The Advisory: Volume 10, Issue 2, April 2012

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Return to Law Practices Bring Challenges and Rewards

By Derek Sankey

Faced with relatively high rates of attrition among lawyers, particularly women, in the first several years of practice, law societies across the country are looking at ways to support and retain women in the private practice of law.

The Law Society of Alberta recognizes the importance of a diverse legal profession in serving the public interest in the delivery of legal services. With this in mind, it renewed its efforts in 2010 by forming the Retention and Re-engagement Task Force. Considerable research has been undertaken by the Task Force to further study the attrition of lawyers and where difficulties in the private practice of law are being encountered by lawyers.

The Task Force will make recommendations to the Benchers including the enhancement of existing initiatives, and potential implementation of new initiatives aimed at addressing this issue.

For lawyers who are looking to strike a balance between personal demands and a legal career, understanding options is an important tool. For some, alternative career paths such as moving to in-house or government positions, or leaving the practice of law entirely, is the solution. For others, options may range from transitioning to part-time work, working from home, to taking a leave or series of leaves before and returning to fulltime practice.

When lawyers decide to take a leave, whether for parental or other reasons, returning to practice after a few months, or after a number of years, can present challenges, observes Jocelyn Frazer, Equity Ombudsperson for the Law Society.

Calgary lawyer Bonnie Anderson understood the challenges she would be facing taking maternity leave after only three years at the bar.

“I knew I wanted children and needed to consider that within a very short time of starting to practice. I also knew I wanted to take time off to spend with what may be my only child,” she says, adding she knew it was not an ideal time for any number of reasons.

She had taken several university courses over the years relating to women in the legal profession, so at least knew what to expect in terms of the challenges returning to practice after an extended leave, and attempting to manage a career and child care responsibilities. Still, it wasn’t easy.

“It was tough coming back to the legal profession after my year of maternity leave as you lose touch with clients, your network of lawyers and there is still the impression out there that you are less committed if you have to leave the office by 5:00,” she says.

When Ms. Anderson returned to the firm after her leave, she was a primary parent re-entering the legal profession at a firm which did not have experience dealing with such a scenario. With no family in Calgary, she relied upon close friends to cover when a hearing or meeting went longer than expected. “On one occasion, a hearing stopped just short of midnight,” she says.

After a couple of years, she decided to pursue her passion for municipal law at a small firm in town and then as sole practitioner out of her home. She enjoyed the freedom to set her own hours, spend time with her son and meet with clients at their residence or place of business. Now that her son is in grade school, she feels she has the capacity and interest to return to a firm setting. She recently joined the commercial real estate group at the Calgary office of Bennett Jones LLP, primarily assisting with development and land-use related matters. “A great opportunity presented itself, one where I could use my background in architecture and urban planning,” she says. It was a somewhat circuitous route, but for Ms. Anderson, it’s a perfect ending.

Jean Oliver, meanwhile, was in a totally different position. She took a maternity leave in June 2006 that ran until October 2007. As an only child with an elderly mother in Edmonton, where she lives, whose health was failing and a young son, she decided to go inactive to stay home and take care of her kids for a few years.

“It was what was best for all of us,” she says. “It was an extremely difficult decision.” She loved her job prior to leaving ( a permanent, part-time position for Alberta Justice)and she knew what she was giving up. “It was a decision I had to make for our family at the time,” she says.

By the time her son was in kindergarten, she felt the pull back into the profession. “I felt ready,” she says. She contacted some colleagues in the profession, asked around and finally found a half-time position with Cummings Andrews McKay in Edmonton. “I searched for a while to try and find that perfect fit,” she says. “Then this came along.”

After being so long out of the workforce, she just returned to this new position this past January. She was nervous about what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised.

“It’s been surprisingly smooth. The firm has been so supportive.” They have given Ms. Oliver the tools she needs to get back into the swing of things, while they have also been flexible in recognizing it takes time to get up to full strength again after so much time off. That kind of support is essential in returning to practice, but she advises other women in the profession to realize that not only is it doable, but there are always ways to make it work.

“There are alternatives and you can take a bit of time off and return,” says Ms. Oliver. “There are places for us.”

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