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Timing is everything

There is much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands about women leaving the law profession in droves. But there are still lots who continue in private practice and follow the path to partnership and other successes. There is one thing that most young female lawyers think about — and it is integral in many cases as to whether they will stay or exit the profession: when is the best time to have a baby?Sometimes these things just happen, but as with many steps along the way in one’s legal career, it can (and probably should) be planned.

A recent panel of women partners on Bay Street, sponsored by Young Women in Law and the Ontario Bar Association, offered a very candid discussion of “Women on the road to partnership.” While most of their advice and experiences would translate to any lawyer on the partnership path, the discussion about children and family seemed to really strike a chord.

The panellists all seemed to agree the best time to take maternity leave was during your years as a senior associate. So if you’re making plans, year five of practice seems to be the sweet spot. Here’s why:

As a young associate, you are doing work for senior associates and partners and don’t have much control over what you are responsible for. This also means you can’t really delegate. And it’s at this time in your career when you are building relationships, finding your way in your legal career, and trying to make a name for yourself (i.e., impress senior members of the firm). It’s long hours and pedal to the metal time.

As a partner, responsibilities change and are more complicated. While you may not be able to delegate work when you are a junior associate, when you are partner you can but other responsibilities of partnership make it much more difficult to duck out of practice for any length of time.

At the senior associate level, you’ve graduated to being able to download some of your work but are still not in the position of responsibility that you’ll find yourself in as a partner. Thus, sweet spot!

All the panellists said they’d had children both as associates and partners and found it difficult to take off more than a few months for parental leave once they were partners.

There was one other piece of advice they shared, in the context of keeping your eye on the partner prize: when you are ramping down for your planned maternity leave, keep your foot on the gas. While you may not be getting new files, offer your services in other ways such as helping to write papers or do some quick and fast assignments.

So if nothing else when planning your career, I think some great tidbits to ruminate over regarding one of life’s bigger decisions.

  • Re: Timing is everything

    Anna
    Thanks Gail -- It would be great to hear what the profession is doing/can do to offer women lawyers career flexibility and options as they consider having children. True, you put the 'pedal to the metal' in your career but, for things to really change, the profession needs to take serious steps to see how women can benefit from legal careers (and the profession from their experiences and point of view) while not unduly limiting them. Law societies have a crucial role here as well. One option could be to formalize other legal avenues for young lawyers (female/male alike) other than the traditional law firm structure: non-profits, inhouse, and teaching are some options. That said, law firm cultures need to change. Working from home or part-time work arrangements can be viable options as well. It's 2012, let's support women lawyers and get the numbers up.
  • RE: Timing is everything

    Jonathan Westphal
    So a four year undergrad plus three years of law school plus a year of articling plus five years of practice... means having your first child at 31 at the earliest, and that is assuming going to university straight out of high school with no time off in between degrees. Depending on how big a family one intends to have, this could present problems for a lot of women.

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