The Changing Face of Maternity Leave

The Law Society of Upper Canada has just announced a program that will provide up to six hours of coaching to assist women leaving and then returning from maternity or compassionate leave. The coaching will be available only to sole practitioners and to women working in law firms of five or fewer lawyers. It is estimated that 35 women will access this program in the first year.

This program is similar to one offered in Manitoba since 2008 where female or male lawyers and their spouses or life partners can receive six confidential sessions with the Law Society Equity Ombudsperson. These sessions focus on more than just returning to work but also include how to talk to your firm about the various leave options and how to transition your clients and files as you leave. All lawyers are eligible not just sole practitioners or lawyers working in small firms.

Each of these programs and others like them are attempting to assist women (and increasingly men) at one of the most challenging times in their legal careers – when they take a leave to have or adopt a child.

Not surprisingly, it is women lawyers who are sole practitioners or who work in smaller firms who have the most difficult time maintaining their practice. Unlike women in large firms where their EI benefits may be topped up close to their usual pay, a sole practitioner can see her income drop to zero while still having to pay rent, salaries and other office expenses in order to keep her practice open.

As a result of successful lobbying by the CBA, the legislation governing EI benefits was amended in 2010 to permit those people who are self-employed to access maternity and parental leave benefits that previously were available only to employed associates. A self-employed lawyer must pay the necessary premiums in advance to be eligible. This change is a tremendous help to lawyers working on their own and one of the many reasons all lawyers should support the CBA.

British Columbia has just completed a two-year pilot project offering a $2000 a month loan up to a maximum of four months or $8000 to self-employed women lawyers who have no access to any other maternity or parental leave programs. The loan must be paid back monthly over a four year period. This is not meant as income replacement but to cover the cost of overhead while the lawyer is on leave.

Each of these recent programs is an example of small but important steps taken to support women lawyers to remain in the practice of law.

Parental leave for fathers is also gaining ground. Many of the larger firms now offer a month’s leave with pay for their male lawyers to assist their wives or partners after a birth or an adoption. If the couple does not live in the same city as their families, this support is crucial to help mothers with newborns and care for other siblings. As more and more men are married to women who are also lawyers or who work in some equally demanding job, it may be the wife who has the greater earning potential. In this case the man may wish to take a longer parental leave (up to 37 weeks under the legislation) so his wife can return to work.

Maternity and parental leave may soon cease to be a gender issue affecting primarily women. It is increasingly becoming a generational issue as more couples determine who has the greater earning capacity and should stay home with a new baby. At the moment, the coaching about to be offered in Ontario is only available to women. However, the time will come when there is an equal demand from men who wish to take a leave from the practice of law after a birth or an adoption. While it is still only women who bear children, increasingly the support of those children is becoming a shared responsibility where fathers want and are expected to take a more active role.

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