Lisa Borsook, who chairs the commercial leasing practice group at the 80-lawyer Toronto firm of WeirFoulds LLP, was recently picked to lead the firm, becoming what is believed to be one of the rare women to head up a bigger commercial law firm in Canada. The mother of two boys talks about how she got to where she is and what she sees as the challenges facing a mid-sized firm that focuses on four areas: litigation, property, corporate commercial, and government work.
Do you think it’s a big deal that you’re a woman named to lead a larger law firm?
I have articled here and worked here since I was called to the bar. When I started here I was certainly a young woman. I was more conscious of being naive and inexperienced in business than I was in being a woman. Nobody ever seemed to pay too much attention to the fact I was a woman. When I was elected managing partner, I began to realize what a big deal it was. People kept calling me . . . and asking me about that. When looking from the inside out, I didn’t think much about it.
What does your appointment say about the ability of women to advance to upper management in the profession?
I think that in this profession you can make your own choices about the extent to how far you want to go. Most of the firms, including this one, are receptive to a variety of working arrangements to accommodate the special interests of women as they progress through their careers. I think it is one [profession] that you do get to make your own choices. When I started to practise law quite a long time ago, it didn’t occur to me I would be choosing between a full- and part-time practice, that I’d find a way to juggle [my career] with my other responsibilities.
How did you get involved in management?
About eight years ago the firm came to me and asked me if I wanted to serve on the management committee. . . . Sitting on the committee was a natural evolution. Then last year, Greg Richards was involved in a lengthy trial and in his absence I acted in his place as chair. When he returned, he said it was time for someone else. They came to me and asked, ‘Would you be the managing partner?’ I said no. Greg and I had a dinner and he talked to me a little bit about why I might want to do it. . . . He knows all the right things to say to me.
So what do you hope to accomplish as managing partner?
The first thing you want to do is move the firm closer to realizing all of its goals, while preserving the firm’s values. All law firms no matter what their size want to be profitable and sophisticated with a warm and nurturing environment for their lawyers. We’ve come a long way in identifying our core strength and the four principal areas in which we work.
What are your top challenges?
As an individual, juggling my schedule is my top challenge and making sure things are properly prioritized. As managing partner, I need to manage the firm and assure its continued success. First of all, I have to make sure we can retain the top talent. . . . We want to develop our associates and make sure they are getting the proper training. I need to make sure the business is profitable. People don’t want to be anywhere that isn’t profitable. I have to make sure that we focus on the core strength and the areas in which we practise and develop those practice areas and not get sidetracked.
Then finally — this is the one that’s difficult to explain to people who don’t actually work here — I want to preserve what makes this place a great place to be. We have had virtually no departures from this firm except to go to the bench or completely retire from the practice of law. We do not lose our lawyers to competitors; that’s because I think people generally really like working here.