The Law Society of Upper Canada is set to cancel a pilot project that helps female lawyers keep their law offices afloat while they take a short maternity leave.

The program, known as the Parental Leave Assistance Program, was set up three years ago. It arose out of a recommendation in a 2008 report titled Retention of Women in Private Practice. It showed a large percentage of female lawyers were forced to shut down their law offices and even leave the profession when they had a child.

"It’s an issue for the profession," according to Breese Davies, a Toronto criminal lawyer and member of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association. "Our numbers are clear that we are losing women at about the five-year mark and they are not coming back. And so there’s a clear problem that needs to be addressed."

breese-davies-photo-by-phil

Breese Davies, a Toronto criminal lawyer and member of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, says losing female lawyers is 'an issue for the profession.' (Phil Brown)

Davies said many female lawyers are in solo or small practices where they have no benefits if they take a maternity leave, so many opt to leave their practice and take a government job or work in the Crown attorney’s office where they have benefits.

Program helps pay office expenses

The Ontario program, the first of its kind in Canada, offers lawyers in solo practices or small firms $3,000 a month for a maximum of three months. The money is not meant to supplement income but to help pay for rent, utilities and support staff while the lawyer is on parental leave.

Indira Stewart, 33, took advantage of the program last spring when she gave birth to her son, Milo. A criminal lawyer, she had established a successful practice two years ago in downtown Toronto and did not want to give it up.

"I always knew I wanted a family and it’s so much easier to do in a Crown’s office, but my heart has always been in defence work," she said.

Stewart said the parental leave program enabled her to take three months off with her baby while keeping the lights on in her office and her files open.

"It was a huge help," she said. "The reality of it is if it hadn’t been in place what I probably would have done is close up my practice."

In all, 178 lawyers have participated in the program since 2009. It costs the law society about $400,000 a year to run and administer the program. Funding comes from dues paid to the law society by its 44,000 lawyers and amounts to a little more than $9 a year per lawyer, according to Davies.

"That’s less than two lattes," she said. "Quite frankly, I think the retention of women is worth at least $400,000 in membership fees."

Audit committee recommends elimination

But the law society’s audit committee has recommended the program be scrapped. It says new provisions brought in by the federal government that allow people who are self-employed to pay into Employment Insurance and therefore collect parental leave benefits means it’s no longer needed, according to Roy Thomas, a spokesperson for the law society.

'The reality of it is, if it hadn’t been in place what I probably would have done is close up my practice.' —Indira Stewart, Toronto lawyer

But Davies says that program doesn’t work for most lawyers. She says under it, people must pay benefits for a year before they can collect and once they enrol, they are required to continue to pay in for the rest of their working lives.

"It simply doesn’t make economic sense for people who are taking very short leaves over a very short period of time," she said.

Since the Ontario parental leave program was set up, the Law Society in British Columbia has initiated a similar program that offers lawyers there $2,400 a month for four months to assist with parental leave.

Quebec is the only province that provides extensive benefits for lawyers who take parental leave.

Backward step for profession

Davies says the move to scrap the parental leave program is a backward step for the legal profession. She says while more women are graduating from law school than in the past, the trend that sees many of them drop out after five or 10 years means few women will ever reach the stage of becoming judges.

She said the law society introduced the program with "a lot of fanfare" about its commitment to women.

"To cut it three years later I think is simply a statement that they are not interested in the retention of women in practice and particularly not interested in the retention of women in areas of practice where they need assistance to continue their careers," Davies says.

Indira Stewart says she hopes to have a second child in a couple of years and is depending on the program to help her again.

"I won’t not have a second child, but I may not come back to criminal law," she said. "I think programs like this are essential. I think to ask women or anyone to take on a heavy debt to be able to have a child is an unfair burden that you’re paying back throughout your career."

The benchers of the law society, who set policy for the organization, are set to debate and vote on the future of the plan at a meeting in Toronto on Thursday.