Juggling act: Combining articling with parenthood

  • October 01, 2014
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

Everything changed for Nikki Kowalski when she found out she was pregnant.

The second-year University of Alberta law student had just accepted an articling position at a national law firm in Edmonton. Less than a year later with a baby on the way, Kowalski and her partner moved to Winnipeg to be closer to their families.

Their son was born in June 2013, just days after she finished 12 articling interviews. Kowalski finished her final year as a visiting student at the University of Manitoba and is now articling at Winnipeg-based D’Arcy & Deacon LLP.

Kowalski is just one of many law students across Canada juggling the challenges of articling and being a new parent.

“I think the best advice is to take it one day at a time and not to jump ship before the year is over,” says Kowalski.

Kristopher Henderson became a father in July 2013 after his second year of law school at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C.

Henderson, now an articling student at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C., agrees that starting a legal career and a family at the same time is challenging. But he acknowledges that the legal field can be particularly hard on working mothers.

“It's very difficult balancing work and life when you have a kid regardless of gender,” he says. “However, many of my female colleagues in law school said even though they wanted to start a family, they felt they needed to work for a few years before having kids.”

When Crystal Gillis found out she was pregnant in 2011, she was determined not to let her pregnancy stop her from working on Bay Street. Gillis, a University of Ottawa graduate, is now articling at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Toronto.

“You see those headlines all the time: 'Women leaving Bay Street in droves.' I was pretty determined at that time to fight that and make sure there are more women on Bay Street and women who are making it work,” says Gillis, whose son was born in August 2012.

“But now that I'm on the other side of it, I would tell women to be realistic. Being a parent is hard work. It's really rewarding, but it definitely makes articling more challenging,” she adds. “Sometimes I find myself struggling in this articling process, because I don't think it was designed for people who have commitments outside of work.”

It’s generally understood that articling will be the hardest year of any lawyer’s life – and that the first year with a new baby is the hardest of a parent’s life. Combining the two can be crazy.

“I always feel like I am letting something slip,” says Kowalski. “If I spend time working on the weekend or stay a little later, I feel like I am missing out on my son’s life. If I leave at 5 p.m., I feel like people at work are judging me and expecting me to work harder.

“I feel like I am being a mediocre employee and a mediocre mom – which is hard when you are used to being excellent at everything.”

A balancing act

Gillis credits her law firm's culture for making it easier for her to balance her work life with her home life.

“Working from home is totally acceptable at Gowlings. There are not a lot of people there after 7 p.m. on any given night,” she says. “A lot of people go home, have dinner with their families, put their kids to bed and then they pick up their work again. They have a pretty great remote access resource that I've used quite a bit.”

Kowalski works as hard as she can while she's at work, but when she's with her son she focuses all her attention on him.

“I try not to check my emails at night or on weekends, unless I know that there is something that I have to help with,” she says.

Henderson says that he finds it difficult being away from his daughter for 10 hours a day most days.

“It's really tough,” he says. “I hope to see her in the morning and an hour or two at night during the week. I'm fortunate that my wife has been able to do as much as she has.”

Social support

A good support system makes balancing parenthood and articling easier.

Kowalski's mother watches her son while she and her partner work; Henderson's wife stays home with their daughter. Gillis and her husband decided to hire a nanny to take care of their son.

“A live-out nanny is probably the most expensive route you can take, but that's what works for us for this year,” she says. “We're considering it an investment in our careers.”

Gillis also credits her co-workers for their support.

“We have several women at the firm who have been fantastic mentors to me,” she says. “You have to make sure you've got a really good strong support system in place because articling will be so much more difficult without that.”

Kowalski also says that she turns to her co-workers for support.

“It is super nice to have people you can talk to at your work,” she says. “My articling principal always tells me that my son should be my number one priority right now. It’s nice to know that he is supportive and if I feel completely overwhelmed, I can always go talk to him.”

Henderson advises new parents to let family members know if they need help.

“Don't be embarrassed to admit that sometimes you're not able to do everything by yourself,” he says.

“There are no merit badges or awards for doing everything without help from other people.”

Gillis has some final advice for articling students with young children: “It's not going to be easy but it's definitely doable.”

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an articling student at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP in Prince George, B.C. Her daughter Mary was born in September 2012.