© 1993 Karen Selick
Go Ahead, Mak
Why Should Law Firms Subsidize Moms?
e Our Day
An edited version of this article first appeared in the July 19, 1993 issue of The Globe and Mail.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.

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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March 5, 2003