BigLaw, Mommies & Maternity Leave: Benefit for All or Only T

Published: Feb 16, 2011


Should BigLaw mamas take maternity leave if they know they’re leaving the firm post-baby, or are law firms’ generous maternity policies reserved for attorneys sticking around after the stork arrives? This question has sparked a BigLaw baby debate over at UrbanBaby (“UB”)—the go-to source for parents seeking and dishing advice on city-slicker kiddos.

According to one UB poster, “maternity leave is for employees, not quitters. Women who take paid leave knowing they will never go back make the rest of us look bad.” Several UB commenters echoed this opinion with one poster going as far as to call it fraud when a woman takes maternity leave with no intention of returning: “I also think it is fraud to claim maternity leave when you know you are not coming back. Read some workers comp cases where injured employee[s] had no intention of coming back to work, I see this as no different.”

But not everyone believes law-firm maternity leaves are solely for returning moms. One UB poster places blame on the firms who “choose” to provide paid maternity leave—they’re “setting themselves up for this.” While another UB commenter thinks BigLaw mamas are entitled to leave: “I think that your maternity leave is something that you've earned over the course of working before you go out, not something you have to pay back after you come back.”

So is it a matter of “screwing” other BigLaw moms (and possibly ruining fellow lawyer moms’ reputations), or is maternity leave a well-deserved benefit after all of those long hours at the office? Perhaps it should be viewed more as a professional decision. One UB poster shares, “BigLaw maternity leaves ARE long and, compared to the rest of the US, generous, and to be fully paid for that long and then just not come back just seems to me to be setting yourself up to burn some serious bridges.”


Just how generous are BigLaw maternity leaves? Below are the maternity benefits for the top 5 firms on the 2011 Vault Law 100:

Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz: 4 months paid maternity leave + unpaid leave
Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP: Up to 18-20 weeks of paid leave (maternity leave + primary caregiver leave + child care leave)
Sullivan & Cromwell LLP: Up to 18 weeks of paid leave + unpaid leave (for a total of up to 6 months)
Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP: Up to 18 weeks of paid leave (as of March 2008—no specific information on Skadden’s website)
Davis Polk & Wardwell: Up to 18 weeks of paid leave.

With benefits this generous, should you even think twice about taking them and rushing out the door? According to some of the urbanistas at UrbanBaby, you should. You may want to get back into the law-game after your bundle arrives, but if you take your maternity leave and run, “that bridge will be crispy fried.” In fact, it may be better to hold off on any decisions about staying or going until after your baby is born. One UB poster warns, “[d]on't make the decision to quit now. You might feel differently after having the baby,” while another commenter advises, “[d]on't quit unless you are very, very sure.”

So what’s the verdict? I agree that it seems disingenuous to take advantage of these maternity benefits if you’re 100% sure that you'll be departing once maternity leave ends, especially given how generous these maternity policies are. And from a career perspective, BigLaw moms should think carefully about the decision to take the benefit and bail—you don’t know where your career may lead you in the future, and you don’t want to lose your connections and mar your professional reputation. Of course, some women won’t decide to resign until they’re already on maternity leave, but I think those situations differ from premeditating an immediate departure.

What do you think? Give up these amazing benefits if you’re planning to leave or suck the firm dry of all the perks you can get before you say goodbye? Does working in BigLaw make it a different decision than if you worked at a less demanding job? Do you think those who use the firm for maternity leave benefits and then leave give other Biglaw moms a bad reputation? Would you categorize it as fraud?

Urban Baby
Urban Baby debate regarding BigLaw maternity leave
Wachtell maternity benefits
Cravath maternity benefits
Sullivan maternity benefits
Above the Law’s 2008 post on Skadden’s maternity benefits
Davis Polk maternity benefits