Why Should Law Firms Subsidize Moms?
This summer, Ontario's lawyers will have the opportunity to comment
on proposed changes in the rules of professional conduct that could have
a dramatic effect on how law firms run their businesses.
The proposals would make it professional misconduct for law firms to use
a target number of "billable hours" as a criterion in the hiring or promotion
of junior lawyers, if this would impede the careers of women who have child-care
responsibilities. Law firms could also be found guilty of misconduct
for failing to provide "appropriate parental leave" or flexible work hours
"to accommodate family responsibilities."
As a woman lawyer and partner in a law firm, I will oppose these changes.
Although my firm does not set billable hour targets, and it does allow flexible
work hours, I see no reason why other firms should be prevented from adopting
whatever policies they feel will best achieve their particular goals.
It is revealing to note that this desire to let lawyers "have a life" (in
the words of one proponent of the changes) arises only in the context of
child-rearing. No slack will have to be given to a childless lawyer
who wishes to curtail his or her office hours and spending the extra time
pursuing a hobby of ballroom dancing, marathon running or novel writing.
Why the difference? The underlying premise seems to be that women who decide
to raise children are somehow doing it not for their own satisfaction, but
for the benefit of the world at large. When I have written articles
on this subject in the past, letters to the editor have poured in arguing
that mothers deserve subsidization or other special treatment because they
are raising the children who will someday be our doctors, nurses, secretaries,
bakers, tailors and even undertakers.
However, when the time comes for us to employ the services of today's children,
they are not going to work for free. We are going to have to pay them
for their labour. Built into the price of their services will be an
element that will constitute a return of the capital they and their parents
have invested in making them into marketable workers. Their future
customers should not be obliged to pay for this once (speculatively) in advance
and again (inescapably) at the time of purchase.
Most people recognize that there are benefits to be gained from living in
society, rather than on a desert island or as a hermit. We obtain economies
of scale and specialization of labor, as well as the emotional rewards of
interacting with other human beings. But each of us who participates
in society pays for those benefits in kind. Certainly, the existence
of a future generation of doctors and bakers will be an advantage to me;
but my existence will be a reciprocal advantage to them. They need
customers. They need advice. They need examples.
And if there is something especially beneficial to society about the existence
of young children--perhaps because of their innocence, or the cute things
they say--then each of us has already paid for this benefit in kind, by having
once been cute, innocent children ourselves.
There is something horrifying in the notion that women who bear children
are doing it for the sake of society. It makes me think of Winston
Smith, protagonist of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose wife refers to
the couple's awkward attempt at procreation and as "Our duty to the party.
The implications are far-reaching. If I disapprove of how my
future doctor and baker are being raised, do I have the right to intervene
to protect my investment? If I think my neighbor is doing a bad job
raising her firstborn, do I have a right to prevent her from giving birth
to a second child? If she is supposedly doing it for me, is not logical that
I should have a veto?
We can escape these nightmarish consequences only by recognizing that women
who choose to raise children do so not for society's sake, but for their
own--and, one hopes, their husbands'--sakes. As with every other option
in life, they will have to weigh the costs and benefits of their decision.
If the emotional rewards of motherhood will not be sufficient compensation
for the loss of income and prestige, they should not choose it.
Above all, however, they should not choose the benefits of motherhood and
then demand that their legal colleagues--many of whom have decided to forgo
those benefits--compensate them for their losses.
Those who are promoting changes to the Law Society's rules argue that law
firms would profit from having people with outside interests in their midst.
Maybe they are right, maybe not; only the trial-and-error process of the
marketplace will tell. One thing is certain, however: if there are
ways for law firms to improve their profits, they will seek them out voluntarily.
There is no need to force them.
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