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Tara Piurko and Phillip Sandford, partners at McCarthy Tetrault LLP, took part in the firm's innovative 'maternity buddy' program. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Tara Piurko and Phillip Sandford, partners at McCarthy Tetrault LLP, took part in the firm's innovative 'maternity buddy' program. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Women at work

Maternity buddies: Staying linked to the workplace Add to ...

During her two maternity leaves, Tara Piurko maintained a lifeline to her hard-earned career as a lawyer in Toronto through an innovative buddy program run by her firm, McCarthy Tétrault LLP.

Through the program, she and a selected work buddy regularly met for lunch, with her baby in tow. In weekly calls, Ms. Piurko received updates about her files, her co-workers and her clients. As her return-to-work date neared, she spoke with her buddy almost daily and then began working two to three hours, a couple times a week, to slowly get back on track.

MORE FROM LEAH EICHLER

“I didn’t want to show up at the end of my mat leave and try to hit the ground running. I knew it wasn’t going to work,” she recalled. “I was transitioning my baby to daycare and I thought, ‘I need to transition myself and my family back to work.’”

The idea of staying tied to your work while on maternity leave may not appeal to everyone but there are two good reasons women, and employers, should embrace it. First, it provides mothers with an invaluable opportunity to maintain their professional identity. (I can’t be the only mother who felt out of place in a music class for babies.)

Secondly, if more women participate in such programs, then more companies will follow suit. This will take a bite out of the mommy track syndrome (part-time work, shortened hours) and force companies to realize that mommies are business people, too.

Much has been written about obstacles facing female lawyers. They are more likely than men to leave the practice after five to seven years, for example, and are much less likely to become an equity partner. But some law firms are doing good work to stem the exodus of women from what can be a demanding, competitive profession.

And lawyers with children aren’t the only ones buying into the programs. For her maternity buddy, Ms. Piurko chose Phillip Sanford, a partner in a corner office with no kids. Mr. Sanford said the relationship worked very well.

“The way I saw the program, it’s not about teaching me how to be a mommy and [also]work,” said Ms. Piurko. “It’s staying connected to my job, to the career that I put so much time and effort into.”

McCarthy Tétrault implemented its buddy program several years ago, and the idea is gaining traction. Offering parents the tools to better manage their leave is one of the many suggestions set out in the Justicia Project, a initiative by the Law Society of Upper Canada and participating firms to retain and advance women in private practice.

“There is an observation that women who go off on maternity and then parental leave who are in the private practice of law can lose traction. And in a law firm, if you lose traction, it’s hard to get your mojo back and be on people’s radar,” explained Katherine Pollock, an employment law partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP and their gender diversity officer.

In addition to the buddy initiative, Fasken launched an internal steering committee to examine concrete ways to retain and promote female talent. “Justicia got everybody thinking in that direction,” Ms. Pollack added.

One of the many benefits of the buddy program is that it opens up the conversation of parental leave, which helps dissipate any stigma associated with taking the time out of your career.

The other benefit is the positive effect on a law firm’s business. Studies show that the cost of employee turnover is approximately $315,000 for a four-year associate. Most significantly, many corporate clients now demand a more diverse team.

“Our lawyers all realize it’s the right thing to do but it’s a business, practising law, so at the end of the day, they are not going to be thinking about gender diversity unless there was a business case for it,” said Lisa Vogt, a partner in McCarthy Tétrault’s Vancouver office and chairwoman of their national diversity committee.

It’s too early to say if the program has had a positive correlation with the number of female partners at a firm, but Ms. Vogt said there has been a significant increase in the firm’s retention rates. In a telling sign, Ms. Piurko was promoted from an associate to an income partner about six weeks before the birth of her second child.

The effects of the parental-leave buddy program are extending beyond the legal field.

Edelman, a global public relations firm, recently launched a maternity buddy program at its Toronto office, modelled directly on McCarthy Tétrault’s.

“There are definitely similarities between the legal and PR professions,” said Lisa Kimmel, general manager for Edelman Toronto. “We want our work force to feel empowered to make important life choices, such as building a family, safe in the knowledge their professional development will not be negatively affected.”

Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail: leah.eichler@rogers.com

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