Parental leave: Just do it

  • October 26, 2018
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

Ryley Mennie has some advice for young lawyers trying to decide whether to take parental leave: “definitely do it.”

“It was a great experience,” says Mennie, of the four months he took off work to take care of his infant son. “I highly recommend that anyone who is considering parental leave take it.”

Mennie now works as a labour and employment lawyer with Miller Titerle + Company. He was working at a large national corporate law firm when his wife became pregnant almost three years ago while she was studying to become a psychiatrist.

“Our son wasn’t unplanned but he was sort of unanticipated. We had given up trying for a baby because we were getting close to the period where my wife had to be really focused on her studies quite intensely for an entire year,” says Mennie. “So we had put it off. So then a month or two later, she ended up getting pregnant.”

While taking care of an infant, his wife’s ability to study for her psychiatry exams was “pretty compromised,” says Mennie.

“A big motivation for this was for me to be able to take on responsibility because she needed to spend 30 hours a week studying,” he says.

Taking parental leave was rewarding for him personally and for his wife as well, says Mennie.

“It was good for our family,” he says. “It made me more resilient as a parent and made our family life a little easier because there was more diversity on who could handle things.”

Lisa Ridgedale has dealt with parental leave both as an associate and as an employer.

Ridgedale is the mother of two daughters and a founding partner in the boutique business litigation firm of Hakemi & Ridgedale LLP in Vancouver.

She was working in private practice and “an associate at the mercy of the firm billing many, many hours every year” when she got pregnant with her oldest daughter.

“When I was on maternity leave I wanted to go back to work, but I didn’t understand how I was going to be able to bill 2,000 hours and have a child at the same time,” she says.

During her maternity leave, Ridgedale says that she started to look for a new position that would accommodate her need to spend time with her growing family.

She accepted a job outside of private practice where the hours were more predictable, but it required her to return to work earlier than expected.

“I went to work in a brand new place with a four-month-old baby. It was a full-time job and I had to learn it,” says Ridgedale. “But it was more predictable hours and it wasn’t the crazy, private practice, litigation world that I was in before and that I’m back in now. So it ended up being a good plan.”

Returning to work was challenging, Ridgedale says: “I was tired and not sleeping.”

Now as an employer, Ridgedale and her law firm partner have made workplace policies to accommodate new parents.

“We want to keep our associates happy,” she says. “We want to create a work environment where people want to raise their families and continue to practice law.”

Hakemi & Ridgedale LLP, a firm with 16 lawyers, has a parental leave policy that allows associates to take parental leave with a contribution to top up their employment insurance benefits.

“You can take whatever time you want – it can be under a year, over a year, whatever. And you will have a job when you come back,” says Ridgedale. “Sure we’d have more money for us if we didn’t pay people while they were on parental leave. But that’s never been our goal. Our goal is to make money as a firm and keep people happy.”

The firm policy is also not restricted to parents with babies under one year.

“If you have an issue with your child who is seven years old and has a health problem, you can take parental leave for that too. It’s a very broad policy,” says Ridgedale.

As an employer, Ridgedale says she appreciates the effort her associates made before leaving on parental leave.

“They left their practice organized, in good hands and communicated with their clients early to tell them this was going to be happening, to tell them who the file was going to be transitioned to and what to expect and who to be in contact with. It was smooth,” she says. “We haven’t had any issues.”

Mennie says many of his clients were impressed when he told them about his plans to take parental leave – something he says may be unique to his field of legal practice.

“I work in labour and employment so there is a general awareness of discrimination and gender equality,” he says. “It was a conversation that I think a lot of my clients were impressed with. I think it reflected well on the firm and me personally for endorsing that.”

During his four-month leave, Mennie says he “kept his nose in” a few files that did not need active day-to-day management. “I was able to monitor that from home to help guide things.”

His other files were handled by his colleagues, he says, adding: “I was lucky to work at a firm where they made it really easy for me. I didn’t feel any kind of push back or any concerns with taking the time off.”

Even though Mennie was working at a large national firm, he says he had “no professional hiccups” when he returned to work.

“I think it really depends on what stage you are at in your career. I was at a relatively junior stage,” says Mennie, who was a three-year call at the time. “I think if you’re a bit more senior it’s more difficult to do that.”

Even though Mennie found parental leave rewarding, he admits that it was “a lot more difficult” than he assumed.

“I thought, ‘Hey, I’ll have the time to work out a little bit more or do more cooking at home.’

I was incredibly surprised at how exhausting and demanding it was,” he says with a laugh. “Going back to work was kind of a relief.”

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an associate lawyer and mother of three based in Prince George, B.C.