An Interview with Ben Johnson, Managing Partner, Alston & Bird LLP

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An effective law practice requires teamwork not only between the firm and clients but equally important, among lawyers and staff. An essential goal of Alston & Bird is to maintain a firm that is committed to fundamental values in all its relationships ' integrity, consideration for others, fairness, diversity, good humor, and collegiality. We work to provide opportunities to come together informally to simply get to know each other as individuals. And maybe that is the key to why we are a happy firm ' each person is truly viewed as an individual. When we implemented our catastrophic leave policy, which enables employees to donate accrued vacation and personal time to another employee, 87 employees donated more than seven months of time to a coworker facing a personal crisis involving a seriously ill spouse. This speaks volumes about the truly caring environment within the firm. We look for ways that communicate daily that the firm values everyone who works here. Sometimes the gestures are small, such as presenting people with a vase of flowers on their employment anniversary or hosting a breakfast each quarter to welcome new employees. Supporting a book club in each office is done without any expense involved and it helps bring participants together where paths would not normally cross within the work environment. We have the longest-running work-site Weight Watchers at Work program in the southeast, and we see ourselves continuing as leaders in demonstrating how to build a workplace environment that fosters good feelings.

Alston & Bird has been named to FORTUNE magazine's '100 Best Companies to Work For? list seven times. How have your firm's efforts evolved to meet the personal needs of attorneys and other legal professionals? One of our key objectives is to assist our lawyers and employees in achieving a successful balance between their work life and their home life. Our approach is to recognize four key areas for each individual ' work, family, community, and self. We develop and enhance benefits following those four paths, and we work to reach beyond the expected benefits you see most law firms offering. Progressive programs for parental leave, community service and pro bono work, adoption, guaranteed bank loans, and salary advances for emergency reasons are just some of the things that help Alston & Bird meet that objective. We expanded our parental leave policy to provide three months paid leave to all employees, including the nonexempt staff. It also extends to men if they are the primary caregiver at some point during the first three months after the birth or adoption of an infant. Maternity leave and paid medical expenses for the birth mother up to $7,000 are part of the adoption benefits offered. And we recently expanded our health care benefits to include infertility treatment, including in vitro fertilization. To enhance Alston & Bird's commitment to our communities, lawyers and paralegals receive 50 hours of credit toward their billable hour goal each year for pro bono work. We also feel it is important for Alston & Bird's commitment to our communities to reach beyond legal services. Consequently, employees receive 15 hours a year of paid time off to provide community service, and this can include activities specific to the schools attended by their children. For Katrina relief efforts, we raised the hour threshold to 75 for pro bono and 30 for community service in recognition of both the need for volunteers and the desire on the part of everyone at Alston & Bird to make a difference in the recovery process.

What was the impetus for the Children's Campus at Alston & Bird, the full-service child care center at your Atlanta headquarters? An outstanding child care option is just a natural and logical progression of having a generous and supportive parental leave policy. We want to make returning to work as easy as possible. And being comfortable with and confident about your child care solution helps parents concentrate on their work, knowing their children are well taken care of. We were in the process of exploring options for providing a good child care program when the state of Georgia improved the tax credit for employer-sponsored child care in 1999. It made our decision much easier from a financial perspective. The Children's Campus at Alston & Bird opened in October 2001 with an initial enrollment of 51 children.

Alston & Bird offers a wide range of child care solutions to its employees, including the state-of-the-art children's campus and a variety of resources for back-up child care at your other locations. What impact have these programs had on the firm? We have worked with Bright Horizons Family Solutions to bring a viable child care alternative to each of our offices. We recently announced a new child care option for the Charlotte office. Bright Horizons extended us priority enrollment as well as back-up child care at the Bright Horizons back-up facility located nearest to our office. The center enrolls children ages 6 weeks to 5 years for regular care. Back-up care is available for children ages 6 weeks to 12-years old. In our other offices, Bright Horizons provides access to the 275 child care centers across the country that are open to the community for full-time and back-up child care. The child care programs reinforce with our lawyers and employees that we are committed to them as a whole person and not just as an employee. Anecdotally, we know that we have retained associates who would have left if not for the support the child care facility has given them in trying to balance a legal career and a family. We now have 103 children enrolled in the Atlanta campus and have 15 soon-to-be-born babies on our waiting list. That's a significant growth from the 51 children enrolled when the center opened in 2001.

How does your child care strategy fit with your overall approach to work/life balance for your employees? Besides providing a nurturing, safe, and convenient environment for child care, we work to integrate the children's campus activities into the work and world environment. As examples, the children's campus in Atlanta undertook a project to raise monies for the tsunami relief effort. The campus also holds bake sales to allow parents and everyone else to enjoy the levity of the event. We think this interaction is important to everyone involved ' children, parents, and coworkers.

Do you foresee other law firms following Alston & Bird's lead in creating an organization that acknowledges employees' desire to thrive at work and at home? Many law firms are dealing with the same issues that we are regarding how to meet the increasing desire of our employees to balance work and home life. We know of at least three law firms in Atlanta alone that are looking at on-site/near-site child care facilities. We believe that providing the right resources to our employees ensures a more engaged and loyal workforce committed to the enterprise. We view our investment as one not only in the generations in the workplace today but an investment in those to come.
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