The theme for this issue of Canadian Lawyer had been percolating in my mind for some time. Over the past 11 years covering the legal profession, the issue of retention of female lawyers in private practice has continually been a topic of discussion. There is no denying that the often-punishing hours and expectations of law firms both large and small are too much for women faced with the responsibilities of motherhood and other family and household responsibilities. Women, obviously, will always be the ones who have children, and it will always have an impact on their careers. However, times they are a-changing and having a child no longer means you have to choose law or life. Things are by no means perfect in the profession, but being a mother doesn’t have to mean being sidelined from the partnership track.
Getting ahead and reaching the top of the heap is by no means easy, but it can be, and has been, done. We invited five highly successful members of the bar and bench to join us for the Canadian Lawyer roundtable on women in law. They happened to all be from the Toronto area, which was simply for logistics, and no reflection of the fact there are highly accomplished women lawyers and judges all across this country. The aim was not to solve the problems women face and why they’re leaving private practice — sometimes for government or in-house positions, but just as frequently right out of the profession — it was to take a look at how they’ve made it work and succeeded in the law.
“Women’s issues” are no longer second-class issues in most of the country’s largest law firms. Many of them have internal women’s networks, which provide support and guidance to lawyers in the firm. Communication and marketing methods are changing not only between women lawyers but also between lawyers and the growing client base of women in-house counsel and business people who use the services of law firms.
Talking to each other and building up networks among women lawyers was the first step. But to truly succeed — as both the roundtable participants and those interviewed for “A step in the right direction,” about law firm marketing, note — women lawyers need not only to network among themselves but, in order to really reach the towers of power and wealth, be able to build networks that include men. Because, even though the dynamic is changing, for the most part it is still men who retain most of the power and wealth. On the other hand, male lawyers need to understand the different needs and ways of communicating with both women clients and female colleagues.
And it can be a fine line, as the roundtable panelists point out, between seeming like a troublemaker and being the person who stands up and asks for what you deserve; be it a file, a chance to argue first chair, inclusion on the committee that decides how partnership monies will be divvied up, or even attending and being part of client meetings. It can be hard work and it can go against a woman’s natural instinct, but succeeding in law — either running your own shop or being one of the most successful partners in a bigger firm — requires a bit of daring. The biggest hurdle to success just may be moving beyond feeling like girls: being wracked by guilt and always saying you’re sorry. Get past that, be proud of (rather than surprised at) your successes, and greater success will follow.