Lawyers will win under a federal proposal to extend parental benefits to the self-employed, but the head of the Canadian Bar Association hopes the rules will allow for more flexibility than currently exists.
“You shouldn’t be penalized for returning to work,” says CBA president Kevin Carroll, who feels parents choosing to end their parental leave early should receive the same total benefits over a compressed time frame rather than suffer a loss of Employment Insurance payments.
Nevertheless, Carroll says a new federal bill that would allow people such as self-employed lawyers to collect EI for the first time will go a long way towards making the profession more flexible for women.
“It gives them the opportunity of not having to make the choice between family and career.”
For years, in fact, the CBA has been lobbying the federal government to eliminate what amounts to a disincentive for women in private practice to have children. “It’s not a 100-per-cent cure,” Carroll says. “But [the benefits] are sufficient to encourage people.”
The changes will ensure that working lawyers can spend time with newborn children, he adds.
However, that was not an option for Kim Kieller, a sole practitioner in Barrie who focuses on family law as well as mediation and arbitration.
Kieller was nine months’ pregnant when she got her first job in 1986. “I’ll never forget shareholder agreements because I was studying them between contractions,” she says.
A few years later, she was practising alone when she had her second son. But her income was so reliant on her continuing to work that she couldn’t afford to stay at home.
“You needed to make your court appearances; otherwise, you wouldn’t have a client base to make an income.”
It was a sacrifice, however, that cost Kieller time with her family.
“I paid for it in the long run,” she says.
The freedom to establish families without having to suffer professionally is a luxury Kieller didn’t have but she welcomes the changes for a new generation of lawyers.
“It’s going to benefit your kids, it’s going to benefit yourself, and it’s going to benefit your clients because they will get you at your best.”
If bill C-56 passes, the self-employed would be eligible for the same benefits available to other Canadians: up to 15 weeks of maternity benefits and up to 35 weeks of parental and adoptive benefits as well as coverage for sickness and compassionate care.
To be eligible for EI, self-employed individuals who opt in to the program must first pay premiums for a year.
But for the moment, the Law Society of Upper Canada will remain the only entity to offer parental leave benefits to private practice lawyers.
The Parental Leave Assistance Program is available to sole practitioners and lawyers at firms of five or fewer. So far this year, 39 lawyers have qualified under the program. According to federal government figures, there were around 21,000 self-employed lawyers in Canada in 2005.
Still, it’s unclear how the new legislation will affect the law society’s three-year pilot program, says Roy Thomas, a spokesman for the LSUC.
A lawyer with access to any parental leave benefits, including EI, wouldn’t qualify under the law
society program, he points out.
But benefits to sole practitioners wouldn’t begin rolling out under revised EI rules before 2011.
The law society pays out parental benefits of $750 per week, which is higher than the maximum coverage under EI. Still, the LSUC program lasts three months, compared with EI’s 50 months of eligibility.