I have always wanted to be a positive force for good for the individuals that I advise and the law firms that I serve. However, there is a tool that all law firms in London have, that I feel is too often ignored.
I recently worked with a candidate who was offered a role with a firm at twice his current salary. He declined. Why? Because he was going to get an enhanced Shared Parental Leave (SPL) package with his existing firm. That benefit beat any financial recompense the new role promised.
Today’s men are as ambitious as ever, but they also want balance in their lives. That means taking an active part in family life, made possible from the start by good paternal leave. Research conducted in 2020 by the Fawcett Society found that almost 70% of fathers would like longer and better-paid time off after having children.
SPL is a vital tool for achieving this change. If men and women took an equal share in the formative first months of a baby’s life, it would bring untold benefits for individuals, businesses and society. I feel this is particularly true in law firms which both need to redress the unbalanced gender make up of their leadership, and tackle burnout with their staff.
- Firms would reduce their loss of female talent – because it bursts the bubble of parental leave being a career brake.
- Firms would retain men who want work/life balance and who will stick with the business that offers the benefits to support them at such a life changing time.
- It could turn an individual benefit into a powerful firm-wide brand message: we are an employer of choice for both men and women.
- Men would get a mental health boost. Firms have traditionally offered sabbaticals, trying to stave off burnout – which are still incredibly important. Having a break from the office is now seen as vitally important to sustain longevity in a career in private practice. I would stress, looking after my kids is not a holiday.
- If men are more involved in a child’s life after birth, they’re more likely to be involved later on in childhood too (with the bonus of having the additional insights and skills to contribute meaningfully). Ultimately this could even out the burden of childcare, further allowing both men and women to progress equally in their careers.
- Children will grow up experiencing true equality in the home, with huge ramifications for their future lives, relationships and careers.
Simply put, SPL is the gamechanger.
For all this, however, SPL is still massively underutilised, with only 3.6% of eligible fathers taking SPL in 2019/20, the fifth year of the scheme.** That the Government had hoped for a take-up rate of at least 25% says all you need to know: Brits aren’t taking it up.
The legal sector and SPL
For some time, law firms have been enhancing SPL, and implementing extended paternity rights. Typical examples include one firm that offers up to 12 weeks fully-paid leave to employees whose partner is having a baby, adopting a child or becoming a parent through surrogacy. Another City firm offers SPL of 26 weeks on full pay and 13 weeks at the statutory rate. None of this is unusual. But many men still don’t take it.
I believe, that’s because there’s still a stigma attached to (or at least a fear of) taking an extended paternity leave. Today’s men typically come to fatherhood in their 30s when they’re gunning for partnership. Taking time ‘off’ to have children is still seen by many men as a barrier to promotion. A combination of stigma and perception and the results are simply a low up-take by men, even when the parental package is boosted by the firm.
Law firm male leaders, now in their 50s, rarely took anything beyond minimal paternity but they are the ones who are needed to champion a cultural shift and encourage their male staff to take SPL.
I know a partner who worked for a US law firm, who took shared parental leave for both his children and then went on to be promoted while on SPL for his second child. Why couldn’t this be the norm for both women and men?
If law firm leaders are serious about enacting a change in their leadership make up and men want to be champions of female diversity whilst at the same time getting some mental health benefits, SPL is the silver bullet.
Law firm leaders should actively promote their firm’s SPL offering and not simply accept that men may take it, but proactively encourage them to do so! To see real change, it will also take men who are just coming up to partnership, or have just achieved that goal, to stand up and actually go for this – to take the chance for more family time, especially in those first months, whilst having the confidence that this decision is not going to slow down their career objectives.
Enough of the lip service to SPL. Firms and individuals need to grab the benefits of this tool, step up and make the change that will transform business, society and the lives of men, women and children for the better.
By Freddie Lawson, Director, Fox Rodney
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