When Peter Engelmann took two months off work to spend time with his young son in 1994, he says he was something of an anomaly.
“It was fairly unique back then,” says Engelmann, a father of two and partner with Goldblatt Partners LLP in Ottawa. “I got some pushback initially. But they came around.”
Now Engelmann’s firm, which specializes in union-side labour law among other practice areas, offers topped-up parental leave options to their male and female associates – a policy Engelmann describes as “practising what we preach.”
“I know there is an up-front cost, but I see this as short-term pain long-term gain. You attract better people and retain them,” he says. “With a progressive maternity and parental leave and even some part-time options, we have attracted good female and male candidates who are interested in more than just work.”
Engelmann says that the majority of partners at Goldblatt Partners LLP are now female, unique for a firm of its size.
“Some of our prospective partners have deferred their partnership for a year to take full advantage of this parental leave program we have for our associates,” he adds.
Jean-Michel Corbeil, a labour lawyer with the firm, has just started his second parental leave and plans to return to work in May.
“The firm’s policies on parental leave make it such that it would be silly not to take time off,” says Corbeil, whose wife is a physician and has returned to work.
“I have been very much encouraged to take the time,” he says. “As a union law firm, we fight for these benefits for the members of our clients.”
While the lawyers interviewed by CBA PracticeLink reported positive experiences with parental leave, research on diversity in the profession suggests they may be some of the lucky few. In just one example, a 2018 report prepared for the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, titled “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial and Gender Bias in the Legal Profession,” names the “maternal wall” as a bias that disproportionately affects women. But the stigma against taking advantage of the firm’s flexibility policies hits everyone nearly equally. The report states that 47 per cent of men of colour, 50 per cent of women of colour, 57 per cent of white women and 42 per cent of white men say taking family leave would have a negative impact on their career.
Ryley Mennie, who now works as a labour and employment lawyer with Miller Titerle + Company, was breaking new ground when he took time off to be with his infant son. Still, he says he didn’t get any push-back from the law firm where he was employed at the time.
“I’m the first person I’m aware of at a large national corporate law firm that had taken a full topped-up paternity leave of four months,” says Mennie, who is based in Vancouver. “There had been a number of my male colleagues who had taken a month or two weeks, but no one I knew had taken longer than that. So it was not something that the organization had been used to dealing with.”
In the two years since his son was born, Mennie has noticed a trend.
“There are other guys who have been taking longer paternity leaves as well. I know at least three of my colleagues at large national firms who have taken at least three months off. I think it’s a product of changing attitudes with this generation. And that it’s important to continue to advance those objectives and have parents take on equal responsibility.”
Nickolas Tzoulas was also working at a large national firm when he took nine months of parental leave when his daughter was born in 2016.
“I was the first man to ask for that amount of time off,” says Tzoulas, who now works as legal counsel with Bentham IMF based in Toronto. “But the law firm was supportive and I really appreciated it. They were able to top up the government benefits too, which was helpful.”
Jonathan M. Richardson, a litigation partner with Augustine Bater Binks LLP in Ottawa, took one month off when his eldest daughter was born and three weeks with his younger daughter.
“I’m a partner in my firm so I didn’t give them much of a choice. But there were no objections at all. We are a firm that supports work-life balance. Everyone was completely supportive of it the entire time,” says Richardson, whose wife is also a physician.
Richardson adds that his clients are supportive too – even when they have to cancel meetings if he’s home with a sick child.
“I have never had a client complain. That’s one advantage of doing family law, your clients appreciate what you’re going through on that,” he says.
Richardson says he recommends that other fathers consider taking parental leave.
“Take it. Don’t think twice,” he says. “With the first one you are new shell-shocked parents. The idea of having to do work during that time when you’re so flustered and delusional from lack of sleep is crazy.”
Tzoulas adopted his daughter from birth with his husband who is self-employed. He says that spending nine months at home with her was “very, very fulfilling.”
“Not everybody is able to financially and not everybody wants to take parental leave,” he says.
“You have to do what is right for you, your partner if you have one and your kid. If you can and want to, it’s worth having the conversation with your employer. It went well for me.”
Corbeil says that he “thoroughly enjoyed” his first parental leave and is excited for his second.
“I think it’s important to spend time with your children when you can,” he says.
But, he adds, there are some practical considerations to keep in mind.
“You miss time at the office so you’re not getting face-to-face time with your clients. You’re not building your practice. You’re not out there promoting yourself. You’re not billing,” Corbeil says.
Engelmann recommends that lawyers taking parental leave make proper preparations ahead of time.
“Meet with your mentors. Make sure that files that need to be handled while you are away are prepared. Plan well. Be organized. Block the time off. If you’re going to do it, do it and don’t come back half-way through,” he says.
Richardson agrees, saying that lawyers should plan their leave months in advance.
“Prepare appropriately. Plan your court dates appropriately. Know which lawyer will be taking over your files. Meet with them weeks in advance to properly transition your files so that everything can flow seamlessly,” he says.