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May 11, 2022 Did You Know?

Time for This Dad to “Leave”—The Power of Parental Leave

By Poorad Razavi

The News

On August 10, 2020, I received what would become the greatest news of my life: my wife and I found out we were expecting our first child. As we began daydreaming about the new addition to our family, the realities of life also began setting in. Not only would we be contending with the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, but we also began to evaluate how two type-A professionals would deal with childcare.

My wife is a dentist, and the dental industry has historically struggled to provide meaningful “parental leave,” as the practice inherently requires the doctors to physically be present to treat patients. Leave in the dental field is typically unpaid, with a strong encouragement (whether driven by patient care, finances, or other motivators) to return as promptly as possible.

Historically, the legal field also does not lay claim as a pioneer in promoting parental leave. Fortunately, there is a slow but steady shift towards recognizing the value of paid childcare leave in general. However, those gains tend to focus primarily, if not exclusively, on maternity leave.

In 2019, my firm introduced a new leave policy offering 10 weeks leave for all parents, in addition to medical recovery time for birth parents. As a first-time parent, I had no idea what this truly entailed. Moreover, as a first-time father, I only had a conceptual idea of what my role would even be during our child’s early days. What was to ensue would change me not only as a lawyer but as a person altogether.

The Leave

Following the birth of our beautiful daughter, I quickly realized just how grueling those early days are. My wife and I both questioned how others, including our own parents, made it through without the benefit of having both parents on leave full time as we felt we were barely surviving each hour. As a first-time father, there are many new emotions that I encountered. However, it seems utterly unfair to compare them to what a mother or birth parent goes through. I did not have a body that had morphed and experienced the creation of new life within it. I did not have the natural, physiological, post-partum changes to tango with as I also juggled having to immediately use my own depleted body to feed a new child and cope with the emotions of wondering if I had done and continued to do everything possible to ensure the baby is well taken care of. Although I would, and will forever continue to, grasp with my own sense of “am I doing everything I can,” it paled in comparison to what the birth parent must go through in continuing to give body and mind to the new baby without so much as a moment of reprieve.

As a result, the first remarkable benefit I recognized from my parental leave was my capacity to support my wife as she began her instant transition into motherhood. My ability to be there both physically and emotionally was enhanced by being able to unplug from work. There were times when I was quite literally unable to feed myself, let alone allocate any bandwidth to handling work obligations. By having the ability to be on parental leave, I was able to commit myself wholly and completely to supporting my partner—a role that I am sure all partners would welcome if their industry permitted.

The greater profound byproduct of parental leave was my enhanced ability to bond with my daughter during that early phase. I had never changed a diaper or meaningfully supervised any babies in the past. But being free from work (and countless months of preparatory ‘how to’ researching involving a baby) allowed me to fully participate in the joy of taking care of my child. I happily changed every diaper I could; I (bottle) fed the baby whenever I could; I walked the halls of our home in the middle of the night to help our daughter sleep whenever I could; I did everything I could. In sum, by being unencumbered by the logistical and emotional toll that a lawyer’s work takes, I was able to thankfully harness all my energy 24/7 into my wife and child.

This is not to say that I would have neglected them, or have been any ‘less’ of a parent, had I not been on leave. However, the demands of a newborn are relentless; there simply are not enough hours in a day to commit myself wholly to my child and wholly to my work during those early days. What outdated corporate practices refer to as “balancing” home- and work-life following the birth of a baby is really a rebranded label for “sacrificing.”

Although I had always been able to intellectually understand the struggle of motherhood during the newborn phase, I was able to gain a new appreciation for it by being a direct participant in the 24/7 care and raising of our child. My wife and I have always had a strong relationship, and I remain confident that even absent any parental leave, I would have been there for her and our new daughter. And a lack of parental leave does not mean that someone would be unable to be a loving parent and partner. However, the leave provided a radically expanded opportunity to further explore those areas in a way that I simply would not have physically been able to if I had been forced to juggle the naturally taxing demands of work in the mix.

The Transition

My thoughts on this issue did not remain in the hypothetical. Despite my firm’s generous leave policy, I was in the midst of a very contentious series of products liability and roadway defect cases in federal court, for which I was the lead attorney. Despite having effectuated a plan to seamlessly transition all my upcoming expert and corporate representative depositions around our due date, my daughter, quite selfishly, decided to be born weeks ahead of schedule. As I sat hunched over in the delivery room churning out last-minute briefings on my laptop, I knew that I would eventually have to get involved in some of the upcoming depositions as the burden would simply be too great to shift onto other lawyers who would have to catch up on over four years of litigation.

Therefore, several weeks after her birth, despite multiple genuine offers from other gracious partners at my firm to take over, I began preparing to take my first post-partum deposition. Fortunately, like many others, my firm had already adopted a work-from-home environment. As a result, the infrastructure was already in place to take a deposition quite literally feet away from my daughter’s crib. However, as a new parent, I was truly saddened to realize how much effort we put in as a society to act as if our family life runs no interference with the 80 percent of our day we spend working. I chose to embrace my daughter’s existence in my work life, rather than hiding it away. Over the next few weeks, I would virtually attend a variety of depositions, meetings with my experts, and other work matters, often with my daughter strapped sleeping to my chest. If my daughter cried during a meeting or deposition, I would acknowledge the disruption and move locations, but I made sure not to apologize for the natural overlap between personal and professional worlds.

The preparation for the few hour blocks of time I spent handling depositions was exhausting. In addition to shifting a huge load onto my wife, it also made it very challenging for me. I was now juggling parental duties with work duties. In other words, I was able to experience a non-paternity leave existence during my leave. As we all know, taking a deposition from noon until 4:00 p.m. does mean simply carving out a four-hour block of time. In addition to the traditional preparation time, the day of the deposition (and oftentimes, days leading up to it) also involves the natural mental warmup and endless strategizing that naturally drains bandwidth away from being otherwise present in the moment with my family. It was during those times that I truly began to appreciate the immeasurable value of parental leave. Needless to say, this situation would likely have been even more taxing for the birth parent.

What was most revealing about the experience was the glimpse I got into how difficult those early days would be without parental leave. I also recognized the significance of how a company defines that leave. In other words, the leave is not meaningful if a company expects the parent to “make up” the work that is being missed. There must be a holistic team approach to this process where it is recognized and acknowledged that the leave time will result in work during that time not being performed. I can proudly proclaim that my firm wholly and explicitly acknowledged this mantra, which was a necessary stress reliever for me. As challenging as that period was, knowing that I truly could have asked my firm to cover even those few depositions is what relieved the stress. In other words, I was genuinely free to choose whether to handle any work during the leave from home.

Moreover, my firm’s progressive view towards work from home allowed and continues to allow a remarkable relationship to develop between me and my daughter. Churning away crashworthiness briefs and strategizing about new airbag defect theories has taken on a new level of joy when coupled with the sound of my daughter’s joyful squeals filling the house around me. Knowing that I am only steps away from her in the event of an emergency, or when she is ready to take her first step, has allowed me to remain focused on my work in a way that certainly feels different than if I am in the office. I made sure to take all efforts to ensure that my work product never suffered and, in fact, became more enhanced and efficient.

The freedom to work from home is particularly vital given my firm’s international practice. Before the pandemic, I was traveling for extended periods for trial depositions to places like Ecuador in a mass chemical spraying case and Cambodia for a human trafficking case. Domestically, I was often traveling for my products liability cases to track down corporate representatives and other vital witnesses. However, the industry’s adoption of Zoom depositions, coupled with the mutual trust between the firm and me to allow me the flexibility to work near my daughter during her formative years, was a crucial epilogue to this paternity leave policy.

All in all, the now two-year experiment of my firm entrusting its lawyers to have parental leave and to work from home, to challenge and change our entire industry, and ultimately our nation’s culture, toward parenting, is one that I remain utterly proud of.

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Poorad Razavi

Plaintiff Attorney

Poorad Razavi is a plaintiff attorney at Cohen Milstein, and a member of the firm’s Complex Tort Litigation group, where he focuses his nationwide practice on catastrophic injury and wrongful death. cases.