How to Get Men to Take Parental Leave

April 22, 2024

DLA Piper recently raised eyebrows (and the blood pressure of any firm lawyers who are expecting a baby) by reducing the length of parental leave offered to “non-birthing” parents. In many cases, that means fathers. (It also means adoptive parents, foster parents and parents who welcome a baby through surrogacy.)

It is rare to see a firm rescind benefits in this way, especially a benefit as universally popular as parental leave. Most firms have increased the length of their parental leave within the past few years and/or focused on making the benefit gender neutral. We can only hope DLA Piper’s alarming move will be an isolated incident.

But even when firms do offer generous leave, many men choose not to take it or not to take it in full. A recent Wall Street Journal article examined the question of why this is and how firms can convince men to reconsider.

According to the Boston College Center for Work & Family, just over 60% of men take the full paid leave available to them after welcoming a new child, versus 93% of women. Obviously, for biological reasons, most women could not opt out of taking leave even if they wanted to. But there is no question that paternity leave benefits families and improves gender equality, both by fostering a more equitable distribution of labor at home and by safeguarding women’s earnings following the transition to motherhood. Unfortunately, many men are afraid that taking leave will cause peers and superiors to question their commitment to their jobs, or that they may later be passed over for important assignments or promotions.

Women reading this may chuckle — those fears sound pretty familiar and may, unfortunately, be legitimate in many cases. So what can firm leaders do to encourage men to take parental leave and ensure they don’t pay a price for it?

Raise visibility of the issue. Firm leaders, male and female, should name these challenges and discuss them openly in conversations across the firm. Male lawyers will be more likely to investigate their options for leave if they feel safe asking questions — “How many other men at the firm have done this?” and “How will my annual review account for my time away?” are some of the things they may be wondering about. Make sure your firm is prepared with answers.

Take leave themselves. Actions speak louder than words on issues like these. When men in leadership at the firm, including practice group heads, members of the executive committee and others, take the full leave on offer, they make it feel possible for their colleagues to do the same.

Create a ramp down/ramp up protocol. Careful planning is the key to a successful leave. Firm leaders, in connection with HR, should create a concrete protocol for the lead-up to a lawyer’s leave, including standard language the lawyer can use to inform clients of the leave, a plan to deputize colleagues as official points of contact, and necessary meetings for the transfer of key files and other information. After the leave ends, an effective “ramp-up” protocol will help the lawyer re-integrate with relationships and projects, getting back up to speed without being totally overwhelmed.

Everyone understands why parental leave is important. That’s why firms offer this benefit to all employees! But as the Wall Street Journal article explains, organizations and the broader culture have a major incentive for getting more men to actually take the leave available to them. “When more dads take leave, it becomes less stigmatized for both men and women. When they don’t, it is largely mothers who experience the professional and economic setbacks of having children.”