Want to retain talented lawyers who are also parents?  Bring the issue into the open so we can work on solutions together.

When I had my two children, two years apart, I was working full-time in an in-house role.  Going back to work after my first son was a challenge that came complete with the usual sleep-deprivation and milk-pumping schedules.  But somehow I powered through.  When my second son came along, however, I was a wreck.  A puddle of tears on the kitchen floor was a near-daily occurrence, as I struggled to find ways to hold together this new and off-kilter life.

No one at my office seemed to be talking about how much life and professional identities change when you come back from parental leave, at least not in an organized or open way.  Yet, mom after mom would come to my office, shut the door, and break down while talking to me about their challenges. Why were we all struggling by ourselves in private?

Lori Mihalich-Levin, checking some e-mail in January, 2011, with her first son, age 3 weeks.

Being a Type A, always-researching personality, I had already been searching for helpful resources that would make the transition to working parenthood easier.  Yet while I could find course after course about how to make a birth plan, puree baby food, breastfeed or even massage my baby, I found nothing to help me with the transition from professional woman to working mother.

Nearly six years ago, in the first blog post I ever published, I wrote that:

There were endless lists, of course – “5 Top Tips” here, “10 Survival Strategies” there – but nothing that actually helped me plan a mindful return.  Some helpful practical advice? (Bring extra breast pads, you might leak!)  Yes. Funny stories about inabilities to carry on adult conversation? Yes. Snarky advice I couldn’t relate to? (Don’t show your baby pictures to anyone lest they never take you seriously…really?!)  Absolutely.  But nothing that truly spoke to me.

Lori Mihalich-Levin, “Why Did I Create Mindful Return? Because Return from Maternity Leave CAN Be Less Stressful,” Mindful Return, July 25, 2014.  Despite knowing there were plenty of other working parents out there, I felt terribly and horribly alone.

The world of new parent support has, quite fortunately, expanded a hundredfold since my children were born 7 and 9 years ago.  There are so many resources and interventions companies can now provide to support new parents through these life transitions.  But are law firms taking full advantage of these programs to retain their new parents?  Some are.  Some aren’t.

In this post, I share the story of Mindful Return, a program that helps new parents navigate the back-to-work transition after parental leave.  Since its founding in 2014, more than 1,000 new parents have enrolled.

Although Mindful Return is not specifically designed for lawyers, 63% percent of member organizations are law firms (41 total) and approximately 85% of enrollees are lawyers—no doubt a consequence of my being a founder who has walked in the shoes of the attorney-parent.  Yet, this unintentional skew toward the legal field has provided us with the data necessary to measure the impact of Mindful Return on attorney retention, which I share below.

Where Does the Women’s Leadership Pipeline Leak?

First, I must start with a lament.  Entering associate classes at law firms have been approximately 45% women for decades.  Yet in the typical large firm, women constitute only 30% of non-equity partners and 20% of equity partners.  Women constitute less than 25% of management committee members, practice group leaders, and office heads, and 80% of any given firm’s relationship partners for its top 20 clients are men. See Roberta D. Liebenberg & Stephanie A. Scharf, Walking Out the Door: The Facts, Figures, and Future of Experienced Women Lawyers in Private Practice at 1 (American Bar Association and ALM Intelligence, 2019).

Despite pouring huge sums of money into inclusion efforts over the past decade, how far would you guess we’ve moved the needle?  A whopping two percentage points.  Ugh.  That’s right. Ten years ago, 67 percent of lawyers were men. And today, 65%of lawyers are men.  Michele Silverthorn, “Change the Rules, Change the World: How the Legal Profession Can Make Diversity Matter for Good,” Plenary Presentation at NALP Professional Development Institute (Dec. 6, 2019) (noting also that ten years ago, 87% of lawyers were white … and today, 85% of lawyers are white—ugh again).

According to the ABA-ALM “Walking Out the Door” report, the top reasons women cite as either “a very important” or “a somewhat important” reason for leaving are:

  • Caretaking Commitments (58%)
  • Level of Stress at Work (54%)
  • Emphasis on Marketing or Originating Business (51%)
  • Number of Billable Hours (50%)
  • No Longer Wishes to Practice Law (49%)
  • Work/Life Balance (46%)
  • Personal or Family Health Concerns (42%)

The report concludes: “As the data make clear, experienced women lawyers bear a disproportionate brunt of responsibility for arranging for care, leaving work when needed by the child, children’s extracurricular activities, and evening and daytime childcare. Any one of these factors affects the time and effort expected for a successful law practice, and the combination competes all the more for a lawyer’s time.” Walking Out the Door at 12.

Turning Frustration into Action

Upset by the lack of resources for new working moms and the resulting leaky pipeline of highly-capable women leaders, I had to do something. Thus, six years ago, I added one more thing to my overflowing plate–develop a program, called Mindful Return, to help new parents navigate the back-to-work transition.

Starting a company with a 1-year-old and 3-year-old, a full-time job, and a risk-averse lawyer mentality wasn’t really something I ever foresaw myself doing.  But I was propelled forward by a belief that if I was suffering, others must be, too.  And that if we, as working parents who cared about both our babies and our careers could somehow find one another, we could get through the transition together.

I designed the Mindful Return program as a 4-week, online, cohort-based (yet asynchronous) course.  One that covers high-quality content on four themes: (1) a mindful mindset for going back to work; (2) logistics of returning; (3) leadership in the space of working parenthood; and (4) building and staying in community.  I deeply believe that if I had focused on these four themes myself, my own returns would have gone so much more smoothly.

In the early months of 2014, I mapped out a course curriculum and started researching, writing, and reaching out to experts on perinatal issues.  I was working full time and squeezing this “passion project” in during 20-minute evening chunks after putting my kids to bed and on cross-country work trips when I found myself “alone” on an airplane.  In January 2015, the first Mindful Return cohort launched with 31 new moms, most of whom lived on the East Coast.

Since then, more than 1,000 new parents have taken the Mindful Return program.  There’s now a version of the course for new moms, one for new dads, and one for the parents of special needs children.  Our alumni come from all over the world. 65 employers now offer the program to their new parent employees, including 41 law firms (63%).

Seeing Retention Results

According to data from Ovia Health, a company that specializes in family and maternity benefits, only 66% of women in the United States return to work after having a baby.  That’s a 34% attrition rate immediately upon the birth of a child.  See Motherhood in America Report: Why Women Decide to Leave the Workforce,”  Ovia Health Blog, July 9, 2019.

I’ve had the sense based on anecdotal information from Mindful Return participants that the course was making a real difference in how new mothers thought of themselves as working parents and leaders in their workplaces.  Until this year, however, I had not run any data to check my instincts.

The research my team completed in January 2020 leads me to believe Mindful Return is indeed having an impact on the retention of new parents.  Yes, there are likely many factors that lead to a new parent’s decision to stay with her or his employer.  Yet I’m convinced that receiving the message from your employer that “I believe in you and will provide you a constructive way to help you return” makes a huge difference.

Here’s what we found.  Of the slightly more than 1,000 new parents who took the Mindful Return course during the 5-year period from January 2015 through December 2019, nearly half were provided the program by their employer.  This meant we knew who employed approximately 500 new parents at the time they participated in the program.  Our research (conducted by searching firm and company websites and LinkedIn profiles) indicated the following:

  • 85% (418 of 489 new parents) were still at the same employer as when they took the course.
  • 93% (456 of 489 new parents) were still employed somewhere.

These retention statistics are startlingly different from the 66% Ovia Health reports.  “But what about law firms?”, you might be asking.  The numbers were quite similar.  At the 41 firms offering the Mindful Return course, we found that:

  • 81% (337 of the 417 new parents employed by law firms) were still employed by the same law firm as when they took the course.
  • 95% (396 of the 417 new parents employed by law firms) were still employed somewhere.

(Note that although many firms have more recently started to offer Mindful Return to all employees and not just attorneys, the vast majority of course participants over the past 5 years have been lawyers.)

What do the new parent retention numbers look like at your firm?  What are you doing to move the needle?

Parents are in Pain During COVID-19

About 6 years ago, I left my in-house role to go back to law firm life.  I am currently a partner in the health care practice in the Washington, DC, office at Dentons, where I work on a 50% schedule and lead Mindful Return in the other 50% of my professional work week.

If you are wondering when the right time is to engage in outreach efforts to new parents – and all parents – the answer is right now!

With coronavirus, so many of us have been working from home with kids in tow for months, no childcare to speak of, and no end in sight.  Parents are in pain, and women, in particular, are bearing the brunt of home and kid-related responsibilities.  Many women feel like they simply can’t “compete” right now with our child-less colleagues or with men who are not carrying the childcare load.  Black women are suffering even more.  I fear what law firm promotion classes will look like this winter.  Will even our modest gains in diversity be erased?

Specific Steps Firms Can Take to Support Working Parents

In addition to offering programs like Mindful Return to your new parent employees, what else can law firms be doing to move the needle?

You can start—and put both financial resources and the full support of leadership behind—gender-neutral working parent groups in your offices.  If you need help getting one off the ground, see “Strategies for Launching an Effective Parental Support Group at Your Office,” Vault, Feb. 15, 2019.  You can give full billable hour credit to the individuals who lead these groups.  Being the founder of two of these groups now, I know what a herculean (and often uncompensated) task it is.  If your firm already has a working parent group, encourage its leaders to join the Working Parent Group Network (WPGN), a community of more than 100 leaders of working parent groups across the country.

You can offer gender-neutral paid leave policies that don’t have a “primary caregiver” distinction.  And you can work toward a culture that encourages men to take their full parental leave, to help de-gender and de-stigmatize the act of taking parental leave and the act of caregiving.

You can de-gender flexibility in your workplace.  You can promote lawyers to partners who work on reduced-hour schedules.  You can pay for breastmilk shipping for work travel.  You can build new parent mentoring programs.

Efforts to make parents feel included in the workplace work best when messages come loudly and clearly from leadership that parent employees are valued.  Don’t mince words.  Now is the time to reach out to parents and commit to their professional advancement.  Now is the time to do better.