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Balancing act: Parenting in the practice of law

The practice of law can be rewarding, but it comes at a personal cost to many professionals.

July Ward MLT Aikins

The practice of law can be rewarding, but it comes at a personal cost to many professionals. The billable-hour model, expectations that lawyers be on call at all hours, and the industry's highly competitive nature can make for a relatively inflexible, unforgiving and challenging work-life balance, particularly for parents. What can new and expecting parents do to maintain the difficult and delicate balance between work and home? 

A good place to start is knowing your rights. The Supreme Court of Canada found in Brooks v Canada Safeway that discrimination because a woman is, or may become, pregnant is discrimination on the ground of sex and is illegal. Each province has its own legislative approach, but basic rights for parents are similar across Canada. In Alberta, the Law Society provides an excellent guide on pregnancy and parental leave, which confirms that law firms are subject to the Alberta Human Rights Act (AHRA), the Employment Standards Code, and the Law Society's Code of Conduct (CoC). This includes associates, salaried lawyers, in-house counsel, articling students, and, potentially, equity partners – depending on the particular arrangement and degree of control (McCormick v. Fasken Martineau DuMoulin). 

The AHRA and CoC impose on a firm a duty to accommodate. Accommodation may include changing a pregnant employee's job duties, providing a flexible work schedule, the option to work from home, a quiet space and scheduled breaks for breastfeeding, and other reasonable changes recommended by a doctor. There are several codified rights and obligations for lawyers and law firms. Understanding these responsibilities from the outset will better ensure a bedrock of understanding between the parties. 

Help and support for parents can come from many places, and resources are increasingly available.       

First, understand, learn and make use of firm technology and resources. Existing resources can help you maximize your time so you can get home at a reasonable hour. Take the time to understand the resources that are available to you and use them. A few hours of training is an investment that will save you time in the long run. Artificial intelligence is increasingly prevalent in the practice of law and can help. Improving your work-life balance may involve being aware of and incorporating new technologies into practice. 

Second, prepare for the unexpected by scheduling ahead, prioritizing, and reassessing your expectations. Organize your schedule well in advance and stick to it. You may want to leave space in your schedule for the unexpected, which leads me to the next point…you and your kid will get sick. If you can manage your capacity and deadlines by knowing you may occasionally miss a day, you'll be less likely to get caught between an emergency at home and another one at work. Evaluate what amount of non-billable work will provide you the most value as a lawyer (including business development, professional development, and mentorship) and understand that you may not be able to take on as much of the non-billable work that you previously could. 

As for billable work, prioritize time-sensitive tasks but do not forget the big items and future deadlines. New parents should remember that their capacity will be different from before they had children. You may consider lowering personal expectations of yourself – no one can do it all. 

Third, communication is vital to effective practice, so be sure to set boundaries, ask for help, and learn to say no. Make your limitations and boundaries clear as soon as possible. If that means telling your team that you must leave at 5 pm every day to pick up your child from daycare, then do it. Most importantly, be honest with your team about what you will be able to accomplish, given your responsibilities to your family. Ask for help when you need it. It's better to seek help and ensure that tasks are completed smoothly and effectively. Biting off more than you can chew happens, but it is not a great look. Sometimes doing it yourself means compromising not only the quality of your work, but also your mental health. Find people you can trust at work and let them know when you need help. Saying no does not mean passing on things you are interested in or experience that will benefit you in your practice. Instead, saying no can help you set realistic boundaries and protect your time so that you are in the best position to do amazing work. That will also help you stay in control of your time and avoid unmet expectations. 

Fourth, rely on your support system, including your family, friends, and co-workers who are also parents. They are invaluable. If you have family nearby, don't hesitate to ask for help or let them be involved. If you are not so lucky as to have family nearby, allow close friends to assist you and remember to make time to call family and keep social bonds strong. 

Also, many of your colleagues are parents, and they can provide a wealth of support and mentorship. Other parents can be one of the best sources of support and help provide peace of mind because they have been through it before. 

Lastly, make time for yourself when and where you can by taking care and keeping active. In other words, do your best to maintain your health and well-being. Set a bedtime routine for yourself and make it a habit. If possible, walk, ride your bicycle to work, and don't forget about nutrition! Block time off in your calendar for your favourite hobby or gym sessions. If you are blocking off time for yourself, treat that time like an appointment so that you are not tempted to dismiss it or treat "you" time as unimportant. 

Finally, remember that a career in law and life as a parent can and should coexist. You have rights as a parent and there are steps you can take to make both your professional and personal life more manageable. The paramount of family and the reward of career progression are priorities that can be synchronized to maximize your quality of life and minimize personal cost.