The Toronto Star is reporting today that one of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s working groups will be recommending that a “pilot project” will call for firms with over 25 lawyers to develop maternity leave and flexible work policies for associate lawyers. Good luck.
Let’s suppose for a moment that the firms actually agree to this. The Law Society wouldn’t be able to impose the project on the firms, but I can see them following it out of a desire to avoid the embarrassment of being a “non-conformist”. The problem is that this project is likely to fail.
Problem #1: These programs simply do not work. Over a decade ago a female colleague convinced our firm to allow her to work “part time” so that she could spend more time with her kids. What did “part time” mean? In the end, she was physically in the office 3 days a week, but still worked almost as many hours as if she was working full time. Why is that? Because her clients didn’t care if it was her day off – if an emergency came up or they needed advice right away they needed to speak to her. More importantly, if they couldn’t speak to her, there was a wide variety of other lawyers out there who could be called for that advice. Despite the desire of lawyers to think we’re still in a guild, it is a service profession with plenty of competitors. If my client cannot reach me today, she’ll call someone else and that person may end up eating my lunch. That was the reality 10 years ago and it’s even more the reality today in the age of Blackberries and Treos.
Problem #2: The pilot project is focusing on the plight of female lawyers. I have absolutely no quarrel with the obvious fact that female lawyers have it worse than male lawyers because in most families the majority of the child-raising responsibilities fall to women. The problem, though, is that this issue doesn’t just affect female associates. To give an interesting example, I left the big law firms to start up my firm so that I could spend more time with my family. I was in court the other day on an injunction matter and the male lawyer on the other side had done roughly the same thing – he left another big firm to go to a two-person firm. Male associates are feeling the same pressures – granted, not as acutely, but this is not just a “female lawyer” situation. Moreover, if “relief” is given to female associates, then someone has to pick up the slack and that’s going to be childless female associates and male associates. You can expect to see more male associates start to “vote with their feet”. When that happens, the large firms will decide that the pilot project should be scrapped.
Problem #3: Supply and demand. For every large law firm associate there are several associates at smaller firms wishing they could be at the large law firms getting the higher pay and higher profile files to work on. When I left, the large firm simply had others take over the work that I was doing and life went on. If associates are leaving because they cannot, or will not, work the hours required, AND if there is an easy supply of replacement lawyers, life at the big firms will simply go on.
Is life at the big firms bad? No. It’s simply one of life’s trade-offs. You get paid large amounts of money and are required to work long hours. If you are willing to make that trade-off then good for you. If you are not, then away you go to a smaller firm or a different profession. It is no different from investment bankers, stock brokers or any other professionals (accountants, engineers, etc.).
In the end, I wish the Law Society good luck in trying to implement the pilot project. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for it to succeed. It seems to me, though, that the better approach would be that of a female lawyer in the U.S. I recently read about who is giving lectures to those interested in going to law school to tell them that (a) only a few will make the really big bucks; (b) after law school the student loan debts can be crushing; and (c) work and life are not very balanced in the profession. If life as a lawyer is going to be a trade-off, at least let people know what they’re going to have to compromise before they start. If they make that choice, they cannot later complain about it because they knew what they were getting themselves into. Similarly, while not named in the article, the Catalyst Consulting report which quantified the loss per associate to the law firms at $315,000 has been around for a couple of years now. If the large law firms have done nothing to retain associates, they similarly cannot complain at associate attrition.