Managing Parental Leave as a Practicing Lawyer – Perspectives from a Mom of Four

  • June 14, 2019
  • Amelia Yu, Elm Law

I gave birth to my fourth child on March 9 2019 and when he was barely a month old I did something I wouldn’t have done with any of the babies before: I travelled downtown to attend the Women’s Law Forum’s CLE entitled “Rethinking having it All, a Solo and Small Firm Perspective on Parenting While Lawyering”. I did it because I felt I needed to be a part of the very important conversation that is parental leave in our profession.

I was surprised at how many young women associates from mid-size or larger firms attended the program, which was really for sole practitioners, seeking any crumb of information they could garner about being a parent while still having a fulfilling career. What that signaled to me is that in the decade between my first child and my fourth, things really hadn’t changed at all for private practice lawyers looking to start a family. I realized that these associates, who had yet to start out on their parenting journeys, really had little support from their partners and managers in this area, so, given that I have gone on maternity leave four times in three different work environments, I feel I can lend some perspective.

I never really set out to have four children and if you told me at the beginning of my career as a litigator in downtown Toronto that I would end up with four children I would have laughed in your face. My spouse and I were not really kids’ people, so it is quite the plot twist the way our lives ended up. 

At 29, I was in my second year when I told my managing partner that I was pregnant. He was kind about it (I have heard of much worse reactions from colleagues over the years). I told him I would take four months and be back at work swiftly, which, looking back, was total folly, but such was my naiveté at the time. He sagely told me that I might feel differently when the baby arrived and that I should not make him any promises that I couldn’t keep. There was no maternity leave policy. The firm consisted of the managing partner and one other associate. I was on a contract that would expire during my leave, so there was zero certainty or support. 

When the time came to renew my contract, I took a look at the billable hours and decided that I would try to negotiate for more flexibility. When I spoke with my managing lawyer, I was met with a firm “no” on all fronts. As a business owner now, I completely understand and respect his position, but I knew there was no way I could fulfil the contract as written now that motherhood had changed my life and my priorities so I did not sign. It’s funny how things turn out because now my old boss is a trusted mentor and friend and there are times I am regretful that we could not find a way forward at the time.

With no job, and no desire to become a stay-at-home parent, I reached out to a smaller firm in the east end of Toronto and worked out a compensation scheme where I would be paid a percentage of my hourly rate. Although I had been specialized in the area of Estate Litigation, I agreed to take on any litigation matter the firm gave me, including family matters. This arrangement was perfect for me and I went on to have two more children, working as an independent contractor. I also took on a teaching position at a local college which supplemented my income when I returned to work after maternity leave and needed to build my practice up again. 

I admit that these times were difficult for our family financially because each time I left my practice, I had to start again from nothing. My advice if you do this is to opt in to Employment Insurance so you can collect the small amount it offers.

At nine years after my call to the bar, I finally decided it was time to open my own practice. I thought I was done building my family so it was time for me to work on my career more seriously. The best thing about the fact that I had continued to litigate throughout the years was that I built and maintained important relationships which were so valuable in starting my firm.  

Finally, when I was about to celebrate 12 years from my call, having built a thriving law practice, I found out I was pregnant yet again with my fourth child. Since it was totally unexpected, I am still struggling to figure out how to run the practice and care for my newborn. I could not do it without my family, my amazing nanny, Claudette, my magnificent partner and co-owner, Stephanie, the lawyers and staff at Elm Law. It is a different and more challenging maternity leave for me this time around, but I feel I am doing pretty well.  

Now, as an employer, I look at maternity leave through a very different lens. I recognize how disruptive it can be for a firm, especially a small one, to manage in a lawyer’s absence. However, because of my own experience, I have strived to build a firm that supports our lawyers’ careers and their lives as human beings, because maternity leave is just one small detour on the long road of a lawyer’s career.  

If I have any advice, it would be that it’s totally ok to unplug from work to concentrate on your newborn. You are never getting that time back, so go ahead, and sink into those long unending days full of sleeplessness, sour milk vomit and dirty diapers. Just make sure to plan for your absence from the working world by asking for help. Reach out to your trusted colleagues, make arrangements for others within your firm to take your files or transfer them out. Make sure your clients are in good hands, and then… just. Let. Go. 

It’s also ok to keep working, or take a shorter maternity leave if that’s what you truly want but put supports in place so you don’t feel overwhelmed or burnt out.

Everybody’s story is different, but what is clear is that employers have to stop looking at maternity leave as an inconvenience that should be ignored and discouraged. Firms are losing valuable, smart people because of this old attitude. Billable hours are important but they aren’t everything and success should not be measured by dollar signs alone.  

It is my sincere hope that the prevailing attitude changes for the parents and the future parents working in law firms in this province, especially Toronto, in the meantime, I’ll just keep chipping away in my end of the legal world until hearts and minds change for the better. 

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