Most Canadian law firms of any significant size have written parental leave policies. What many firms lack are written guidelines to assist women lawyers leaving and returning from maternity leave. As these leaves can be lengthy (up to 12 months) reintegrating back into law firm life and ramping work back up is a very daunting prospect for most women lawyers. There is often a feeling that you must figure this out on your own with no clear understanding of the firm’s expectations. This feeling of isolation can make returning from maternity leave one of the most difficult times in a woman lawyer’s career.
There are many ways a firm can support their returning female associates that have little to no financial cost but pay huge dividends in helping ease women associates back into practice. Here are four simple tips a law firm can adopt that give women lawyers a better chance at returning to the practice of law.
Offer a gradual return to work schedule.
Just figuring out how to get out the door in the morning now that you have a toddler clinging to you knees can be enough to make some women want to give up on the whole endeavor. Offer returning associates the opportunity to work two days their first week back and then three days during the second week. While some firms offer a reduced workweek for longer periods of time, even a two week gradual re-entry can promote a more successful return. A gradual return to work can start either at the end of the maternity leave or the associate can return two weeks earlier.
Another important benefit is that the associate can reconnect with the partners and discuss what client work can start to be sent her way. She can also start familiarizing herself with client files so that when she returns full time she is up to speed more quickly and will already have work waiting.
Assign a buddy to keep in touch with the associate while she is away.
While most new mothers do not want to handle files while on maternity leave, they often want to keep in touch with what is happening at the firm and with clients. The transition back to work is much easier when there has been some regular contact with the firm. The amount of contact should be left to the woman to decide. But assigning a partner to be the associate’s official liaison with the firm sends a signal that the partners want to support the woman’s return.
While the buddy can be a male or a female partner, it must be someone who appreciates the challenges a woman faces and who already has a good relationship with the associate.
Mentoring Circles or Women’s Forums.
A third tip is to encourage women lawyers with children to offer on-going support to each other. Group mentoring is one of the best ways for women to share advice and feel that they are not alone in figuring out how to ramp up their practice. If the firm provides lunch or offers to bring in speakers on issues such as parenting or business development, this is even better.
Put it in writing.
The fourth and most important tip is to put any guidelines in writing. Written guidelines signal the partners’ support and commitment to the retention of those women who juggle the demands of parenting and a busy practice. It says, “We understand that this is challenging and we want you to succeed.”
Associates need more than training in the law and practice management in order to be good lawyers. Women – and increasingly men who are also parents – need on-going support to manage the many demands on a lawyer’s time. Simple suggestions put in writing can change a law firm’s culture to one that focuses on solutions to retaining its women lawyers. These small steps can lead to a continuing conversation that will benefit everyone in the firm.