Mom, J.D.

Woman balancing scales
Illustration by Kendra Yee

What to expect when you’re aspiring to have it all

What if I told you about a new job opening? Onboarding consists of extreme physical pain, and you’ll be expected to be on-call 24/7. The boss is wildly less experienced than you. You will get pooped on and there’s no HR department. No, it’s not an unpaid internship at the hottest Bay Street firm. I’m talking about being a mom.

Jokes aside, these days would-be procreators are approaching parenthood with apprehension. In Canada, fertility rates are at a record low, with women citing financial and career constraints as reasons to postpone or forgo motherhood.1 Having a family can jeopardize our ability to maintain a busy work schedule, not to mention how the presence of little ones may affect the feasibility of long-term goals and career advancement. This is especially true for primary and birthing parents. As much as we’d love to pretend that by 2024, we may have moved past these issues, there are only so many hours in the day, and the responsibility of childcare—majestic, tedious, unrelenting—can be viewed as a liability in a work culture that’s used to expecting 100% of a lawyer’s focus 100% of the time. 


Social progress has meant more women and other marginalized groups see greater career opportunities across all industries. However, just because you have the option to “have it all,” doesn’t mean you can have it easily. In fact, data shows that there’s nothing easy about being a lawyer. The 2022 National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada showed that “50% of respondents reported experiencing psychological distress and burnout,” with this number particularly high among early-career lawyers, women, and other marginalized groups.2

Though new parents aren’t a demographic included in the study, it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine if they were. New parents are an identity that exists across racial, gender, and economic lines, and though temporary, becoming a parent can have lasting impacts on one’s relationship to their workplace and career trajectory. Writing for the Canadian Bar Association, Linda Robertson describes how “women leave the [legal] profession at double the rate of men,” in part due to concerns related to work/life balance. Robertson continues, “Women still carry a heavier load of childcare and domestic duties than their husbands [and] are less likely to have stay-at-home spouses to support them in full-time work.”3 As the legal industry reorients itself to tackle burnout and mental health issues, where do parents, especially those with young children, fit into this renegotiation of what it means to be a lawyer?


At the beginning of her career, Toronto lawyer Samantha Wolfish felt some insecurity about following an unconventional legal path. “I had expectations of working at a more traditional big firm,” she says, “but that just didn’t happen for me. I interviewed at a lot of big firms, and I think sometimes hiring committees could probably pick up that I wasn’t very interested in those types of positions.” It’s a good lesson for anyone who might be struggling to find their footing in a new career: sometimes the most important choices in our lives are the ones made on our behalf—the blessings in disguise. As an articling student, Wolfish landed an in-house counseling position at a regulatory body, and she now works as in-house counsel for Uber. 

“I had a mentor who told me once, ‘One day, all of your friends will be jealous of your job,’” Wolfish says. “I didn’t understand then, but I think it’s really true now. Ten years out of law school, I don't have a lot of friends who still have those big-firm traditional jobs. Billable targets aren’t set up for women to succeed.”


In addition to her role at Uber, Wolfish is the mother of two young children. The relative flexibility of her current position makes this balancing act possible in a way Wolfish suspects would be impossible at a more traditional private firm. “As an in-house counsel, our deadlines are different than at a firm. It’s still hard work but we’re not as tied to a certain output and my manager is there to back me up with internal clients and external stakeholders.” She adds that the kinds of work available to lawyers are broader than ever before, describing how “being an in-house lawyer is a great career path, and it’s important that law school students are more and more informed about these possibilities.”

Remote work has also opened up new strategies for working parents. While at the beginning of her career, Wolfish remembers being chided by colleagues for leaving the office “early” (at 6:30 p.m.!); these days, for better or worse, most of us know that just because you’ve left the office doesn’t mean your workday is finished. “This morning, I took my daughter for a walk,” she says, with a smile on her face. “It’s the first day of sunshine we’ve had in forever because I know I can work later after my kids go to bed. I find the hours when I can.”


Many working moms have been socialized to view their family lives as a liability in professional settings, and it’s worth applying some pressure on this assumption. “Since becoming a mom, I feel like I’m more effective at work than ever before,” Wolfish says. “As a parent, your time is less your own, which means you’re forced to work more efficiently than you might otherwise.”  

Then there’s the way parenthood so radically shifts the way we see the world. No, not just in terms of the sappy, rediscovering childhood stuff, but how the sheer chaos of spending time with small children can make us appreciate the adult world in a new way. “Sometimes going to work is the easiest part of my day,” Wolfish admits. “I get to use my brain and be around adults. I can go to the bathroom or get a snack without worrying about who’s looking after the kids. It’s made me more appreciative of my career.”


“You know there’s that saying,” says Kay Johnson, a Calgary-based lawyer, “If you want something done, ask a busy mom.” Helping new parents navigate work/life balance is an issue close to her heart, not only as the mother of a two-year-old but as the founder of Returnity YYC, a peer support organization for lawyers on parental leave. 

“When we talk about when is the best time for a lawyer to start a family, there are two schools of thought,” says Johnson. “Some say it makes more sense at the beginning of your career because, as a junior lawyer, you’re somewhat interchangeable. You can take a leave of absence and actually disengage. Conversely, it might not be a good time because, at that stage, you don’t have flexibility or control over your hours when you go back. Partners have more control over their schedules, but the added responsibility makes it harder to disconnect.” 

Conclusion? “It’s never a great time career-wise,” she says with a laugh. “You have to make the decision holistically and think about what’s best for you and your partner.”


Johnson began her career in private practice first at a firm in Calgary, Alberta, and then at a firm in London, England. After the birth of her son, she realized that the kind of work/life balance she wanted for herself would be difficult in that position. “The end of your parental leave is a natural time to re-evaluate your priorities,” Johnson says. “For me, as my maternity leave wrapped up, I knew that I wanted more family time but also have a stimulating career.”

Though most working parents can likely relate to this easier-said-than-done ambition, Johnson found that being a lawyer came with a unique set of challenges. “When lawyers return to work, they’re often overtly or covertly penalized for being a parent,” she elaborates. “It’s the covert ways that are harder to spot and more insidious. For example, the high-profile work, which tends to be more demanding, is not allocated to the new parent because there is an unconscious bias that you won’t want it, even when that is not necessarily the case.”

It was with this in mind that she started Returnity after returning to Calgary. Each cohort meets over a six-month period to connect over activities like yoga and first aid classes and discuss issues they face as new parents in the legal profession. “When we first started, I only knew two other lawyers on parental leave,” Johnson says. “Our most recent cohort had 35 lawyers, including our first male members. The message is clearly resonating, and it’s been the joy of my career to see how it’s taken off in supporting other lawyers.”


In Johnson’s experience, one of the most important ways a new parent can set themselves up for success is by going into their leave with clearly defined boundaries and expectations: “You set the tone how much involvement you want to have on files. I’ve heard someone say of their leave, ‘I want to be invited for everything but free to say no to anything.’”

Unfortunately, upon returning to the office, structural factors can strip workers of this kind of agency. Even the most well-prepared lawyer can come back to work after parental leave and find they have no control over how their absence has been perceived. Further complicating matters is that traditional firms actually are listening to calls for change. “Largely, law firms say and might even think the right things,” Johnson says. “They recognize that to have good lawyers, you need to have well- rounded people who are living their best lives and bringing their best selves to work. The problem is that this is hard to translate into substantive change when client service and billable hours reign.”

Even regulatory bodies for lawyers are slow to bring change. As an example, Johnson brings up how the Law Society of Alberta only recently changed a policy to allow lawyers to keep their “active non-practicing status” at a reduced rate. This means that lawyers who need to take a leave of absence (new parents, for example) can do so with less financial strain and a smoother transition back into the profession. It may sound like a small detail, but it’s something women have been pushing for since the 1990s. If a small piece of a structural problem takes this long to change, where does that leave lawyers today? 


From her vantage point, Johnson suggests two specific actions that could help make Canada’s legal culture more amenable to new parents. Firstly, if male lawyers began to take advantage of the parental leave policies they're entitled to, some of the stigma around this type of absence might go away. “It’s a change that can happen in a generation,” Johnson says. “Plus, taking leave means you get to hang out with your kid. Who wouldn’t want that?” Secondly, Johnson underlines the need for hiring committees to discuss parental leave policies during the hiring process. It’s crucial information, yet few prospective parents will feel bold enough to ask. 

There’s a long road ahead, and in the meantime, new parents also need to understand the pervasiveness of the issues facing them in the workplace. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Johnson emphasizes. “All your ambitions might feel roadblocked or put on hold but part of that is your life making space for new priorities. So many of the issues you’re facing as a new parent back at work are structural, it’s not you struggling as an individual.” 


People like Wolfish and Johnson make it easier to talk about the problems facing new parents working in Canada’s legal community. This is no small feat, considering the pervasiveness of a work culture that’s notoriously demanding. These are necessary discussions because, for many, the desire to start a family is as pressing and profound as the call to work meaningfully in the justice system. 

Though the highs and lows of new parenthood mark what’s commonly thought of as a singular transition, the truth is that both parents and non-parents alike experience seismic shifts in life all the time. We fall in love, battle illnesses, and grieve the loss of friends and family members, to name a few. How do these events in our personal lives seep into our work selves? Though it may be customary—and even at times feel easier—to shut off our personal lives when we go to the office or log onto our computers, it’s worth considering how these new joyful, patient, focused, and more mature versions of ourselves can enrich our professional performances rather than distract from them. 



Seismic shifts are kind of our specialty. If you’re a new parent, ask a Lawyers Financial advisor about practical and affordable solutions that can take care of your financial well-being—so you can focus on the big things, like returning to work, and the profoundly big things, like raising a family. 

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Sources: 1. Institute for Family Studies, “Why Canadian Women Aren’t Having the Children They Desire,” April 2023. 2. Université de Sherbrooke, “The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Legal Professionals in Canada,” October 2022. 3. CBA publications and resources, “What Law Firms Can Do to Stop the Exodus of Women.”