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Preparing for maternity or parental leave may be a cause of stress and anxiety for both lawyers and law firms.
There can be any number of reasons why a lawyer may take a break or a leave from practice. Some firms have a sabbatical program, many have maternity or parental leave policies, other lawyers perhaps just want to spend six months each year in a warmer climate. For lawyers considering any of these options, there are both practical and regulatory factors that need to be addressed.
Prior planning is essential to ensuring a smooth transition in stepping away from practice and then in ramping back up upon the return. Lawyers may have some anxiety about their workload before and after the leave period, and the maintenance of their client-base. Clearly outlined procedures for both the firm and the leave-taking lawyer will help minimize miscommunication, promote a clear understanding of expectations from both sides, and ensure the ongoing professional obligations of the lawyer and the firm are met during the leave period.
Ideally, the firm will have a clear policy in place in terms of who is eligible and when, the leave period, procedures for client and file management, compensation issues, for example.
While the notion of a year-long sailing trip around the world may be incredibly appealing, the most common reason currently for lawyers to take a leave from practice continues to relate to parenting issues. The following are some considerations that deal with planning a parental leave, staying connected during the leave, and transitioning back into practice, but will obviously have much broader application.
Both the firm and the lawyer should plan for the leave period. Depending on the firm, measures may have to be taken to accommodate the lawyer’s absence. In large firms there may be a redistribution of files among the firm’s existing lawyers. In smaller firms, consideration may be given to hiring a part-time or term contract lawyer during the leave period.
Parental Leave Checklist:
- Determine when your leave will begin, keeping in mind that you may need to leave suddenly, and earlier than expected. Consider also, how much involvement and contact with your firm you wish to maintain during your absence.
- Call your major clients well in advance and advise them of their options regarding the transfer of their files.
- Advise your clients and the lawyers on the other side of your files when you will be away and who they should contact in your absence.
- Make sure files are well organized and filed where they are supposed to be. Get your filing caught up. Make sure crucial details are documented. Finalize as many as possible.
- Begin preparing transfer memos on all ongoing files at least a month before your intended leave so they can be transferred on short notice if required.
- Consider any on-going, non-billable responsibilities that you have such as committees, or volunteer activities and decide what involvement you will maintain during your leave.
- Plan and arrange for childcare as soon as possible. The process of finding a nanny or other caregiver can be long and you will want to consider your decisions carefully. The waiting lists for some daycare arrangements can be several months long and you may want to put your name on the list early.
- Notify the Law Society of Alberta if you intend to change your status.
- Consider your membership options:
- You can remain active and insured, (and would have to do so if you intended to remain as the Responsible Lawyer on your trust account during your leave).This is probably the most flexible option, but not always practical.
- You can remain active but undertake not to practice. You would continue to pay your Law Society membership fees, but there is no requirement to pay the insurance levy. However, you will not be entitled to a refund of the levy already paid. Some lawyers perceive that there is a loss of “status” when one goes inactive, or some other negative connotation associated with an interruption in one’s practising status over time. This option will not reflect any interruption in your practising status on your membership record.
- You can elect to transfer to inactive status. You may be eligible to receive a pro-rated refund of your active membership fee. Contact Membership Services for more information.
- Regardless of the length of your leave, when you have inactive or active but not practising status and wish to return to active practicing status, you must apply for reinstatement. Information on that process is also available on the Law Society website.
- Be mindful of the 12/48 Rule! If it is your intention to return to active practice after more than a three year absence, any reinstatement application must be referred to the Credentials and Education Committee for review.
- For lawyers responsible for your own trust accounts, consider what involvement you wish to maintain over your firm accounting and whether it would be appropriate to make arrangements with another lawyer to sign on your trust account, or to become an alternative responsible lawyer during your leave. Law Society approval for these changes will be required. Contact the Trust Safety department for more information.
As the end of your scheduled leave approaches, try to gradually prepare yourself and your family for your return to work. If possible, you may want to begin your child-care arrangements a few weeks before your return to give you prepare to return to work, even if just part-time, to give yourself and your child an opportunity to adjust to the new routine. You may want to reconnect with some colleagues, remind them of your pending return to help keep you in mind for upcoming work and to remind yourself what you liked about your work. Figure out the best way for you to keep in touch and maintain your schedule, such as using a smart phone, or using remote access technology to connect with the office network system.
Even with good planning, fear of the unknown can lead to stress and anxiety. It can call for a bit of a leap of faith to leave your practice and your clients, as well as to return and face a potentially new dynamic. Finding the right balance is not always an easy task either from the point of view of the individual lawyer, or that of the firm, and flexibility is important.