The last thing on my mind when graduating from law school was worrying about what the future held in terms of maternity leave. My main focus, as is the focus for most lawyers right out of school, was on finding a job. “Life found a way” a few years into my career, and there I stood, clueless, naïve and completely unprepared for what would happen to me, both professionally and personally, when I went out on maternity leave. I’ve since had two more children and like to consider myself a quasi-expert in this field. I hope that my experiences can serve other working mothers moving forward as you not only prepare for the awesomeness of motherhood, but what will be a lifelong balance of work and family.
Here are some tips and things you should know before preparing to take your maternity leave.
1. Know your benefits.
Ideally, before you become pregnant, you should be aware of what benefits are available to you, both through your employer and independently. This goes for knowing what your spouse or partner is entitled to as well. Does your firm offer six weeks leave, 12 weeks, or even longer? Is there an option to stagger your leave before and after delivery? Does your partner’s work allow for paternity leave or extended family leave? Start the discussion and planning early so that you can maximize the benefits available to both of you.
· Short-term disability. Short-term disability insurance is provided through your employer or can be purchased independently and typically covers a percentage of your salary while you are out on maternity leave. There are many different plans available, and it is possible your employer offers one of these plans. Check with your HR representative before your pregnancy to determine if they offer short-term disability insurance through your employer or whether you need to look into purchasing your own policy. If your employer does not provide paid leave, short-term disability can assist greatly in covering a portion of your salary while you are out on leave.
· FMLA leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that requires certain covered employers to provide their employees with job-related security and unpaid leave for qualified reasons. With respect to pregnancy, the act allows employees to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave due to pregnancy or care for a newborn child. FMLA leave applies not only to pregnancy but to adoption as well.
FMLA is generally available to employees of businesses who meet these requirements:
· Employee must have worked at the business for the last 12 months and worked at least 1250 hours during that time; and
· Employer must have 50 or more employees for the last 20 weeks of the year; If fewer than 50 employees at a single office, must have 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.
Keep in mind that this is just a brief overview of the FMLA and only skims the surface of this complex law. Make sure to do your reading and understand the terms of your FMLA leave. The U.S. Department of Labor website is a good place to start. Additionally, be prepared to have your doctor fill out paperwork related to your FMLA leave, for which you typically must pay a fee.
· Work-provided benefits. These benefits are provided by your employer and are independent from your FMLA leave or short-term disability benefits. Your HR department should be able to advise you of what benefits your company provides, which will typically involve something along the lines of six weeks paid and six weeks unpaid, 12 weeks paid, or 12 weeks unpaid. Typically, you will receive your work-provided benefits concurrently with your FMLA leave.
After you determine what your benefits are, confirm them in writing with your employer. I cannot stress this enough. Additionally, your employer may ask you to put your intentions for maternity leave in writing as well. For example, you may be required to draft a letter indicating that you intend to take 12 weeks of FMLA-covered maternity leave, receiving concurrently the additional benefits from your firm of six weeks fully paid and six weeks unpaid leave.
Your due date is an approximation, so give your employer your projected due date but also advise that you will continue to update them as your pregnancy progresses. Along these same lines, determine whether you will continue to work up until your C-section or delivery, versus taking a set time off before your baby arrives. Again, discuss this with your partner and confirm everything, in writing, with your employer.
2. Talk to your clients.
A few months before you are due, start letting clients know that you anticipate taking maternity leave for an approximate time period. This will put clients on notice in case there is anything they wanted to achieve before you go out. Also, advise your clients as to who will be available for them to speak with while you are out. Provide good contact information for your client to the attorney and vice versa.
3. Talk to your co-workers and colleagues.
Talk to your colleagues and support staff to see what they need from you before you go out on leave. In the past, I would discuss these cases in person with whomever was taking over and also create a temporary “transition memo” to the file with relevant information. This also goes for talking to opposing or co-counsel. Make sure they are aware you will be out and that they should seek agreement or consent of another attorney at your firm before decisions are made on a case or file.
4. Make a plan.
Work with your office and HR department to come up with a plan for when you are out. This includes: (1) who you should notify when you go into labor and/or when your C-section is scheduled; (2) whether your email or voicemail will have an extended out of office message and, if so, when you should put it into place; (3) how emails will be handled – i.e., will you stop emails going to your phone, only respond when necessary, etc.; (4) when and how co-workers are to contact you and for what purpose; and (5) how new client intake is to be handled when you are out. Once you have talked through these issues with your office, put everything in writing, and send it to HR to review. Indicate that you understand these are the agreed-upon terms of your maternity leave and ask them to confirm. That way, there is no confusion with how things should be handled when you are out. Feel free to circulate this memo to people you regularly work with so they are in the loop.