Creative Career Breaks

  • January 01, 2014
  • Janice Mucalov, LL.B.

Introduction: Leave Options

There are many reasons for taking a break from practising law. Leaving aside family and life balance, some lawyers step back to decide the direction of their career. Other lawyers want to explore new work arrangements that will enrich their  skills and experience or avoid career malaise by taking on a new intellectual challenge. Then there are mid-career lawyers eager to “downshift” but some years away from retirement.

While law firms could be more obliging, they’re generally receptive to lawyers who wish to take a career break. The legal profession recognizes that allowing time off is good for the firm as well as the lawyer. “Accommodating leaves can result in huge benefits for law firms in terms of lawyer retention,” says Jocelyn Frazer, acting practice advisor and equity ombudspersons for the Law Society of Alberta. A lawyer who might otherwise resign may be happy to return to their firm after taking time off to indulge their own interests for a while.

For practical reasons, it can be difficult to leave your office for an extended leave. “The nature of private practice is that if you’re away for a period of time, your files are gradually taken over by other partners, and that can be a deterrent to more senior people going on leave,” observes Dal Bhathal, CEO of The Counsel Network and managing director of its Ontario office.

And if you work alone or in a small firm, who will look after your files and clients? Larger firms – which have more staff who can fill in – tend to be better equipped to handle leaves. Still, the benefits often more than compensate, as the lawyers interviewed for this article attest to.

Nor do you have to be removed from the law while taking a break from private practice. After all, if you’re like most lawyers, you enjoy the thinking part of your job. In surveys of Alberta lawyers who quit private practice, the “intellectual challenge of the work” is one of the things they like most about practicing. (Most lawyers who quit traditional practice continue to work full-time, but in a different legal environment, e.g., as in-house counsel or in a government position.)

There’s good news. You can stay in touch with the world of torts and contracts and rights. If you’re interested in a practice break – but still want the intellectual stimulation associated with the law – consider the following options.


Secondments – particularly where an associate works with a large client of the firm – are fairly common, says Bhathal. “In England, one of the partnership track requirements at many large firms is to go on secondment.”

Kate Stephenson, a partner at WeirFoulds in Toronto, is currently on a two- year secondment to the Ontario Human Rights Legal Support Centre. Returning from maternity leave as a new mother, she chose to sidestep the demands of private practice and knew the centre was being established. Her firm suggested that she take a temporary leave rather than quit altogether.

Among the benefits has been the ability “to focus on a specific area of the law rather than taking whatever comes my way,” she says. “I feel that I’ve become more of an expert for a period of time. And working with a different group of people is always professionally stimulating.” She also enjoys mentoring and passing on her knowledge to others.

Earlier, as a three-year associate, she undertook a secondment with a Legal Aid Ontario research program advising legal aid lawyers. This experience helped shape the direction of her extra-curricular legal interests and future career, introducing her to contacts for volunteering opportunities and sitting on committees.

Fraser McDonald, a partner at Gardiner Roberts in Toronto with a securities and transaction-based practice, has also enjoyed two secondments.

As a young lawyer, he worked for the Ontario Securities Commission. “To gain a perspective from the other side was very helpful,” he relates. “Clients always find it comforting that I have this experience with the regulator.” Also, the contacts he made at the OSC meant he could simply pick up the phone if he ever had questions.

More recently, he was seconded to a wireless company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. A firm client, the company was active and required a full-time lawyer for a year. The secondment was an ideal fit; joining the firm after three years in Bermuda, McDonald was able to parachute into a full work load. 

But secondments have their downside too, points out Bhathal. “Some associates find that they’re disconnected from the firm during their time away, whereas their colleagues back at the office are developing relationships with partners. Often the seconded lawyer ends up moving to the corporate client or looking for another in-house position.”

Also, you may not receive your same level of compensation. Stephenson took a pay cut when moving to Legal Aid Ontario, which assumed responsibility for her salary. On the other hand, with secondments to corporate clients, firms often top up the salary the company pays. When McDonald was seconded to the OSC, his firm continued to pay his regular salary and the OSC reimbursed the firm a percentage.

Scholastic Secondments

If you’re not sure where to go with your career, taking time off to pursue a masters degree in law is a good option, suggests Bhathal. Frazer knows of several women who have obtained an LL.M while off work to raise their children.

Stacy Petriuk, a litigation partner at May Jensen Shawa in Calgary, returned to school because she wanted to
expand her learning and take her knowledge to a different level. “After law school, I always had it in my mind that I wanted to do a masters degree.” So after three years at her firm, she set off with her fiancée (also a lawyer) to study at Cambridge University.

“I gave the firm lots of notice [about four months],” she recalls. “That’s key to getting organized for going away so you can transfer files responsibly.” But she cautions that you don’t want to transition too early. “You still need to be productive right up until the time you leave.” After advising the firm of her university start date, Petriuk took on more project-oriented work with a finite time frame, such as researching and writing opinions.

“It was really luxurious to study what I wanted to learn,” she says of her course-based masters degree, which included three international law courses. “I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.” She adds that the setting too – Cambridge – was an idyllic place to live for a year.

Petriuk urges anyone with a passion for further education to follow their dreams. “And don’t assume it’s less expensive to go to a Canadian university than a foreign one,” she says. To finance her studies, she secured a generous provincial scholarship and funding from both the law society and Cambridge. She was also able to deduct her tuition the following year, which resulted in a healthy tax refund. 

Pro Bono Work

Working on a pro bono basis can stop the clock ticking on reinstatement requirements if you’re no longer practicing. In Alberta, insurance and law society fees cost about $4,700 annually to remain active. But there’s a special status of “active for pro bono only” where the fees are only $189. You’re eligible for the special status (and exempt from paying the usual fees) if you provide pro bono services through a recognized organization such as Volunteer Lawyers Service (where you may work one-on-one with a charitable organization) or Calgary Legal Guidance (which offers free advice to disadvantaged people who don’t qualify for legal aid).

“Staying active this way helps with your confidence in maintaining legal skills,” notes Frazer. “And you can choose the hours and work that fits with your lifestyle.”

“You’re also providing a huge benefit to the public in terms of access to justice, and lawyers who do pro bono work feel really good about what they do,” adds Frazer. She knows of one female lawyer whose sole job is providing pro bono legal services. “Her personal circumstances are such that she doesn’t need an income, and this is her way of contributing to society.”

For more information, visit the CBA's pro bono web page. See also Pro Bono Law Alberta and links to other provincial pro bono sites.

Practice Locums

A locum is a lawyer who looks after another lawyer’s practice while that lawyer is away on holidays or maternity or sick leave.

The B.C. and Ontario law societies have established locum registries for the mutual benefit of firms/lawyers needing a locum and practitioners offering their services as a locum. They suggest that locum work may appeal to lawyers seeking variety or who are winding down their careers and want flexibility while continuing to practise.

Locum arrangements vary. Some lawyers specialize in short practice locums of one week to two months for a small pool of lawyer/clients. Others like Tom Lathrop accept stints of up to six-months. An instructor with B.C.’s bar admission course, he’s worked as a locum for 15 years.

“It’s a different approach to practising,” he says. “Most of the time, it’s fun.” He adds that a big advantage is that there’s very little overhead. “I don’t have to worry about maintaining a trust account or dealing with audits, and I use the other lawyer’s assistant.”

He limits his locums to non-litigious practices. “I won’t do a trial or contested chambers application,” he declares. “The lawyer has to get that adjourned.” New litigation matters are referred out to a pre-designated colleague of the lawyer/client.

How can you get locum business? Most of Lathrop’s work is referred by word of mouth, supplemented by occasional advertising. You can also get the word out by meeting with sole practitioners and small firms and offering your services, he says. Frazer suggests you talk to your provincial practice advisor too for leads. As acting practice advisor for the Law Society of Alberta, she is contacted by sole practitioners who fall sick and need a temporary replacement.

An experienced lawyer can expect to earn between $5,000 to $8,000 a month as a locum. Lathrop typically charges a flat fee to his lawyer clients. He accept locums throughout the province, so his fee takes into account such factors as whether he’ll be renting accommodation or staying in the lawyer’s home.

Practice Management/Ethics Adviser or Law Firm General Counsel Work

In the U.S., some 80 to 90% of the largest 200 firms have a designated general counsel or ethics adviser. The rise in conflicts-of-interest law has spurred a similiar development in Canada. Call it what you will – risk management counsel, practice management adviser, ethics adviser or general counsel. “Virtually all large firms in the country now have such a position,” says Malcolm Mercer, a litigation partner with McCarthy Tetrault in Toronto and the firm’s general counsel.

As general counsel (designed to be a half-time position), Mercer deals with the firm’s legal risks and responsibilities, advising lawyers on avoiding conflicts of interest and dealing with potential breaches of ethical guidelines. He’s typically consulted on three or four issues a day.

It’s a position likely only to be available to a select few; usually someone within the firm, who has earned the respect of their fellow partners and other lawyers, is appointed, he says. Still, it’s a growth area. South of the border, Hinshaw & Culbertson specializes in providing legal ethics and professional responsibility services to other law firms. Likewise, there may be opportunities for the occasional enterprising lawyer in Canada to develop such work, geared to smaller law firms as clients, perhaps combined with a specialty in legal malpractice, suggests Mercer.

International Development Project Work

Taking a break to work overseas with a charitable foundation or NGO can give you a renewed focus.

With funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, the CBA International Development Program operates several projects in developing countries. Opportunities come up for volunteers as well as project or staff lawyers (who are usually paid on the same salary scale as Legal Aid Ontario).

Chantal Tie took a leave from her position as executive director of the South Ottawa Community Legal Services to work half-time on the Bangladesh project (the other half-time, she continues to work for the legal aid clinic as a staff lawyer). Over the past five years, she’s helped implement a complete legal aid system in two districts in Bangladesh, which has since been rolled out to seven sites.

Tie initially worked some five months a year in Bangladesh, spread out over one three-month and two one-month stretches, where she was happily immersed in the local culture. When in the capital of Dhaka, she bunked in a small guesthouse or in the extra bedroom of the resident legal aid director’s apartment. But in the country, her accommodation was more primitive – think “cow dung generated heat,” she chuckles.

She’s also spent time in Ottawa on the project, escorting groups visiting from China and Bangladesh to learn about case management, court reform, witness assistance programs and the like in Canada.

“It’s been really great to feel that I could make a difference,” she says. “This project has been recognized by the Bangladesh government and stakeholders as very successful. We also got to work with a level of people there, like government ministers, who I wouldn’t get to work with here.” Tie has also enjoyed the camaraderie and sharing of ideas with other CBA lawyers involved in projects in Nepal, Cambodia and Africa.

For young lawyers under 30, the CBA administers a Young Lawyers International Program. If accepted, you’re placed with a human rights or legal development organization on an eight-month internship in adeveloping country such as Jamaica, Namibia or Laos. Living costs and travel expenses are paid. The hitch is that the program is funded to help young lawyers find employment. If you already have a job, you must therefore resign – you can’t take a leave of absence with the intention of returning to the same firm afterward.

Read more about the CBA International Development Program and Young Lawyers International Program on the CBA's website.

Charting Your Own Path

If none of the above options resonate with you, you can always chart your own course while taking a career break.

Last year, the Manhattan law firm of Skadden Arps invited associates to participate in a recession cost-savings program – they could take a year off in exchange for one-third of their salary. Amy Impellizzeri accepted, but she didn’t step away from the law.

She wrote a “green” website resource for small businesses; worked with a legal advocacy group to improve laws and policies for working families; provided pro bono help to friends and family in reviewing contracts, pleadings and other legal documents; and sought out “CLE classes that are interesting and useful rather than simply enrolling in courses that will conveniently meet my annual requirements.” In a Law Practice Today article, she writes:  “I have, in short, discovered again how much I love being a lawyer.”

See her article in Law Practice Today.

Keeping Your Job Safe

What can you do to help protect your job while on leave? Consider remaining in contact with your firm so you stay top of mind, suggests Dal Bhathal of The Counsel Network. “I was in communication with my firm the whole time I was gone,” recounts Stacy Petriuk of May Jensen Shawa, who took a year off to get a masters degree in England. “It wasn’t file-related, but I’d send regular update emails about my travels – ‘fish out of water’ tales and such.” It’s also helpful if your voice mail indicates that you’re away on an extended absence, your profile remains on the firm website (indicating you’re on leave), and callers can leave a message with an assistant. Toward the end of your leave, give plenty of notice about when you’ll be starting back. When Kate Stephenson returned to her firm after her first secondment, with Legal Aid Ontario, it wasn’t hard for her to gear back up. “People anticipated my return and had work ready and waiting for me.” Back in the office, reconnect quickly with partners and other lawyers. “Go for coffee with them and remind people that you’re available to accept work again,” advises Bhathal. “Don’t just wait for work to come to you.” The reality, however, is that job security is very person-specific, says Stephenson. “If the firm wants you to be around, they’ll make it possible for you to return. ” — J.M.

Personal and Ethical Issues

Taking a leave raises several personal, ethical and other issues. For one, you need to help facilitate the smooth transition of your clients and ensure that their interests are taken care of. You are required – by the code of professional conduct that applies to your jurisdiction – to inform clients of your pending absence, and they have the right to decide who will continue to serve them. You're also obligated to help support the lawyer(s) taking over your work. You should leave your client files in a well-organized state so your successor can easily pick up where you left off.

On a personal level, be aware of reinstatement requirements. In Alberta, for example, you have to rewrite the bar exams to return to practice after a three-year hiatus.

Also, see the article "When a Lawyer Leaves a Firm" on the Law Society of Alberta's website (.pdf).

— J.M.