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Breese Davies, standing outside of Osgoode Hall in Toronto on Tuesday, argues in favour of keeping the program.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

A parental-leave program created three years ago to slow an exodus of female lawyers from Ontario's legal profession is facing the chopping block.

The $540,000 program – one of the most tangible signs of the profession's commitment to stem the outflow of female talent – has helped scores of women lawyers maintain their practices while on maternity leave.

The problem of paying overhead to keep a small practice afloat during maternal leave has been identified as one of the leading reasons why young women leave the field, many of them never to return.

Women now make up approximately 17,000 of Ontario's 43,000 lawyers, and more than half of admissions to law schools. The Criminal Lawyers' Association has found that 50 per cent of its new members are women, yet they drop to just 35 per cent of CLA members with five or more years at the bar.

The program is funded from within the law society's overall budget of about $80-million. Quebec has had a similar program for many years, while British Columbia launched one recently.

The Ontario program's detractors, who question its cost and usefulness, intend to debate and vote on whether it should be retained Thursday at the Law Society of Upper Canada's monthly meeting.

The battle is likely to be heated. The law society's powerful audit committee has indicated that it wants the program scrapped, while its equity committee strongly favours retaining the program, with the addition of a means test for recipients.

The most pressing problems for female lawyers are perceived to be a male-dominated culture at big law firms; the difficulty of squaring heavy work demands with a family life; and the damage that parental leave can do to a small practice.

Most recipients of Parental Leave Assistance Program benefits come from the family law and criminal law bars. They use the benefits to cover their office overhead and salaries for bookkeepers or assistants.

Breese Davies, co-chair of the CLA working group on women in criminal law, said the financial ramifications for a small practice are so great that most women take only 12 to 14 weeks of parental leave.

"The law society purports to have an interest in retaining women, but they are cutting one of the only programs that benefits young women in the profession," Ms. Davies said. "It is not in the public interest to have the whole profession be men. Men and women litigate differently. Diversity makes our justice system better."

Ms. Davies said that a decision by the law society not to webcast the coming debate is "outrageous" given the intense interest in the issue. In contrast, she said that another debate Thursday involving the possible discontinuation of the articling requirement for Ontario lawyers will be webcast.

"It is consistent with their tendency to keep things secret," Ms. Davies said.

The Ontario law society is considered a leader in the pursuit of equity. Under PLAP, recipients can obtain $750 a week for up to 12 weeks of leave.

Beth Symes, one of 40 council members who decide policy for the law society, said the loss of the program would be a major blow to the cause of retaining female lawyers.

"These women are the most vulnerable in the profession," Ms. Symes said. "They use the money to pay their overhead while they are on leave, and they say it has been instrumental to them being able to remain in practice."

Nearly 80 per cent of the 178 lawyers who have received benefits under the program were women. To qualify, they must be sole practitioners or work at a firm with less than five lawyers, where the prolonged absence of a member can have serious financial consequences.

Ms. Davies said that federal employment insurance is of little use to women lawyers since they are eligible only if they begin paying EI premiums a year in advance of a parental leave and they must continue paying them for the duration of their career.

"EI was designed for women who take 52 weeks off," Ms. Symes said. "But these women lawyers can't afford to take 52 weeks. When you run your own firm, taking a year off is impossible. Your practice is gone. And once we lose them, they don't come back."