Last Tuesday was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day — a day in which we are supposed to celebrate women’s achievements throughout history and across the nations. In Canada, it passed without much fanfare or acknowledgment of the contributions and impact women have had in creating and sustaining our modern society.
Listening to our national radio station on the way to catch the train into the Big Smoke, I was surprised to learn that in some countries, the day is a national holiday. Interestingly, the countries that have declared an International Women’s Day holiday are predominately developing nations such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Ukraine, and Vietnam. It’s also a holiday in China and Russia.
I don’t propose in this forum to explore why it is that these countries have seen fit to declare national holidays in celebration of the economic, political, and social achievements of women, while countries in the Western world haven’t. I’m sure there are lots of reasons of which I am totally unaware — for example, those of us who are not in the employ of the federal government just got to enjoy Family Day last month. Maybe the powers that be thought another day out of the office so close together was too “European.” For me, Family Day meant going into the office a couple of hours later and leaving a bit earlier — it rocked.
What actually set me to musing about women practising law, however, wasn’t the passing of International Women’s Day (with or without a national holiday or hoopla), but some events around my workplace in the last few months.
February is hire-back month for the articling students at my firm. While it bills itself as a litigation “boutique,” we may be starting to outgrow that appellation. Last year we were fortunate to have two smart, talented, and accomplished articling students who both just happened to be women. We hired them both. This year, we have three smart, talented, and accomplished articling students, all of whom also happen to be women. We have hired all three of them as well. With these women’s call to the bar this year, our firm will boast an equal number of male and female lawyers. And that is an achievement I think is worth celebrating.
While the number of women enrolling in law schools has been steadily increasing for at least the last quarter century, to the point where now the female students outnumber their male counterparts, the ratios are still not reflected in the number of women practising law, and litigation in particular. For example, I was in the Court of Appeal last Monday and all of the counsel in the courtroom were male, except for me. Similarly, at a cross-examination on Wednesday, I sat in a room with nine counsel. Only two were women.
These occurrences were not atypical. For the 20-plus years I’ve been in practice, in fact, it has been the norm. It was not until I thought back on these past few days as I contemplated writing this article that I was even struck by the disparity between the number of men and women in both cases. It’s what I am used to seeing. I expect that, if my firm is any indicator of what’s on the horizon, the ratios are about to change. I certainly hope so.
It is extremely encouraging to see the increasing number of women entering the legal profession, and litigation in particular. Many of these new female advocates bring a refreshing world view, and a different perspective towards how they can best meet and serve their clients’ needs. As a profession, lawyers need to adapt and evolve with the times — something our inherently conservative natures may find difficult to do. I expect that these newly called advocates who are venturing into the litigation bar will be the driving force behind a significant change in how we approach dispute resolution both outside the courtroom and in it. A little less bluster and a little more practical problem solving would serve us all well.
Litigation in this decade is decidedly different than it was in the last 20 years, or the 20 years prior to that. I encourage all of you readers to listen to the voices of the next generation of leaders. They have a lot of good ideas about how we can change the practice of law and make it better for both the clients and counsel.
To that end, we, as a profession, need to turn our collective minds to determining how to encourage women to continue practising law, rather than abandoning it, as many of their predecessors have done. In Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada has created the Justicia Project for exactly that purpose. This three-year pilot project (now in its second year) is aimed at designing principles and best practices for adoption by law firms, both large and small, that promote the retention and advancement of women lawyers in private practice.
Through the Justicia Project, parental leave policies and flexible work arrangement policies are being developed. It also is co-ordinating business development and mentoring and leadership skills development for women. The LSUC also continues to offer the parental leave assistance program (PLAP) for eligible partners of firms of five or fewer lawyers, including sole practitioners. Under PLAP, the LSUC will pay $750 per week for up to 12 weeks to assist in covering, among other things, expenses associated with maintaining a practice during a parental leave.
Both of these initiatives demonstrate the LSUC’s awareness of the loss to society and the profession when women choose not to continue or pursue careers in law. Hopefully, the success of these programs will lead other law societies to undertake similar initiatives in the rest of Canada. But programs like these are just the tip of the iceberg.
If we are going to keep these smart, talented, and accomplished women involved in the practice of law after graduation from law school or call to the bar, we need to start seriously re-evaluating the way we are carrying on business at the most basic levels.
There isn’t enough time or space in an article such as this to drill down into the root causes of what has caused women to leave the practice of law in droves, or what we can do to reverse the trend; but I do encourage you all to give some time to considering possible solutions, and maybe to consider some options that are outside the scope of “that’s how we’ve always done it,” and the almighty billable hour. The practice of law can do nothing but improve with the influx of talent coming over the horizon. I, for one, can’t wait until they are running the show — they rock.