Several of the nation's largest law firms are boosting their paid leave for lawyers who become new parents.
In the past few months, about a dozen law firms have increased their paid maternity leave to 18 weeks from, in most cases, about 12 weeks.
Also, many firms have increased their paid paternity leave periods, particularly if fathers become the main caregivers. Firms also are bumping up the amount of time off given to adoptive parents.
The moves are the first significant changes to parental policies at law firms in several years. Administrators and lawyers at those firms deny that the benefits are meant to replace salary increases. But they admit the programs are designed to attract and retain associates, especially women, who are steadily leaving the legal profession.
"When you have increases in compensation, there seems to be a domino effect. This is a benefit enjoying a similar domino effect," said Dan Hatch, a partner at legal search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. "That tells me this particular benefit has struck a nerve."
A COMPETITIVE EDGE
Firms that have increased their paid maternity leave to 18 weeks include Arnold & Porter; Covington & Burling; Debevoise & Plimpton; Hogan & Hartson; Latham & Watkins; Mayer Brown; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Sullivan & Cromwell; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
Among the first to jump to 18 weeks was New York-based Sullivan & Cromwell, which changed its policy in July. Most have followed that lead in recent months.
"Firms follow because they're trying to be competitive," said Audra Cohen, partner and co-chairwoman of the women's initiative committee at Sullivan. "It was something we thought was important and wanted to do, so we could be a market leader."
Janet McDavid, partner and member of the executive committee at Washington's Hogan & Hartson, which increased its maternity leave to 18 weeks in January, acknowledged that recruiting and retention issues are elements in boosting parental leave periods.
"But I don't think we were following anyone," she said. "We knew that some other firms were enhancing their maternity leave policies, and that caused us to revisit this."
In January, New York's Debevoise & Plimpton increased its maternity leave to 18 weeks from 12, the standard period for about two decades, said My Chi To, a partner who serves on the firm's part-time committee. The firm also gave adoptive parents 10 weeks, adding six weeks to its prior policy.
Changes for adoptive parents were significant at most firms.
On March 1, Skadden instituted new benefits that allow adoptive parents who are primary caregivers to take up to 12 weeks off, an increase from four weeks, said Jodie Garfinkel, director of professional personnel and attorney development at the New York-based firm. She said the change recognizes new types of families.
"It could be an adopted couple where the father is the primary caregiver, it could be a same-sex couple, it could be all kinds of things," she said.
In December, Latham & Watkins increased to 18 weeks both its paid maternity leave and paid leave for adoptive parents who are primary caregivers, said Rick Bress, global chairman of the associates committee at the firm.
"We felt strongly that the challenges you face when you've got a new child in the home don't depend a whole lot on how the child got there," Bress said. "Whether the child was born to one of the parents in the home or adopted, you still face an awful lot of the same issues."
FATHERS GET A BREAK
Several firms also significantly increased paid leave for spouses who don't give birth to a child but become primary caregivers -- in most cases, fathers. At several firms, that leave jumped from four to 10 weeks.