On being a Law Mom (or, why law and maternity leave don’t mix)

First, an obligatory disclaimer. I am not identifying my employer in this post, but the internet being what it is, I fully recognize that with very little effort, you could figure it out. I ask, gentle-and-likely-wholly-imaginary reader, that you don’t. With very few exceptions, the problems that I am outlining are not specific to my firm, but form part of the landscape at many or most small to medium firms. My experience is not unique; my firm is not either.

And now the blunt: I am just back from maternity leave. And it sucks.

I’m a fifth year litigation associate at a mid-size local firm. Not a big national, but also not the kind of place anyone would describe as a “boutique”. I have two kids, aged 4 and 1, with each of whom I spent a full year of maternity leave, recognizing that I would never get another opportunity to be there for them completely in that way, and that spending an extended bonding period with a parent is a good foundation for any child.

After my first maternity leave, I returned to the office to find that a lateral hire was occupying my old office, and that my new office was not even in the litigation department. Instead, I was seated between corporate and real estate. My next door neighbour? An office that housed only a computer somehow related to SEDAR filings. I spent the first six weeks drinking litres of tea daily, just so that I had an excuse to walk through litigation on my way to and from the kitchen, reminding everyone that I was there. I didn’t have enough work to do. It was scary.

After the first six weeks, an associate two years senior to me moved away. Barely had the email announcing her impending departure been sent before I laid claim to her office, in litigation. I also inherited a lot of her files, and thus started to be busy again, albeit busy in an area of the law that was not exactly my first love. Another associate had, naturally, filled the little niche that I had created for myself prior to my departure, so I had to try and carve out a new one. Over time, I was able to once again work with some (but not all) of the partners whose work I had enjoyed doing before my first-born had interrupted things.

Then I had another baby. On purpose, for the record. And yeah, I’m sure there are people out there who are already thinking that any career issues I’m having are my own fault for not making my job my number one priority. I’ll ask another favour, gentle-and-likely-wholly-imaginary reader: reserve your judgment for the end.

This time around, I was a bit more senior. I had files of my own, which I duly transferred to my colleagues, parceling them out to the most appropriate level, with an eye to matching my clients’ personalities to my co-workers’ style of practice. And I went on leave.

I will note at this point that, although lots of women disappear when on leave, that’s not really my style. I instead joke about being difficult to get rid of. I checked my work email regularly, showed up at office social events, and occasionally dropped by, baby in tow, just to say hello. After all, I like the people I work with.

But as my return to work date approached, I started to feel apprehensive. This time, the whole office had moved, although there was an office in litigation reserved for me – it even had a nameplate on the door.

As I headed in on my first day back, I hoped, even while realizing it was likely in vain, that there might be something, some small project, sitting on my chair waiting for my arrival. A reporting letter. A research memo. Something to show that someone knew I was coming and thought of me.

Alas, my desk and chair were empty. And were also not mine – it seems someone else had claimed my office furniture during the move. The only way to describe my office is as a jumble of reject furniture. My chair had no arms. My keyboard skipped strokes. My desk was the wrong-hand-side for the office it was set up in.

But more crucially, there was no work. And as I went back to my previous tried-and-tested method of walking around making sure I was seen, a lot of the partners seemed slightly surprised – if pleasantly so – to see me.

But there was still no work. And on the occasions when there was work, it was frankly a bit junior for me. Because here’s the thing: I’m a fifth year associate. I shouldn’t be dealing with small claims files. Or writing reporting letters, in which you basically just summarize the contents of reams of documents. Not because I’m too good for them, but because it’s not economically reasonable to have someone do that kind of work at my hourly rate.

Unlike the first time around, I’m not junior enough anymore to just go with the flow and do whatever work comes in the door. To this point, I’ve been a generalist, largely out of necessity. But if I want to make partner, I need to start specializing. There are a couple of areas where I have experience and would like to focus on, but I now need to break back into them again, ingratiate myself with the right partners, displace the other highly competent people who are now doing the work that I used to do, because in a shop like mine, most of the good work, the meaty, brief-heavy, written-advocacy work that I really like and, not to toot my own horn, am quite good at, is generated by the partners.

I have also been surprised by the attitude of some of my mid-level colleagues, who have resisted returning my files to me, even if no or very little progress has been made in the matter. When I handed files off, I did so with a basic letter to the client: As you know, I will be commencing my maternity leave in the next few weeks. I have asked X to assume carriage of your file while i am out of the office. Of course you will not be billed for any time that he/she spends getting up to speed etc etc.

In order to transfer the file back to me, which seems just as straight-forward, it is apparently necessary to set up a joint call with the client to make sure that they understand what is happening and that they won’t be billed for transfer time, or that because an opinion (echoing the same one that I gave a year ago) has just been provided, X really thinks that he/she should stay on the file. I am feeling a little betrayed by these machinations, and I’m not sure that’s totally unreasonable.

I could afford to take some time and slowly build back if it were not for the ever-loving billable hour. In case you don’t know, most lawyers charge clients on the basis of the amount of time, counted in six-minute increments, they spend working on that client’s file. Associates are expected to bill a given number of hours annually. No work means no billing, and no billing means bad things at review time. It also means that time spent sitting at your desk twiddling your thumbs while you wait for work to come back doesn’t count for anything at all – you might as well have stayed in bed. Or, say, played with your kids.

So here I am, a month into my triumphant return. My billables are horrific. My files are being hoarded. What little work finds its way to me is not the kind of stuff I want to do. I know that I’m going to get lectured about my poor billing at the end of the year by the associates committee, but I’m not in a position to fix the problem.

On top of all that, I’m underpaid. My firm, and I don’t know if this is universal, takes the position that while you’re on maternity leave, you’re not entitled to any raises. So after two leaves, I’m being billed out as a fifth year associate, but my salary is on par with the third years. If I were to leave and go to another firm, any other firm, I would immediately see a raise in the order of ten thousand or more, as no new employer would, effectively, hold my leaves against me for the rest of my career. I am taking a significant pay cut merely for the privilege of remaining at my present place of employment.

No wonder women with kids, or even women thinking about having kids, are exiting the profession in droves! I started my career as a high-flier. I clerked with an appellate court, and worked almost immediately with senior partners on big files. After my first leave, some of those partners never asked me to do anything again. I don’t think anyone had bad motives, but as a woman with a child who might have more, I think there’s a subconscious risk calculation. What if I’m not there when the matter is ready for trial? Now, after two leaves, I feel like damaged goods. And I know I’m not the only one.

Enough with the doom and gloom. I like to think of myself as a problem-solver, rather than merely a whiner. And I think that most of the problems I have identified are things that firms can fix without too much trouble. But in order to fix them, in order to stop mid-level female associates from fleeing to the hills (or fleeing to the in-house jobs), the Powers That Be need to actively assist women in transitioning into and out of maternity leave. The career interruptions that come with kids create structural inequalities that cannot be fixed by vaguely benevolent neglect.

Before a female associate returns to work, there should be a plan in place for getting her back to capacity. That could be as simple as sending around an email soliciting some work to be ready for her on her return. Make her feel like she hasn’t been forgotten, and like she has something to contribute. I know it’s small, but showing up to a gutted office with equipment that didn’t work and no work to do made me feel distinctly unwanted.

A more formal mentorship structure, which exists at large firms, would be of great assistance to women trying to get their groove back. I know what kind of work I want to do, but supporting me in getting that work and attracting clients in those areas isn’t anyone’s “problem”. If I had a mentor, I could go to that person to talk about how to build a practice of my own, to tag along on marketing ventures, and start doing the junior work for the big clients that we would plan for me to someday take over.

Compensation-wise, each firm has its own approach, but setting up a system in which your female associates with kids would be better off financially in literally any other job on the market makes no sense. At all.

Over the past few weeks, as I have explained to friends and family how my return to work is going, I keep making excuses for my employer. There’s no malice here, they’re just… thoughtless. And that’s the crux of it – it’s not rocket science. Re-integrating women after maternity leaves requires thought, and small to medium firms just don’t manage it well because it’s not a priority. If we want to stop the bleed from the law, however, we need to make it one.