Maternity leaves and parental issues: taking the long-term view

  • Valerie Mutton

It’s cause for celebration for lawyer moms in private practice—the lawyers who balance discoveries and daycare, partnership meetings and PTA meetings. Learning to juggle it all can be a lonely challenge, and one that leads many of them to change career paths.

But a report by the Law Society of Upper Canada on the retention of women in private practice promises relief, in the form of concrete recommendations to help women manage the demanding roles of parent and lawyer. The ground-breaking measures, developed by a Law Society working group and released in May 2008, include a think tank designed to retain and advance women lawyers in private practice, a practice locum registry to help women maintain their practices during leaves of absence, and a pilot program of parental leave benefits of $3,000 for three months.

Claire Wilkinson, a lawyer with the firm of Martin & Hillyer in Burlington, Ontario, and mother of two boys and a girl, applauds the report. She’s particularly encouraged by the parental leave benefit proposal, which would top up maternity leave pay for mothers who work in smaller firms that don’t offer in-house top-ups. “I only took 4 months off for each of my three maternity leaves,” she says, noting that her workload prevented her from taking any off longer. “But in addition, there was absolutely a financial cost to taking a maternity leave, particularly for my last maternity leave in 2004, when I was self-employed,” she adds. “I still had to cover my full overhead payments at my office, including rent, common expenses, and the salaries of two full time staff for the entire time that I was off.”

Kristen Bucci, a lawyer with Buset & Partners LLP, a small firm in Thunder Bay, recalls having to do a trial when her first child was three weeks old. “I was nursing, and I would nurse her before the trial and at lunch.”

A former president of her local law association and now a member of CDLPA (County and District Law Presidents’ Association), Bucci helped to draft CDLPA’s response to the Law Society recommendations on the retention of women. She calls the recommendations excellent, and is hopeful that, once implemented, they will help young mothers take the time they need to bond with their children. She says wistfully, “If the Law Society had offered me $3,000 a month for three months maternity leave, I would have taken it.” Developing a practice locum registry would also be extremely valuable, she adds – if the initiative can attract the substantial roster of lawyers it needs to succeed.

Support for a difficult balancing act

Regardless of the kinds of support available at the office, personal strategies become paramount in balancing work and family. Wilkinson offers this piece of advice for young lawyer moms: delegate. “I give my law clerks an extraordinary amount of responsibility, but I oversee them,” she explains. “Delegation is a great way to make yourself spread farther.” And don’t panic about the amount of work to be done. “I did not demand perfection from myself, when it came to being on top of my work all the time.”

The concerns of women employed at solo and small firms weren’t the only focus of the Law Society report. The recommendations also addressed the need for large and medium-sized firms to commit to adopting programs for the retention and advancement of women. (A three-year pilot project called the “Justicia Think Tank” was one of the measures proposed; the initiative has drawn the support of 40 law firms across Ontario).

Kirby Chown, Ontario Regional Managing Partner of McCarthy Tétrault in Toronto, welcomes that direction. She says large firms could be doing a lot more to support young mothers. At her firm, she says, an expectant mom is paired up with a maternity leave “buddy”—a more experienced female lawyer within the same practice group who can act as a mentor. Chown says she’s especially proud of a new initiative that provides six hours of free guidance on managing the work/life balance issues that happen when a rising career is combined with motherhood. A personal coach, who has training in family therapy and an understanding of law firm culture, has been hired to deliver the program.

The working group’s research showed that law firms struggle to retain women for many reasons. But there was a familiar refrain: many leave after concluding that, in private practice, they can have a productive legal career, or be a dedicated mom, but not do both.

If the industry has been slow to address the concern, however, it’s not for lack of tools available to help keep women lawyers, says law firm consultant Deborah Epstein Henry, the founder and president of Flex-Time Lawyers LLC. She says the industry needs to take better advantage of cultural tools as well as institutional tools. Mentoring circles, for example, where groups of eight to fifteen women meet regularly, can provide essential support. “There is a bigger likelihood of making a personal connection, and more continuity in the relationship,” she says.

Henry says women lawyers can also influence change when they are judicious in selecting law firms that are responsive to their needs. A guidebook Henry wrote to help women law students with that challenge is now being used as a blueprint by law firms who want to motivate and retain women lawyers.

Chown says she would like to see more law firms take a long-term view of maternity leaves and parenting issues. “If a woman takes two or three years longer to make partner because she’s a parent, over a 25-year career, that’s really not a significant amount of time, and law firms should accommodate that.”

Women lawyers who want a career in private practice, for their part, shouldn’t give in to societal pressure to be less ambitious, Chown says. “It’s important for women to know it’s okay to be a mother who enjoys her work.

Valerie Mutton is a freelance writer.