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the ladder

Lawyer Sara Cohen at D2Law LLPKevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Toronto lawyer Sara Cohen, 35, left Bay Street to pave a new road in the evolving discipline of fertility law.

I was a commercial litigator at a Bay Street firm. As soon as I became pregnant with my eldest, who is now 6, I had this awakening movement where I took a step back and thought about what my life looked like. I'm not one of those people who will tell you I hated Bay Street. I found commercial litigation a lot of fun and fulfilling. It sounds cheesy but I became a lawyer to help people. I'm sure I helped some banks and corporations, but I really wanted something more personal and intimate.

I worked at a fertility clinic before law school but I didn't know how to make it a career. I spent a couple of months reading everything I could about fertility law. Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of resources in Canada at the time. The actual moment of truth came when I was at a wedding shower and my aunt looked at me and asked when I was going back to work as a commercial litigator and I said "I'm not. I'm going to be a fertility lawyer." Saying it out loud was a huge thing for me.

It's a really small, competitive bar [in Canada] and to some extent I had to really rise to the occasion. Practising in a grey area is also very stressful. The potential penalty for paying a surrogate, or for an egg or sperm from a donor, is 10 years in jail or $500,000, so it's very heavy. No parents have ever been charged but it's frustrating. I'm not a cowboy. I do believe in regulation but criminalizing parents is just wrong.

I love the idea of collaborative family-building. I am also intrigued by the ethics of it. Like most people, I grew up with the plain assumption that I could have children. Eventually, I had some of my own difficulties with my first pregnancy and I think that coloured and influenced my work. A lot of people assume my children are born through surrogacy or egg donation. That wasn't the case but [my challenges] allowed me to feel a lot of empathy for the pain of those who struggled with fertility.

It's a very international practice. I don't only work with parents, but with surrogates or donors, and it's important to see the collaborative nature rather than just seeing it from one perspective. The rest of my time is spent drafting surrogacy or egg-donation or sperm-donation contracts and making sure parents understand them. I do a lot of handholding, which I'm not trained to do. People are desperate sometimes, and there may be risks they refuse to acknowledge because they just want this so badly.

One of the most memorable parts of my job is working with gestational carriers. Generally, surrogacy is done to a very high standard in Canada because the surrogate has a lot of say. [One of my responsibilities is] really making sure she understands the consequences of all the decisions she is making and making sure she is being treated the way she wants to be treated. I'm proud to do that work.

What goes through a layperson's mind is what happens if a surrogate tries to keep the baby? I wish I could say I have never had that happen, but I have. In that instance, the parents were successful but it was a really bad day. Because we are dealing with biology, other things can go wrong, too. What if the pregnancy isn't going well and the surrogate is on bed rest? What does that look like for her family and job? A lot of my job is negotiations in worst-case scenarios and to make sure everyone is protected.

People are worried about women who are new to Canada, with no opportunities, being a surrogate. But surrogacy in Canada is generally done by educated women. I see a lot of nurses, midwives, and teachers. I've worked with a veterinarian and an accountant who are surrogates. I work with many two-mom families. Coincidentally, many live in my neighbourhood and how cool is it that I get to see their babies in the neighbourhood later on? My kids want play dates with kids whose parents were once my clients. It's pretty incredible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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