A modern currency amongst our legal governance bodies is the “retention of women” in the practice of law. It’s a common rallying cry from the gatekeepers: Make sure the women stay! Because they know we are leaving, and they know as well that the impetus to leave arises, in part, from the disadvantages that we experience due to our disproportionately heavy role in creating and parenting children.
For women in bigger law firms, their maternity leaves prevent them from obtaining the same seniority or work opportunities as non-parenting counterparts. Once baby arrives, women in bigger law firms are then compared to non-parenting counterparts for their work productivity. Those who prioritize work over families in bigger law firms fit the model of the ideal associate. Those who seek to balance both, or prioritize family over work, are just not working hard enough.
For women in small firms or in solo practice, we agonize over the right time to have a baby. Is it when we’ve saved up enough cash to cover both our office expenses and our personal expenses, so that we can enjoy a meaningful leave during which to bond with our little one? Is it when our workflow is healthy enough to be predictable and sustainable on our return? Is it when we have finally hired a support staff or junior lawyer who can float our practice for six to nine months?
For us, the issue of timing really hit home when we participated in a panel on women in the law, seated beside a sharp, stylish, well-adjusted and good-humored criminal defence lawyer. Read = someone whose attitude towards life we want to emulate. When asked about balancing work and family, her face grew drawn and tired. She said, “From personal experience, I need to tell you that you can always have a career. You cannot always have a family.” She is, of course, beyond childbearing age, and without children.
Leaving aside the fact that childbearing is not the only reason women and gender-non-conforming people leave the law, when our law societies talk about retention of women, it sounds like a whole lot of white noise to us until we see pragmatic and useful solutions that extend to those of us practitioners who work in small and sole practices. The Law Society of Upper Canada’s Parental Leave Assistance Program (PLAP), introduced in 2009, was one of those solutions that made me nod my head. The Program allows small and sole practitioners to receive $750 per week for a three-month period, a slightly better deal in our pockets than what we could receive from Employment Insurance as new parents. But in order to receive Employment Insurance, we need to pay premiums for a year beforehand, so the price of EI benefits adds up. So we thought about having babies, and we both thought about relying on PLAP to support a leave from our practices.
And now, we are probably going to lose PLAP. Various media sources this week report that the Law Society of Upper Canada’s benchers will hold a closed debate tomorrow on whether to maintain the PLAP program, and that some of our benchers believe the program will be axed due to a belief that the EI benefits are just as appropriate for small and sole practitioners. Read more here.
We bet that our benchers will keep the free six hours of Career Coaching for women lawyers to help them plan and transition into maternity leave and return to practice. Sure, we like accessing free counseling, but that doesn't offer anything in the way of income security. Why can’t the Law Society put actual dollars behind initiatives that invest in women's longevity in legal practice?