How BigLaw Can Support Parents During Social Distancing

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (March 19, 2020, 4:08 PM EDT) -- Being a parent in BigLaw was never easy, but amid a pandemic that has shuttered schools, many attorneys are now working from home while helping educate their children.

Schools across the nation have closed at least temporarily and some have announced they'll be closed for the rest of the school year due to the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, some states have shut down daycare facilities and many parents are working from home with their children as health experts and government officials urge social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

That means many attorneys who are parents are now at least partially responsible for their children's care and education — or are scrambling to find safe child care solutions — while at the same time continuing to work full-time from home and support their families financially.

Law firms have the opportunity to gain goodwill by being supportive and understanding of the challenges their attorneys and staff are facing, or they may stumble in their responses to the situation, potentially losing talent as a result, said Dan Binstock, a legal recruiter with D.C.-based Garrison & Sisson Inc.

"As important as it is for law firms to do their best to maintain business as usual, management must be sensitive to how they message this," Binstock said. "A bad decision in a time of panic is going to stay with a firm after this passes and it will impact their lateral recruiting and law school recruiting."

Binstock said he has heard from lateral candidates that their law firms overtly told them to "keep billing through your discomfort" during the current crisis.

"These mandates to enforce adult behavior can come across as insulting and a blow to morale," he said. "Everybody is doing their best to adapt and if somebody was not a lackluster performer before this, they are not going to suddenly change."

Instead, he said, the best approaches are those rooted in providing genuine support to employees.

"Flexibility and adaptability are the best tools in a time like this and treating people like adults," he said.

One law firm that has acted quickly to respond to the logistical challenges posed by COVID-19 containment is Holland & Hart LLP.

On March 17, the law firm's management committee met and adopted a policy that allows staff and paralegals to be paid for full-time hours during the crisis, even if they need to adjust their hours in order to accommodate having children at home, or to care for sick family members, said management committee member Margot Edwards.

"We want our colleagues to be able to work remotely where possible, but when you've got kids at home, you're not always going to be able to get a full day's work in and we know that," Edwards said. "You can do work in chunks when you're available and this policy fills in the gaps so that you are paid for a full work week."

Edwards said people are "dovetailing" work right now, getting it in when they can — which could mean outside normal working hours — and communicating to team members about when they will not be available so that the workload can be shared.

Her firm is also working to set up an internal website that can act as a virtual water cooler of sorts to keep people connected as they work from home, and to allow parents and others to support and encourage one another, she said.

The key right now for law firms and other legal employers, according to Major Lindsey & Africa associate practice group managing director Summer Eberhard, is open communication and transparency. Often in law firm culture, she said, attorneys don't talk about being a parent or their unique needs as parents, but now is a time firms should encourage that.

In addition to impacting retention, the level of support firms provide could have a disparate impact on attorneys based on their gender, because of traditional gender roles and the extra responsibility many mothers take on at home with their children, Eberhard said.

"While many families have two parents working from home, I'm seeing primarily mothers posting their kids' schedules and asking other mothers for activity ideas," she said.

When bonus season rolls around at the end of the year, legal employers should think about whether billable hour thresholds for those bonuses should be adjusted this year, considering the impacts of remote working and other complications of the pandemic, Eberhard said.

"In my perspective, parents — because they may not be able to put in as much time as nonparents — could suffer for year-end bonuses," she said. "Firms will have to look at, 'What can we do to make sure things are equitable?'"

Law firms need to be flexible and look at things like billable hour requirements on a day-by-day basis, said Chris Batz, president of legal recruiting firm The Lion Group LLC.

"Leadership needs to say, 'We want you to take care of your loved ones. We also need to take care of our clients. Let us know your capacity and we'll sort bonuses out when that time comes,'" Batz said. "The overarching thing to convey is that the house is not burning down and that we will weather this together."

--Editing by Kelly Duncan and Rebecca Flanagan.

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