Lawyers who are about to welcome a new child into their lives should all be concerned about parental leave, but I am writing this for the Women’s Law Forum because the burden of child care disproportionately falls on women in our society. This is because of the ingrained expectation that women perform these childcare duties, no matter what their profession or the profession of their spouse.
I have given birth to four babies over the last ten years. I wish I could say that the legal profession has changed over those years to become more inclusive, more flexible and more welcoming to lawyers who want to have children and a career, but I cannot.
On the bright side, I’ve noticed a steady increase in the number of lawyers willing to speak out about the inequities lawyers face when they want to take parental leave. This is heartening and a good step forward. I am happy that many of my colleagues are willing to speak out about the blatant unfairness they face.
There are so many women who have managed to stay at Bay Street firms and are making positive change for the women (and men) that will come after them, but that is not my story. I left Bay Street, like so many others, and opened my own practice so that I could control my destiny when it came to family planning and career progression. When I took my parental leaves as an independent contractor associate or as the co-owner of my current firm, I had already built a support network of professionals around me that helped take care of my clients in my absence. It was imperative for me, in forging my career path, to ensure that I had built-in supports to allow for future parental leaves. Now, I make it my mission to ensure the lawyers at my firm have those same supports.
Our profession traditionally views parental leave as a career limiting move. The reality is that you can’t change the views of the partners at your firm but you can maintain your sense of self worth through the process. If you’re pregnant, I always recommend waiting to tell the managing partners until at least three or four months into the pregnancy if you can help it. If you tell them too early, you run the higher risk of telling them about a miscarriage, or having them dismiss your needs because your departure is too far away.
When you tell the managing partner about your need for parental leave, make sure to discuss the plan for your departure and your return to work. If you work at a smaller firm, and they do not have a parental leave policy, schedule a follow-up meeting and come armed with some suggestions as to how it will work so that everyone at the firm can be on the same page as to where your files will go during your absence and how they plan to ensure that you will have work upon your return.
If this is your first child, start negotiations with a one-year parental leave in mind. You may love your work but you do not know how you will feel once you are consumed with all things baby. Postpartum depression is a real possibility. Your body and soul will go through many changes you cannot anticipate. If being at home is driving you crazy, you can always negotiate an earlier return to work but it will be much harder to negotiate more time off. It might also cause the firm to doubt your return at all.
Ask the partners and staff to notify you if the firm undertakes any significant marketing efforts during your leave. This includes new photos, videos or website overhauls so that you will be given an option to be included in those efforts if you choose.
If you are planning to continue to breastfeed your baby after you return to the office, do yourself a favor and buy a double electric breast pump. Then make sure that people know not to disturb you when you are pumping.
Finally, continue to believe in your worth as a professional. Do not belittle your efforts with colleagues or take smaller roles on files because you think you don’t deserve more after taking a leave, in addition, make sure to recognize and stop others if they attempt to do so. Taking the long view, a parental leave of a year or more should not cause significant disruption to a career that will span two or three decades. With the right support system and plan in place, the transition can be relatively seamless.
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