When Lara Nathans, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, first considered initiating the firm’s now annual Women Connecting event six years ago, she did it in part because when she was at law school, Bay Street was not advertised to female law students.
After discussions with incoming lawyers and students who worked at McCarthys, she realized that four years later there was still little discussion among women about building a successful career in private law.
Even today, women continue to flee shortly after they complete their articling. The Law Society of Upper Canada’s 2008 study “Retention of Women in Private Practice” shows that while many women start their careers at firms on Bay Street, many of them eventually leave for non-private practice or leave the field entirely.
Nathans has managed to make it work, and with diversity flagged as one of McCarthys’ four firm-wide priorities, the firm also recognizes the value in recruiting and keeping female lawyers. “Clients are looking for diversity, and that includes women,” says Sarit Batner, a litigation partner at McCarthys.
It is with this priority in mind that the firm continued the dialogue it began in 2005 with another Women Connecting event on June 9. Over 100 female law students showed up to listen to Justice Gloria Epstein of the Ontario Court of Appeal kick off the evening with her keynote address, before listening to several accomplished women in three panels, including, Women’s Issues in Law Firms: Strategies for Success; Successful Women: Diverse Careers; and Secrets of Success: Getting the Job.
Work-life balance is one of the main reasons women leave private practice, the LSUC study found. Since all of the panellists — many who are lawyers at McCarthys — are mothers, the issue of raising children while working was discussed. Although the panellists made it clear that there is never an easy time to have children, Nathans emphasized that women should “believe that if you love what you do, then there is a way to make it work.”
The private-practice mentality of work-life balance is shifting, Nathans tells Canadian Lawyer 4Students. There has been a noticeable change over the past several years in the openness in which the topic has been discussed not only by women, but also by men, she adds.
As a result, she says there is an increasing number of women having children at different stages of their careers, and “now there are also more men who are talking about wanting more balance too, and who want to take on a stronger parenting role.” This is something that was not discussed openly even 10 years ago.
Another change that has allowed women, and men, to be more present in their family life is the BlackBerry. “It is both a curse and a blessing,” says Batner. “In a way it is an equalizer, because you don’t necessarily need to be in any one place to do work so there is more flexibility.” As a result of not needing to be chained to her desk to communicate with clients and colleagues, Batner feels freer to attend school trips to spend time with her children.
Work-life balance was not the only topic for discussion during the event. Women still having trouble finding the right mentors and asserting themselves was another issue that was addressed.
“When it comes to role models, the challenge is that you may not find the role model you need in one person,” says Robin MacAulay, director of professional resources at McCarthys. “I encourage [women] to look to multiple different people for role models.”
The reason for seeking role models was flagged as particularly important for women because law, especially on Bay Street, is still male-dominated in its leadership. “Once you get out into the business world, management is still mostly men,” says Wendy Gross, a partner at McCarthys. “You may need to push yourself and step out of your comfort zone in order to succeed.”
Other areas of law appear to have shifted more quickly, as several women in the Diverse Careers panel, who do not work on Bay Street, spoke of their offices being predominantly female.
Panellists also emphasized that women need to be more confident in their skills and abilities. “Be kind to yourself,” Batner advises. “We are our worst enemies in that we set the bar high for ourselves. It is OK to not push hard all of the time.”
Across the field of law, women are moving forward and Batner is convinced that there will come a day when the right balance will strike for men and women. “The long-term future for women is getting better,” said Batner. “I’m not sure exactly when it will be unimaginable that women were not prominent [on Bay Street] as it is unimaginable now how women were treated in Mad Men, but it will happen someday.”
While women have certainly come a long way towards establishing a presence in private practice, there is still progress to be made, which is why these open dialogues should keep happening in firms like McCarthys. However, Nathans predicts that there will likely be a point after which these conversations will almost be obsolete. “In the future, there will be a tipping point where there will be enough women [on Bay Street] that we will not feel the need to discuss issues for women in the workplace.”
Sasha Toten will be entering her second year at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law this fall.