Orrick says associate parents program kept pandemic departures at bay

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
  • A dozen Orrick associates, mostly women, have taken the firm up on its offer to work reduced hours at full pay
  • All participants have stayed with the firm--a key goal

(Reuters) - Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe got the legal industry buzzing in November when it announced that associates caring for children and elderly parents could temporarily work reduced hours at full pay during the pandemic. The program aims to ease pressure on associates struggling to balance their work and the added caretaking responsibilities brought on by COVID-19.

A dozen associates have participated so far, the firm said this week. That represents a small fraction of the firm’s more than 500 associates, but Orrick says it considers the program to be a success. Originally slated to end in March 2021, it has been extended as the pandemic persists.

“Everyone who signed up stayed with the firm–and that was our goal,” said Orrick’s chief talent officer Siobhan Handley in an email. “In that sense, it was a short-term investment in retaining strong talent, and I hope it also sent a strong message about our values and how we act on them.”

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Associates in the program work an 80% schedule for 100% pay. Participation was initially capped at three months, though a firm spokeswoman said that period has been “adapted to individual circumstances where appropriate.” Nine of the 12 participants are women, and three are men. Half of the participating associates are still in the program, Handley said.

“This is an extraordinary program for an extraordinary time,” she said, noting that program formalized accommodations Orrick had already been making informally. “We put it in place because we were hearing a chorus from caregivers that they were at a breaking point.”

Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said that the gender breakdown of the Orrick program participants is encouraging.

“In an ideal world, it would be six and six, but it’s impressive that there were three men,” Williams said. “When you have men taking advantage of any program that’s related to caregiving responsibilities, it can well be a signal that there’s less of a stigma than if you have no men taking advantage.”

Today’s associates are far more likely to have a spouse whose career is on equal footing with theirs than partners, many of whom are men with wives who stay at home or whose jobs are considered secondary, Williams noted. By sending a message that it understands many associates’ lives are currently unworkable, the firm may get a leg up in retention and recruiting efforts, she said.

Debbie Epstein Henry, a consultant who specializes on women in the workplace and the legal industry, said it’s difficult to interpret the usage rate of Orrick’s program without knowing how many associates have school-aged children or elderly parents at home and who lost access to caregiving amid the pandemic. But the gender breakdown of the program’s participants tracks with historical data from the National Association for Law Placement that shows three-quarters of lawyers working part-time are women, Henry said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a wave of speculation that women attorneys might leave the profession in droves due to heightened caregiving demands. And parents in Big Law have spoken out about their struggles to oversee their children’s remote schooling while also keeping up with their work.

In a recent survey of lawyers conducted by search firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, 20% gave their firms a 4 out of 10 or lower for how they have supported parents during the coronavirus pandemic.

The reduced hours program for associates is not the only pandemic initiative Orrick has launched to make life a bit easier for its attorneys. In March, the firm unveiled its “unplugged week” initiative, which encourages all timekeepers to receive 40 hours of billable credit for taking time off and away from email and voicemail, separate from their regular vacation time.

Henry said she would like to see more Big Law firms launch programs in that vein that aren’t just geared toward caregivers and don’t focus on money. Many firms have launched wellness initiatives for lawyers and staff during the pandemic, but the most prominent benefits extended to associates have been in the form of special bonuses.

“I think that the complexity of challenges lawyers are facing right now can’t just be addressed by money, and I think it’s important to provide and think about other means of support—whether it’s mental health resources or support groups—that are beyond the financial,” she said.

Read more:

Orrick says lawyers with kids or elderly parents can cut back on hours in pandemic

Craving flexibility, associates find parental leave policies lacking

Orrick unplugged: Firm mandates all employees to take 40 hours of tech-free leave

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Karen Sloan reports on law firms, law schools, and the business of law. Reach her at karen.sloan@thomsonreuters.com