Practices are being implemented to reverse the trend of women leaving the legal field, but the Women’s Legal Mentorship Program at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law is convinced that more can be done. Determined to take matters into its own hands to do its part to address the retention of women, the WLMP hosted its Reconfiguring Mentorship seminar on Feb. 11.
“The title of the seminar is fitting for the event, as it was about transforming how we view mentorship,” says WLMP communications co-ordinator Devanne O’Brien, a second-year common law student at the University of Ottawa.
Practitioners, students, and women who took alternate career paths attended the open discussion on how to engage a mentor. The forum provided guidance about how to approach mentorship relationships that will guide them through their careers.
“One of the speakers at the seminar talked about the need to have many mentors, and how you should develop mentoring relationships in different areas of your life,” says O’Brien. “I thought that was really powerful. After all, beyond being lawyers and law students, we’re also human beings with full lives. From time to time we’re going to need guidance on life outside of a career.”
The purpose of the program is to engage women in formal and informal mentorship before entering law so that they go into the field with a perspective from women who are where they want to be. The event also allowed practitioners to consider their mentorship relationships.
“Most of the time, the mentees are the ones mentoring the lawyers. It works both ways,” says Katherine Cooligan, a senior partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, which sponsored the event. Cooligan gave the keynote speech and was a private practice panellist at the event.
In private practice, government, and legal academia, there are several formal mentorship programs already in place. But with many women leaving the field, panellists offered guidance on how to take full advantage of these relationships and engage in informal mentorship relationships.
For women seeking an alternate career path, the panellists gave perspective on how to approach mentorship, encouraging students to learn to adapt to their environment, but also to have a sense of entitlement. “It was empowering to hear that these women struck out on their own and succeeded,” says Ayesha Kumararatne, the sole practice/alternate career moderator and a 2L student. “They also emphasized that their legal background has been helpful.”
A common theme was that women should not be afraid to ask for mentorship or what they need in the workplace. “Stand up for yourself, and don’t be afraid if it’s for personal reasons,” says Cooligan.
The seminar is only part of the conversation, but will hopefully encourage female students to take the problem of retention of women into their own hands. By trying to do something about it with practitioners who are currently in the field, this retention trend may be reversed.
Sasha Toten is a second-year student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.