© 2008  Karen Selick

An edited version of this article first appeared in the June 2, 2008 issue of the National Post.
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Law Society Subsidizes Motherhood in Perfect Example of Creeping Socialism

Every politician knows you don’t vote against motherhood if you want to be re-elected.  Now, apparently, even the folks who regulate Ontario’s lawyers—the so-called “benchers” of the Law Society of Upper Canada—have adopted this strategy.  Not a single one dared vote against a recent proposal to subsidize motherhood among Ontario lawyers.

The program they adopted will allow lawyers who are sole practitioners or partners in very small firms (up to five lawyers) to receive grants of $3,000 per month for three months, gratis, when they take parental leave.  Although worded gender-neutrally, the program was one of nine recommendations in a larger package aimed at retaining women lawyers in private practice. Clearly, everyone expects women, not men, to be the main beneficiaries of this wealth redistribution scheme. 

Currently, the program is projected to cost each lawyer in Ontario between $5 and $15 per year in additional fees payable to the Law Society.  Hardly worth complaining about, right?  But that sort of thinking is exactly how programs like this get started, entrenched, and expanded.

Indeed, when the Law Society sent consultants across Ontario to run this proposal up the flagpole, the feedback they received included suggestions such as: 

  • $3,000 per month is kind of low—we’d prefer $5,000
  • three months is kind of short
  • lawyers in firms of six or more might want to participate too
  • the program should be expanded to subsidize lawyers caring for aging parents

Nobody should be surprised if after the three-year pilot program is completed, it is proclaimed a huge success, making expansion seem like the next logical step.  After all, one of the arguments relied upon by the committee pushing for this program was that Quebec had implemented a similar scheme in 2005, and 53 lawyers had applied for subsidies. I guess we were supposed to infer that this represents a desirable outcome.

What the committee didn’t disclose is whether there was any reduction in the number of women lawyers quitting private practice in Quebec compared with previous years.  The putative goal seems to have gotten lost in the excitement of finding that dozens of people actually came forward and applied for free money when it was offered to them. 

My initial reaction to this scheme was that it’s not within the scope of the authority given to the Law Society by Ontario law.  The Law Society’s mandate is to regulate legal professionals in the public interest.  Making some lawyers subsidize procreation by other lawyers hardly seems to fit the bill.  The committee, however, was ready for naysayers like me.  Its public interest rationalization is that the program might help alleviate the “shortage of legal services.” Frankly, I didn’t know there was a shortage. But more importantly, I don’t see how encouraging more lawyers to take time off from their practices is going to alleviate the alleged shortage. After all, there’s apparently no evidence worth mentioning that subsidizing procreation in Quebec resulted in more lawyers staying in private practice. 

Besides, needing time off to look after your children is not something that ends when the kids are three months old.  Once the beneficiaries of this program have children to chauffeur to hockey practices or dentist appointments, it’s more likely than ever that they will want to leave private practice for government or corporate jobs, to take advantage of the 9-to-5 hours, weekends off, paid vacation time and health benefit packages.  I predict that ten years from now, the geniuses at the Law Society will still be scratching their heads wondering why more women than ever are clustering in government and corporations, or quitting work entirely.

Perhaps Ontario’s courts would agree with me that this scheme exceeds the Law Society’s statutory powers, but for $15 a year in extra fees saved, the aggravation and expense of litigating against the Law Society simply isn’t worth the benefit. So here’s a perfect demonstration of creeping socialism: a very small number of people get a large benefit worth making campaigning for, and a very large number of people suffer a small detriment not worth making a ruckus about. 

What I have never understood is why anyone gives a damn whether women are leaving private practice and clustering in government or corporate jobs, or quitting entirely. If that is their demonstrated preference, why should other people rail against it and try to make them do something else? On an individual basis, as an employer, I may choose to bend over backwards to keep a good female associate, by offering reduced hours or some other perk. But in general, I think the world is a better place when we let people sort themselves out into whatever cubbyholes they choose for themselves.


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