The National Pulse

Return-to-office push prompts law firms to reconsider child care benefits

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Child care conundrum

Photo illustration by Sara Wadford/Shutterstock

After two years of working from home, returning to the Washington, D.C., office of Crowell & Moring involved an entirely new set of logistics for Carmen Barboza. In February 2020, Barboza gave birth to her first child. A month later, COVID-19 shut down the world. In the time since, she had a second child and became a caregiver for her father, who has dementia.

“I’m super overwhelmed by it,” says Barboza, the firm’s chief human resources officer. “I also need care after day care because my husband and I have really demanding jobs.”

She’s not alone. As calls for a return to the office grow, the stressor of juggling child care weighs heavily on working parents at law firms—namely for those whose livelihoods are often tied to billable hours.

In response, firms both large and small are examining benefits to make sure employees are at ease with who’s watching the kids.

‘The struggles are real’

Laura Landenwich is a founding member of the small Louisville, Kentucky, firm Adams Landenwich and also the mom of two middle schoolers.

“The struggles are real,” says Landenwich, also president of the advocacy group MothersEsquire. “People all over are having trouble just getting into a facility at all, much less a high-quality one.”

The pandemic changed the child care equation: Needs snowballed as schools went online, day care centers shuttered and jobs became remote.

An imbalance lingers, leaving both parents and child care providers burned out. Nationally, the number of working child care providers is down 54,000 jobs, or 5.1%, from pre-pandemic levels, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley. That has left working parents with fewer options, higher day care costs and years-long waitlists.

“COVID definitely exacerbated what was already a child care crisis,” says Sadie Funk, national director of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Best Place for Working Parents, which has 1,100-plus designated companies promoting family-friendly policies. “In most major cities, there are child care deserts. There may not be enough spaces for all the children that need care.”

Shortages also caught the attention of President Joe Biden, who issued an executive order in April directing federal agencies to lower child care costs for families eligible for federal programs and increase wages for early childhood educators.

Helps retention

As turnover rates for associates in law firms hit a record high of 23% in 2021, many firms increased various child care-related benefits in 2022, according to the Best Law Firms for Women & Diversity survey published in 2023 by Seramount, a women-led diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm.

For instance, 60% of the top firms in their most recent survey offer before- or after-school child care, up from 51% the year before, and those with before- and after-work child care jumped from 47% to 60%.

The benefits also help retention. In a 2020 survey by Bright Horizons, the largest provider of employer-sponsored child care, 92% of 5,300 respondents said having child care increases their likelihood of staying with their employer; 94% said it impacts the ability to work necessary hours; and 90% reported that child care factored into their decision to return to work after their child’s birth.

Coming in

On-site care is rarer, with 10.4% of employers offering it at or near their workplaces, according to the Best Place for Working Parents 2022 National Trends Report.

“So if leaders want to encourage people back into the office, that’s actually a really good strategy,” says Roberta Liebenberg, a principal at The Red Bee Group, which offers diversity, equity and inclusion consulting for corporations, law firms and legal organizations. She is a senior partner at Fine, Kaplan & Black in Philadelphia and a former chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

Rose Ehler is a partner at Munger Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles and the mom of two toddlers. Her second son was born during the lockdown. “These benefits may help you stay through those years when it is hard,” Ehler says.

Munger, Tolles & Olson’s relationship with Hope Street Friends KinderCare, a day care two blocks from the firm’s Los Angeles office, made Ehler’s return to the office in 2021 easier.

The Hope Street Friends facility—co-founded by Munger, Tolles & Olson, although the firm is no longer a stakeholder—offers a discount on tuition for firm employees. The day care also offers all parents extended hours—from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Its hours and location allowed Ehler to continue nursing.

“I don’t think my youngest ever got a bottle,” she says.

And like many big firms during the pandemic, Munger, Tolles & Olson, with 194 attorneys in three offices, increased its backup care offerings—and they remain. According to the 2023 Best Law Firms for Women & Diversity survey, 90% of firms on the list helped pay for in-home backup child care in 2022, up from 88% a year earlier; and 84% offered backup child care at a facility, up from 80% in the year prior.

Typically, law firms now offer 20 backup days that can be used for children, elders, people with special needs and pet care, says Priya Krishnan, Bright Horizons’ Boston-based chief digital and transformation officer. The number of days increased through the pandemic, and “they have stayed the course,” she adds.

Support for summer programs for older kids also has grown, with 64% of firms offering that benefit, up from 53% the previous year, according to the survey. “During the summer, there are seven to 12 weeks that you do need that support,” Krishnan says.

‘Step back and survey’

Child care benefits vary by firm and shift over time, Funk says. Offerings should be specific to employee needs, which shift, she adds.

“Step back and survey your employees, and then be responsive to what they actually are wanting and needing to stay in the workforce,” she says.

That’s what happened at Crowell & Moring. The firm, which has 671 attorneys, had a partnership with a child care center next to its Washington, D.C., office dating back to 2007. However, a 2021 survey of caregiving needs among employees from all 12 of its offices found child care in downtown locations was less important after the shift to working from home.

“Resoundingly, we heard flexibility for our caregivers was really important because they had developed these new habits and new routines during the pandemic,” Barboza says.

The in-house survey also showed caregivers needing a wide range of help—for infants, young children, tweens and teens as well as pets and elderly people.

The firm ended its child care arrangement and partnered with Family First, a caregiving benefit company that offers ongoing support through referrals, caregiving plans and setting up appointments.

Barboza, struggling to find child care arrangements while caring for her father in Florida, jumped right in. A Family First employee initially assessed her well-being, then asked about her needs and limitations—location, budget, hours—as well as the firm’s benefits. Family First’s consultant reminded her that Crowell’s benefits included free therapy and free new-parent coaching.

“You have so much going on that you might not remember that you can leverage something internally,” Barboza adds.

The consultant placed an ad on for evening caregivers, conducted a round of interviews, then handed her three viable candidates. Next, the consultant found specialists near her father, helped her handle his paperwork, and set up interviews for his caregivers.

Beyond flexibility

To compete with BigLaw, smaller firms are developing innovative solutions of their own.

“This is one of the ways that that intimate culture of a small firm is really leaning in to compete against those larger firms,” Funk says.

Varghese Summersett in Fort Worth has about 20 attorneys and 20 staff members—nearly all of them parents. While much of the country locked down, the firm (an essential business) stayed open and set up a room with a crib, rocking chair, books and toys where infants, toddlers and bigger kids could hang out while their parents worked, partner Anna Summersett says.

It’s worked so well, additional space for the firm’s kids—and space for clients’ children—is being factored into a new location.

At all firms, caregiving benefits are important to retention and recruiting, Barboza says. It gives the firm the ability to say: “You’re really important to us. You’re not just a lawyer. You’re also a parent, you’re also a child of someone, a mother, a caregiver.”

This story was originally published in the August-September 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Care Conundrum: Return-to-office push prompts law firms to reconsider child care benefits.”

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