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How flexible parental leave can ease lawyers back into work

Allowing lawyers to use parental leave flexibly makes for an easier transition back to work, according to a law firm.

user iconMalavika Santhebennur 30 October 2023 Big Law
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Gilbert + Tobin’s chief people officer, Anna Sparkes, said that along with a change in vernacular around parental leave (which has replaced terms like maternity and paternity leave), workplaces are allowing flexibility around when and how employees use parental leave.

“In the past, it was quite restrictive,” Ms Sparkes told Lawyers Weekly ahead of the Women in Law Forum 2023.

“You had to take it as soon as the baby was born and use it in one chunk. Now, I think there’s more flexibility. You can take it within two years of the birth, you can take it in chunks, or you can go part-time and phase in your return to work when you’re ready.”


Gilbert + Tobin has also implemented the government’s keeping-in-touch days, where an employee performs work for the employer on a day or a part of the day while on a period of approved parental leave.

An employee on unpaid parental leave is entitled to 10 keeping-in-touch days. If they extend their period of unpaid parental leave beyond 12 months, they can take an additional 10 days.

Keeping-in-touch days can occur at least 42 days after the date of birth or adoption of the child or earlier if the employee requests it.

“We’re not trying to push people back to work before their parental leave is used up,” Ms Sparkes assured.

“But it’s interesting because a lot of people do like to use those days to stay connected.

“Moreover, our IT policies have become more flexible now, which allow people to keep their laptops and log in if they want to, although we have to be careful with cyber security. In the past, your access would be shut down if you were away for more than a certain period of time and you couldn’t access anything until you were back on deck.”

In addition to this, Gilbert + Tobin has also implemented flexible budgets for lawyers returning to work from parental leave, Ms Sparkes said, which boosts retention.

“So, it’s not like they come back to 100 per cent billable time on day one,” she said.

“The budget gets phased in over time over a few weeks so they can catch up with the work and get up to speed with everything.

“It always takes time to rebuild the connections and get onto billable work for all employees returning to work after a long period of time.”

Taking leave not a hindrance to career progression

While employees who take parental leave might be concerned that it could impede career progression, Gilbert + Tobin partner and chief knowledge and innovation officer Caryn Sandler said taking leave is becoming increasingly accepted compared to when she began her career.

“When I first started my career around 20 years ago, the positioning was different around this issue,” she told Lawyers Weekly ahead of her session at the Women in Law Forum 2023.

At the forum, she will participate in a panel session about how lawyers can navigate career and family responsibilities and structure their family planning to suit them, and provide top flexible working parental leave policy options to support a successful balance.

Many employees question when they should have children due to concerns about how it would impact their careers. However, Ms Sandler said these conversations have shifted because of the parental leave policies that are available to every employee.

“I recognise that it may differ across organisations, but at Gilbert + Tobin, we’ve had many examples of women being promoted to partnership either while they were on parental leave or just before they’ve come back or even just before they go on leave,” she said.

“I think this has given them comfort that they can have children at a time that suits them as long as they’re performing well and have got a lot to contribute to the partnership and the law firm.”

As for how members of the legal profession could strike a balance between work and family life, Ms Sandler said employees must identify and vocalise their requirements and “be true to that”.

“For example, I’m clear that I need to be home at a certain time so I can spend time with my children, help them with their homework, and have dinner with them,” she said.

“But I also know that I have to be flexible about that depending on my workload. I try to adjust my schedule to enable me to be present for my kids.”

To hear more from Caryn Sandler about the tools lawyers need to balance their careers and family, come along to the Women in Law Forum 2023.

It will be held on Thursday, 23 November, at the Grand Hyatt, Melbourne.

Click here to buy tickets and don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

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