As a solo practitioner, the buck stops with you. You cannot pick up and take a hot air balloon ride around the globe anytime you well please, even though you might like to. You owe your clients duties, and, even once you’ve taken care of their needs, you have those oh so fun administrative responsibilities to worry about. Now, throw a new baby in the mix, and your head might explode. Before you take maternity or family leave, you must prepare. That’s smart lawyering. What better way to learn how to do this then from practitioners who have been there and done it themselves. This post is the first of a two-part series on planning for maternity or family leave as a solo practitioner. In this first post, Cambridge family law attorney, Alison Silber, provides some excellent insight based on her own experience. Alison maintains a blog and is the co-author of “Custody of Children in Mixed-Status Families: Preventing the Misunderstanding and Misuse of Immigration Status in State-Court Custody Proceedings”, which appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Family Law Quarterly.
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For self-employed attorneys, maternity leave requires a lot of forethought and planning. As a self-employed family lawyer in Cambridge, I focused on maternity pay, preemptively managing my caseload, back-up assistance, and scheduling in order to have a smooth maternity leave.
Getting Paid on Leave
I liked to joke that I had a very kind boss—she was willing to coordinate as much maternity leave as I needed. She just wasn’t going to pay me for more than three months of leave.
There are two primary ways for self-employed attorneys to handle maternity pay. First, consider disability insurance. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t look into disability insurance until I was already pregnant and at that point no affordable policy was available to me. Second, consider putting money aside during your pregnancy. I put one-third of my paycheck aside each month of my pregnancy, and thus had three months of pay waiting for me during maternity leave. If you are going to do this, you should inform your CPA in advance so that the CPA can adjust the self-employment tax payments you make during your pregnancy and maternity leave.
Managing the Caseload
In the family courts, at the end of each hearing we generally schedule the next hearing. Once I was visibly pregnant, I began explaining that I could not schedule my next hearing during my three-month maternity leave. With the exception of one judge, all the judges were extremely accommodating and scheduled future hearings after my maternity leave. During my pregnancy, I was also transparent with clients and potential clients. I informed them of my maternity leave plans and explained that I would not be able to handle their matters during that time. If this presented a problem, I gave them the option to permanently transfer their case to new counsel while I was still working full-time. If my maternity leave was not a problem, I took steps to ensure that, at a minimum, my clients would have a temporary order or agreement in place during my leave.
In terms of handling potential clients, I negotiated with my lawyer referral services. Some of them were willing to suspend referrals during the second half of my pregnancy and during my maternity leave and then pro-rate the cost accordingly. Others were not willing to pro-rate the cost but provided other benefits to me instead. I also informed all my mentors and my close colleagues of my maternity leave so they would understand if I declined a referral during my leave.
Even though my clients knew I would not be reachable during maternity leave, I did need back-up coverage for emergencies. The colleague who generally covers my vacations happened to get married and take a honeymoon during my maternity leave, so I needed to find other options. I reached out to the Starting Out Solo listserv and interviewed family lawyers to cover me. I ultimately found three attorneys I trusted, and negotiated an hourly rate with them. Although I was prepared to dole out emergencies to my back-up attorneys, thankfully I never needed to use them.
For administrative tasks, I executed my vacation protocol. I hired ReceptionHQ to answer my phone remotely, and I hired a student to open and scan my mail. My maternity leave did not allow me to completely disappear; I had to be in touch with ReceptionHQ as well as the student who opened my mail. In fact, one motion arrived in the mail, and I drafted the opposition myself during maternity leave. I calculated that it would take me nearly as much time to inform a back-up attorney of the nuanced details of the case as it would for me to draft the opposition myself.
Returning to Work
The duration of maternity leave is a personal decision that may depend on health of the mother, health of the baby, and financial circumstances. I returned to work on a part-time basis after three months of maternity leave, and I slowly took on more hours as I acclimated to leaving my daughter at daycare. Nursing mothers may encounter uncomfortable challenges when returning to work. For me, I had to locate a private location to pump at the Suffolk and Middlesex family courts. At my very first hearing back, I asked the bailiff if I could use the courtroom’s private anteroom to pump during the lunch break. He kindly allowed me to use it, and guarded the door while I pumped. Afterwards, I thanked him profusely and exited to the hallway, where I found opposing counsel waiting for me. Opposing counsel huffed at me, “Were you having ex parte conversations with the judge?!” I hope he was horrified when I told him that I’d been pumping. What a warm welcome back to the practice of law!