Law Scribbler

Team approach keeps pregnancy leave from stalling careers

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For many female attorneys, maternity leave can be the equivalent of a poisoned chalice—offered as a benefit, but damaging to a career.

Federal law mandates that all public agencies and private companies of 50 or more employees must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. Many states have enacted maternity leave policies that are more expansive than the federal statute. Moreover, antidiscrimination laws make it clear companies or agencies cannot retaliate against women or men who choose to take family leave.

However, for many female attorneys who choose to exercise their rights, they face plenty of professional consequences as a result of missing time at work. Maybe they fall behind other lawyers and don't make partner when they should. Maybe clients desert them out of a fear that family life will be too big a distraction for them.

A 2014 study (PDF) published by Working Mother magazine and consulting firm Flex Time Lawyers, which named 50 "best law firms for women," found that of those 50 firms, all offered reduced hours and 48 of those firms allowed reduced-hour attorneys to be promoted. In practice, however, none of those firms promoted a reduced-hours attorney to partner in 2014, and only one such attorney was promoted in 2013.

That's why we did a double-take when Minneapolis-based law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis announced in late January that it had promoted three women to shareholder status within 12 months after each of them had taken maternity leave.


Stephen Warch, president of Nilan Johnson, says it was an easy call promoting Careen Martin, Veena Iyer and Sejal Winkelman to shareholder. "Our firm has always had a strong commitment to gender diversity," says Warch, who points out that 43 percent of his firm's shareholders are female—more than double the national average.

"The fact that they all came up for shareholder this year was serendipitous," he says. "All three were elected shareholder based on their talent and contributions, and the fact they were all on leave didn't factor into our decision at all."

In fact, Martin and Winkelman say they were both pregnant when they were hired by Nilan Johnson, while Iyer took maternity leave within four months of joining the firm.

"I was concerned that it would be an issue," Martin says. "I had an entire speech in my head when I interviewed and told one of the partners I spoke with that I was pregnant. It was almost like a confession."

Martin and the others say that they were all assured that their pregnancies and impending maternity leaves were nonissues, and that they would not be penalized.

"I was able to pick up right where I left off," Winkelman says. "I was involved in hearings and depositions within a month or two of coming back."

Warch, for his part, says he didn't understand why someone should be penalized for taking time off, noting that "four months is an extremely short period in one's overall career."

Indeed, he notes that his firm is able to take such an approach because of its team-first ethos when it comes to representing clients. As such, Warch notes, lawyers can take time off without feeling like they are falling behind in their work or losing a client's trust.

"We try to make everyone extremely relevant to a client relationship," Warch says. "Clients should be able to contact multiple lawyers, not just one or two, and feel like their needs are being taken care of."

In fact, Iyer notes that she and Winkelman were able to work together seamlessly on a couple of client matters, even while on leave.

"What was great about the way the firm worked is that when I was out, Sejal stepped in and vice versa," Iyer says. "We kept each other apprised and there wasn't any kind of catch-up period when we came back from leave."

This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Oh, Baby! 3 Steps Up: Team approach keeps pregnancy leave from stalling careers.”

Victor Li shares his reporter's notebook at and on Twitter as @LawScribbler.

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