This Big Law Firm Just Stepped Into The 21st Century

Winston & Strawn will give its associates 20 weeks of gender-neutral parental leave.

The Chicago-based international law firm Winston & Strawn LLP announced Wednesday that it is creating a gender-neutral parental leave policy, as well as a broader policy intended to help lawyers with the often hectic process of taking parental leave and then returning to work.

The policy includes 20 weeks of paid parental leave for associates and of counsel attorneys. It applies to parents of any gender and in any country, and the leave time can be taken in either one or two separate chunks within the first year of a child's life. Parents also aren't required to designate a "primary caregiver."

This is a pretty big deal in the legal industry, even if it falls somewhat short of the policies offered in other professions, according to Vivia Chen, a senior columnist at The American Lawyer. "Law firms are a bit behind other industries, especially the financial and other professional service industries, when it comes to more innovative family measures," she said. 

Many tech firms, including Netflix, Facebook and Spotify, have introduced generous gender-neutral parental leave policies in recent months. Just a few weeks ago, the consulting firm EY announced a 16-week paid leave policy that will start in July. But Winston & Strawn is the first law firm to have a policy this expansive -- or at least the first to announce it publicly.

Getting women back to work after having kids -- and allowing men to take time off as well -- is a way for firms to help women ascend the career ladder. Currently, only 18 percent of equity partners in American law firms are women, even though women account for 47 percent of the country's J.D. degrees.

In addition to the 20 weeks of leave, the firm is also creating a few different ways to ease the transitions of taking leave and returning to work. There will be a "parental leave liaison" to assist people coming back to work, as well as career coaching services and lower billable-hour requirements for people who are just about to take leave or are just coming back to the firm.

"Traditionally for women, if you take a long leave, easing back in can be difficult. You might have hesitation about going back," Chen told The Huffington Post. Having someone act as a sort of coach, encouraging people to come back from leave, just might be the nudge new parents need to get back into the swing of things after having a baby. 

To be clear, Winston & Strawn isn't acting altruistically here: The firm's move is intended to attract and retain high-level attorneys. Practice attorneys, who are low-level attorneys usually brought on for specific projects and who are outside the traditional partner-track framework of the firm, won't get the same 20-week benefit. Neither will the firm's other staff members, such as paralegals and office assistants.

However, it's relatively common for benefits in big law firms to be stratified, according to Chen. Winston & Strawn says its U.S. employees in lower positions will get increased paid leave time and an extra two weeks of paid time off.