enterprise. But my view as managing partner is that in the medium and longer term our business success depends on continuing to attract and retain the absolute very best associates.”

Manne insists that the firm’s paid vacation and leave policies “are not gimmicks.” He adds: “We really mean it and our associates know we mean it. It works because we know that our associates are responsible and reasonable. They work very hard. They do fantastic work. They allow our firm to succeed the way it does—no.1 litigation firm in the country for seven consecutive years, according to Vault. We have a unique business model and a unique group of associates. Maybe our policies wouldn’t work at other firms but they do at Susman Godfrey. That’s our happy reality. Our policies are here to stay—and we hope our associates are, too.”

That said, Manne agrees lengthy leaves entail compromises. “Realistically, if someone took off an entire year then of course they would be delayed by a year for partnership,” adding, ”we haven’t had someone take off a year.”

“It’s all about economics,” says Betiayn Tursi, who heads Women in Law Empowerment Forum, an organization that promotes women in the legal profession. She adds that if a lawyer is taking off a big chunk of time and wants to remain on partnership track, “you need an honest assessment of their chances of making partner. Without that, all bets are off.”

 

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.

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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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