Why the law firm that fought Ellen Pao is launching an expansive new parental leave policy

Courtesy of Gittings Studios

Women account for 47% of law school graduates, according to the American Bar Association. But at large law firms, only 17% of equity partners are women. These numbers haven’t changed much in the last decade.

Legal departments at Fortune 500 companies are doing slightly better at advancing women, but still only 21% have a female general counsel. And a recent survey from Catalyst, a non-profit that supports workplace diversity, found that women hold only 19.2% of S&P board seats in the United States—trailing much of the rest of the world.

Let’s be clear: unlike some other industries, law firms don’t have a pipeline problem. Women are thriving in U.S. law schools at the same rates as men. But they are not thriving—in the right numbers—in law firms. Law firms have a problem inspiring women to stay and lead.

Gender diversity in business is directly linked to increased creativity, collective intelligence and financial performance. A 2014 study by Credit Suisse Research Institute that compared companies where women hold less than 5% of the top operational jobs to those where women hold more than 10%, found that greater gender diversity correlated with a 27% higher return on equity and a 42% higher ratio of dividend payouts.

It’s no surprise then that many of our country’s most innovative companies are instituting new policies to invest in women leaders. Apple expanded its paid leave policy in late 2014 as part of a benefits overhaul designed to advance diversity. Morgan Stanley, which already offers a comprehensive paid leave policy, has added maternity coaches to improve communication between working parents and their managers.

Gender disparity in the legal profession is a complex problem. But we know one thing for sure: The leading reason women give for stepping off partnership track is “the difficulty of combining law firm work and caring for children in a system that requires long hours under high pressure with little or inconsistent support for flexible work arrangements.” That was the finding of a 2007 report by the M.I.T. Workplace Center.

The concern over work-life balance is particularly acute for professionals under the age of 30. “Firms should know that millennials have no interest in making work/family trade-offs. They look at the sacrifices the generations above them, even their own parents, have made, and reject this path fully,” professor Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Responsible Business at Berkeley-Haas School of Business, told me in a recent conversation. “Before making job choices, millennial couples specifically discuss and consider together, their ability to share equally child-rearing responsibility. To be clear, this is not an indication that young female professionals are less ambitious to make it to the top ranks. This is an indication that they expect their male partners and their employers to help support this success.”

Creating more opportunities for women will require changes in policy, culture and leadership. At Orrick, one way we’re seeking to attract women, and inspire them to stay and lead, is by expanding our parental leave policy. As of May 1, our lawyers who are primary caregivers became eligible for 22 weeks of paid leave and nine months of job protection. This adds four weeks paid and two months unpaid leave to our prior policy. Based on our research, it will be the leading policy in the large law firm market.

Paid leave has obvious benefits for working mothers and their families, which is why it’s mandated in every developed country except the United States. Our policy was inspired in part by conversations with our European partners. Of course, parental leave is only part of the solution. Parenting is a long journey and we need to make changes both institutional and individual to enable parents to thrive professionally and care for their families. That’s why we have created the role of “Leave Liaison” to help parents transition back to practice, and why we’re enhancing our on-ramping and flexible work arrangement programs.

There is buzzing global conversation about promoting women’s economic participation and business leadership. We hope that our move to “22 & 9” on parental leave sparks even more conversation among law firms. We will be listening closely for new ideas and approaches.

Mitch Zuklie is Chairman & CEO at San Francisco-based law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

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