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Recognize the hidden figures of the legal profession

On May 10, 2018, I, along with an influential panel of legal leaders and colleagues, spoke at an event organized by the Toronto Lawyer’s Association. As part of its Women and the Law Professionalism series, the topic of the presentation was fostering women leadership in the legal profession. Specifically, the panel discussed the barriers that are facing women, even today, in entering, advancing and staying in the legal profession.

A 2016 study by the American Bar Association found that representation of women within law firms drops sharply as the levels increase. For example, women make up over 51 per cent of first-year law students. By the time a person graduates and becomes an associate, 46 per cent are female. The biggest drop, however, comes at the partnership level. Here, only 22 per cent of partners are female.

Although these are U.S. statistics, there is no reason to believe the numbers are any different in Canada. So, what is happening and how can we fix this?

Here are some of the points and tips that were discussed by our panel:

Cross-sectional challenges

While there are challenges faced by women, these challenges become multiplied when a woman is also a member of another underrepresented group, a first-generation lawyer (meaning the first generation of lawyers within her family) or when someone is faced with the added challenges associated with starting a family or navigating the responsibilities that arise from having one. So, mentorship and sponsorship opportunities were recognized as important tools through which these obstacles can be minimized. By providing access to mentorship programs, by joining and participating in networking opportunities within gender and ethnic professional associations, women can start making significant gains and gaining a stronger voice within the legal profession.

As the only male panelist, I also made sure to emphasize another critical piece of the puzzle: leveraging male leaders in dismantling barriers that continue to thwart women’s advancement. It is important that women find other women who have been there and done that. It is critical to have female mentors and sponsors, who understand the unique challenges faced by women within the legal profession. However, it is equally as important that women also have male sponsors and mentors. In dealing with ethnic and diversity associations, we often speak about the importance of allies and of working together with others who understand the challenges faced by another and can work jointly in developing and implementing solutions. The same applies here.

As noted above, 78 per cent of law-firm partners are male. When training on topics such as unconscious bias is made available to men and the corporate culture encourages their involvement, men have the potential to become important mentors and sponsors for female colleagues. It is clear to see why. In law firms, partners have almost full discretion as to how work is allocated to junior associates. Without training, when allocating work, males tend to engage males who look like them, think like them and act like them. This phenomenon, called “homosocial reproduction,” was identified by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in Men and Women of the Corporation as early as 1977. Limited access to significant clients and to major files are often identified as major roadblocks for female associates, restricting their progression. By making male partners conscious of these tendencies and by making them share the responsibility for the success of female associates, males hold the key to working with women to overcome some of the most significant barriers affecting female associates. Firms and male associates can also assist by making it mandatory for eligible males and females to take parental leave. Making it a parental, rather than a maternal, benefit, can eliminate the stigma that often follows women who take a leave.

Promote yourself

There is another key piece of the puzzle, self-promotion. In April 2015, I wrote here about the importance of becoming your own cheerleader. I noted the need to make sure that others became aware of your achievements, that you nominate others and ask others to nominate you when certain achievements are accomplished.  This advice is as true as ever. There are many amazing women lawyers who are at the top of their game and achieving incredible results for their clients. While these clients may not all be fortune 500 companies (for the work allocation reasons and the representation numbers at the higher levels as discussed above), they are making a critical difference in their client’s lives by achieving important victories in areas such as litigation, immigration, constitutional or other matters. They are, in many ways, the important hidden figures of the legal profession. It is everyone’s responsibility to nominate them for awards and celebrate their achievements, so that they can receive the recognition they so rightfully deserve.

Finally, information is power. Premonition Analytics in the United States used their AI systems to consider the achievements of women within legal practice and the results were outstanding. At all levels, women outperformed men in litigation and in the provision of legal services. Nevertheless, they are paid less, received lesser opportunities to join partnership and are often sole practitioners or work in smaller firms. But information is a key new differentiator. As GCs, we can use this information to assist us in selecting the best of the best for our files and for partners in allocating their best files for the best clients (moving away from the lawyer’s sole discretion in allocating work). There is now proof, beyond just being the right thing to do, to justify a balanced team in providing legal services.

By engaging male leaders in supporting the advancement of women within the legal profession, by understanding the numbers, and by encouraging women to promote their achievements, and by pushing firms to advance women to the partnership levels, we can put pressure to make change happen faster. After all, it is 2018!

  • Virtue signalling

    Joanna Roberts
    Wow, if that Premonition "report" was titled "Men are better lawyers" there'd be outcry. The report itself is inherently flawed in that there is not a clearcut definition of a "win" ; moreover, even if one can define "win", what is the degree of difficulty for the cases?