Searching for greener pastures

Putting your career first, working your head off, and not having much of a life are not typical goals among us young and upcoming associates. Associates nowadays demand more from the firms where we work. We want it all: a well-paying job, interesting work, reasonable hours; but most of all, we want a life. And if we don’t get it, we are prepared to leave our jobs in search of greener pastures.


The struggle
This work-life balancing act, however, has been disproportionately more challenging for women associates than for men. It is no secret that despite the fact women are entering the legal profession and private practice in record numbers, women continue to leave the practice in droves. This has been most recently recognized in a report, released in February of this year, by the Law Society of Upper Canada’s working group on the retention of women in private practice. Too bad the group that is the focus of this report may not even have time to read this lengthy yet important 156-page document (available online at

I recognized at an early stage in my career that the demands of the Bay Street firm were not conducive to what my hopes for a family life would be. I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to meet the expectations of a big firm, commute from outside of Toronto, and still have time for family, not to mention for myself.

While pregnant, I searched for a job closer to home in a smaller firm in a smaller city centre. I told them I was pregnant at the interview and still ended up getting the job. Two babies later, I’m still there and trying to balance it all. Am I more successful at doing the balancing act at a smaller firm than I would have been at a larger firm? Most days.

There will always be days when you feel you are a failure at being a mother, a daughter, a wife, and, yes, even at being a lawyer. Compromise is my middle name. It is a tough road sometimes, but for the most part I feel like I have it pretty good.

The pay cut
Moving to a small firm definitely came with a significant pay cut compared to the big-firm, golden-handcuff salary. The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine recently published an adaptation of Susan Pinker’s book, The Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and the Real Gender Gap, published by Random House Canada this year. Pinker talks about how women lawyers are more likely than men to migrate to less-well-paid work that is more closely aligned with their values. While they don’t draw as big a salary as they once did, and could still earn, they can have a rich and complex life.

The move to the small firm also did not come with the perks that some bigger firms may have, like a top-up in salary when on maternity leave. It would have been feasible for me to take 12 months of maternity leave at the big firm. There were many associates who were there to cover on files. In a small firm, it is different — you don’t necessarily have the luxury of having other lawyers there to take over your files while you are away. You also can’t always afford financially to stay away from work for the full 12 months. The Employment Insurance benefits that you receive while away from work are no better than a pat on the back. It’s like the government is saying, “Congratulations, you just had a baby — good luck with that.”

It’s not just a women’s issue
Demanding more of a life is something that men are now more vocal about as well — to the dismay of the old grey-haired dinosaurs who remain fixtures at some firms. Asking for time off to do other things besides work is often a foreign concept to those who have spent most of their lives devoted to work. If they did have families, it is most often the case that they had stay-at-home wives who tended to the family demands. Not so for the 21st-century male who now takes on a greater role on the home front. We are also seeing men taking parental leave and entering into more flexible work arrangements, in order to achieve work-life balance.

Size does matter
According to the law society’s report, lawyers’ satisfaction with their ability to manage work and maintain their family responsibilities varies according to the size of their firms, with women being the least satisfied in the larger firms. Apparently size does matter, but satisfaction cannot only be measured by the number of lawyers in a firm. You have to look at the whole package. In order to have job satisfaction, you need to feel valued, have interesting work, and have mentors who care about your career development and who also recognize that there is more to life than work. This is not necessarily unique to the small firm, but based on my experience, work-life balance in a small firm is more of a reality than a myth. 

Alexandra V. Mayeski is an associate at Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP in  Hamilton, Ont. Her e-mail is


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