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By Amina Thomas
On May 23, 2019, the IndyBar Women and Law Division hosted a CLE panel discussion titled Keep Calm, We’re Having a Baby: Maternity and Paternity Leave in Indiana. The panel members were Tracy Betz of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP, David Honig of Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman PC, Donald Smith of Riley Bennett Egloff, LLP and Heather L. Wilson, of Frost Brown Todd LLC. Kelley Johnson of Wagner Reese LLP moderated the discussion. The panel discussed topics ranging from their own personal experiences in requesting maternity and paternity leave in a law firm setting to how maternity and paternity leave operates under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Below is a recap of the panel discussion in case you missed it!
One of the first questions posed to the panel was, "What are law firms and corporations doing currently with regard to maternity and paternity leave, and is there a current trend with regard to these policies?"
Overall, the panel agreed that larger corporations and companies seem to be setting the market trend for maternity and paternity leave. Donald Smith, a partner at Riley Bennett Egloff LLP referred to a large pharmaceutical company in town, which, as of January 1, 2019, instituted a maternity/paternity leave policy that provides new mothers with 18 weeks of paid leave plus an option to take an extra 10 weeks of unpaid leave. The company’s paternity leave policy provides new fathers with 10 weeks of paid paternity leave. Additionally, the paid leave may be taken intermittently. For example, an employee could opt to exercise their leave by working two days a week with three days off as a way of using their paid leave. Another large manufacturing company in town, Smith noted, provides its employees with six to eight weeks of short-term disability on medical leave and an additional 12 weeks of paid parental leave, totaling potentially 18 to 20 weeks of leave.
Smith believes that while the law will probably continue to lag in this area, large companies will set the trend and smaller companies and law firms will likely follow suit with their own policies.
Taft perhaps leads other large law firms in Indianapolis in this regard. Tracy Betz, a partner at the firm, noted that two years ago, Taft implemented a policy that provides 16 weeks of paid “parental” leave for new parents. The firm’s policy does not differentiate between “maternity” and “paternity” leave, and the firm encourages both female and male attorneys alike to utilize the entire 16 weeks provided to them. Betz, who co-chairs the firm’s Gender Advancement Committee, positively noted that male attorneys at her firm have indeed been taking advantage of the full 16-week period.
Betz encouraged young attorneys in the community to take full advantage of their firm or company’s maternity and paternity leave, and she reminded them that taking the full leave will not ultimately hinder their careers as attorneys. Betz acknowledged that she took the full six months (three months for each of her two children’s births) offered to her at the time, and that it in no way resulted in her being six months “behind” in her practice as a partner at Taft.
Betz also noted the importance for firms and workplaces to ensure that once employees do return from their leave, they are welcomed, involved and provided with the appropriate “ramp- up” period so that the employees do not feel as though they’ve missed out during their leave. Betz noted one of the most important messages her firm hopes to send with its parental leave policy is that child rearing is a “family issue” and not a “women’s issue.”
David Honig, a partner at Hall Render Killian Heath and Lyman PC, noted his appreciation for the way work places’ perspectives have changed regarding parental leave since he first began practicing law. Like Taft, Hall Render recently also updated their parental leave policy, and the firm makes no differentiation between “maternity leave” and “paternity leave.” Instead, Hall Render provides 12 weeks of paid leave for a “primary caregiver” and six weeks for a “secondary caregiver.” Additionally, the firm provides a four-week “ramp-up” period which only requires employees to bill only 50 percent of their normally-required billable hours, while still being compensated 100 percent of their salary during that four-week period. Honig stated, “the new generation has it right” with regard to the importance it places on time spent at home with family. Honig also noted he has “yet to see anyone who is six months less of a lawyer, because they spent six months at home, or 12 weeks less because they spent 12 weeks at home.”
Next, the panel discussed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA is a federal statute that entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave for a variety of reasons, including the birth of a child. The FMLA applies to public agencies and private sector employers who employ 50 or more employees. For an employee to be eligible to take leave under the FMLA, the employee must work for a covered employer and must have worked 1,250 hours during the 12 months prior to the start of leave.
Heather Wilson of Frost Brown Todd noted many employers run FMLA leave for an employee concurrently with other types of leave, such as parental leave, to avoid situations where an employee seeks to take parental leave, and then an additional 12 weeks under FMLA. Smith noted another federal statute, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), requires that employers of 15 or more employees cannot treat pregnancy differently than any other type of disability. Neither the FMLA or the PDA statute provide for paid leave.
Kelley Johnson, the panel moderator, wrapped up the panel discussion by acknowledging that while many large law firms have positive parental leave policies, the reality is that many mid-sized and smaller firms may have no parental leave policy at all. Johnson asked the panel to give advice to lawyers on how to ask for parental leave if they work in a firm or company with no policy in place.
Betz suggested approaching the topic from a “win-win” standpoint. She noted, when employees are happy, they are more productive and give better client service, and that if firms and companies provide their employees with ample leave to manage an event such as the birth of a child, it builds employee trust, loyalty and overall happiness.
Honig noted the starting point for an attorney asking for parental leave may be “[to be] a great employee so that you’re wanted back.” He also noted that if an attorney works at a small firm or company and knows the firm or company may struggle in his or her absence, the attorney should come forward early with a good plan. “Be open, and early,” said Honig. He stressed the importance of leaving the employer in a good situation during the attorney’s leave.
Wilson also reflected on the importance of creating a plan for before, during and after the employee’s leave. Wilson noted in her experience, she often has seen a strong plan leading up to an employee’s leave, but that it is just as important to prepare for the attorney’s return so that he or she is integrated well and seamlessly back into the firm.
Smith advised attorneys at smaller and mid-sized firms to research and find out what other firms and companies of similar sizes are doing and to bring that information to a person within the firm that he or she considers to be a mentor. Before requesting leave, Smith noted, it is also important for an attorney to show how they add value.
The IndyBar Women and the Law Division thanks the panelists for their wonderful insights on this important topic.
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