LSUC’s parental leave pilot lifts off

In recent months the Law Society of Upper Canada launched its three-year parental leave pilot project and locum registry, and the sighs of relief are audible wherever lawyers with small practices and plans for a family are found.

When a firm has five lawyers or less, financial assistance of $750 per week for 12 weeks is available if the lawyer does not have access to any other parental leave benefits. This short-term safety net promises to have a long-term impact on the health of small practitioners and the stability of their practices.

Tom Conway, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Ottawa, who is co-chairman of the retention of women in private practice working group, is expecting to see 60 recipients a year from amongst Ontario lawyers who meet the criteria.

“That group essentially includes self-employed lawyers or small practices. The reason that we targeted this group, modest as it is, is that 90 per cent of lawyers in Ontario are in sole or small practices and that group overwhelmingly serves the legal needs of the majority of Ontarians.

That group is also more vulnerable to a break in practice. You can’t get childcare for the first three months, so without support networks, those lawyers are stuck between a rock and hard place.”

Fay Brunning, a partner at Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP, is a mother of two who has lived the challenges of raising a family and managing a legal career. Part of her practice involves helping firms organize maternity leave policies and respectful work practices.

“Emotions can get extremely high if a firm has never had someone take maternity leave before,” she notes. “Everyone wants to do the right thing but they are baffled. Each time a woman has a baby, it’s as if it’s the very first time, when really it is a component of regular life to have a family.”

Brunning took about five months of maternity leave for each of her children but she has seen a lot of women who kept the baby in the corner of their office for the first three to four months. “There is no time to heal or bond and they over-worry about their clients because that’s the state of mind they’re in.

Many women want to become self-employed so they can set their own pace and not have to meet billing targets of 55 to 60 hours a week, but if they make that choice, guess what? No employment rights!”

Karin Galldin is a young lawyer in exactly that position at the moment. She is one half of Galldin Liew LLP in Ottawa with her friend Jamie Liew. The two women, who are both third-year calls, opened their diverse practice in August 2007.

In the past, they have both joked that because of the business, they are not in a position to have kids, but Galldin believes that the new programs are initiatives they would probably access.

“For an extended absence, it’s helpful to have a structured program endorsed by the law society. I’ve heard horror stories of women who give birth and go in the day after with the baby to interview a client. I can see how that happens. Part of the appeal of going into business for ourselves was to set our own hours and perhaps not work quite as much, but there is a compulsion to work when you have your own clients.”

Krista Matthews is a young corporate lawyer who created her own part-time employment to allow for time with her three young boys. She operates as in-house counsel on an outsource basis. Knowing there is some sort of financial assistance gives her some comfort should she ever persuade her husband to have a fourth child. “I’m better at negotiating for my clients than negotiating on that one,” she laughs.

Galldin and Matthews both believe that the amount being offered is a reasonable and helpful sum. “It’s meant to cover overheads,” says Galldin. “And it does that and a bit more.”

She is curious as to why it is limited to three months. “Perhaps research has shown that that’s as long as a small practitioner can go without feeling antsy about the practice, and feeling compelled to go back.” She also wonders why it begins on the birth of the child. “The parameters may need to be revisited.”

Matthews recommends that once the pilot is complete, the law society should offer six months of leave at the same amount. “At three months I’m not sure I would have been ready to go back. You’re not quite out of the fog by then.” She also suggests that recipients should become eligible two weeks before the due date to facilitate the transition and to get themselves mentally prepared for the birth.

When mothers do go back to work, there are adjustments that need to be made. Brunning makes a point of telling women that they will have less capacity. “For good reason your family takes time. For a woman, if the choice is 100 per cent or zero per cent and she doesn’t feel her family is getting proper care, she will leave. You don’t get a second chance with kids.”

For this reason it is important to have your practice well managed in your absence so the workload is not too overwhelming upon your return. Matthews has not taken an extended vacation since being on her own, but she was away for one week when her aunt died. “I managed thanks to my BlackBerry but it was crazy when I came back.”

This is where the new locum registry makes its worth known. Using locums is a common and successful practice in other jurisdictions and in the medical profession, but it is a relatively new concept to the legal profession in Ontario.

“Many lawyers think that they’re the only ones that can service their clients, and there’s some validity to that,” says Conway. “The idea is to match them up with lawyers who don’t want to practise full time in one place but are highly competent. We need to persuade members to consider it as a tool to take the necessary breaks.

If there is no way to ensure that the practice is taken care of, they don’t take the breaks they should for their health and welfare.” The law society will not be vetting the applicants but there will be the usual checks on discipline history. “It’s not the wild, wild west,” Conway confirms. “There’s going to be some oversight.”

Brunning considers the locum registry to be an exciting development. “It recognizes that lawyers are human beings, not machines. It’s a very meaningful, structural change.” Galldin and Liew are eager to make use of the registry, and not just for future maternity leave.

“We have tried separately to go on vacation in the past but it’s hard to co-ordinate,” says Galldin. “Because we have different practice areas it’s a lot for the remaining lawyer to handle.

We’ve had summer students that we relied on to support the other lawyer and keep an eye on things, but no lawyer would feel comfortable with leaving files and the carriage of matters that way. Bringing in another lawyer will bring peace of mind.” Which is just what a new parent needs.

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