B.C. launches Justicia Project

The Law Society of British Columbia today is launching its Justicia Project aimed at increasing the number of women lawyers in private practice.

The Justicia Project was first developed by the Law Society of Upper Canada and is a voluntary program for law firms to identify and implement best practices to retain and advance women lawyers in private practice. It was created in response to evidence that women leave the profession at a higher rate than men in the first 10 years of practice. Quebec implemented its Justicia Project in 2011 and Alberta approved its in May of this year.

B.C.’s program has two phases: one is directed at national law firms with offices in B.C. that are already participants in Justicia in Ontario and Alberta, as well as large regional firms who may be interested in the project. Phase two will be directed at all other B.C. firms.

Shayne Strukoff, managing partner of Gowlings’ Vancouver office, and Gowlings’ associate Helena Plecko volunteered to drive the initiative on behalf of the LSBC. Other members of the B.C. Justicia working group are Lisa Vogt, chairwoman of McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s national diversity committee, and Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP Vancouver managing partner Bill Maclagan.

“We encourage law firms of all sizes to lend their support to this important project,” says Plecko. “We hope it will pave the way for systemic change in the legal profession that will address the realities women in private practice are facing.”

Today, Gowlings is hosting a managing partners summit to introduce the first phase of the project. Participating law firms will commit to achieving goals in four areas:

•    tracking gender demographics;
•    reviewing/introducing flexible work arrangements and parental leave policies;
•    adopting initiatives to foster women’s networking and business development; and
•    promoting leadership skills for women.

This latest Justicia project comes on the heels of the first-ever national survey of women’s initiatives in law firms from the U.S.-based NAWL Foundation, the research and charitable arm of the National Association of Women Lawyers. It found that despite a prevalence of women’s initiatives in law firms, many don’t have sufficient funding or articulated goals to make them successful.

The survey shows firms are not devoting enough resources to women’s initiatives, despite the positive effect they can have on law firms’ business. Although 97 per cent of large U.S. firms sponsor a women’s initiative, only 42 per cent report their women’s initiative is part of the firm’s strategic plan. Eighty per cent identify an objective for their women’s initiative, but it is unclear whether objectives are written and linked to specific goals, such as retention or advancement. And while a little more than half of firms sponsor firm-wide meetings of women partners, only 29 per cent of firms consider such events to be effective.

“These statistics confirm what women, particularly in large firms, already know, which is that women are not receiving the kind of support that translates into equity partnerships and true leadership positions,” American Bar Association President Laurel Bellows said in response to the report.

The survey also looked at how women’s initiatives can move to the next phase. Its recommendations included having fewer “soft” programs, such as networking functions, and more programs that target the factors that directly affect advancement in firms. The survey also found that women’s initiatives require more funding: The typical law firm spends far less on its women’s initiatives than on the salary of one first-year associate.

While focused on American firms, the NAWL Foundation report has some good analysis of what firms are and can be doing in order to make their initiatives more valuable and actually work to keep women in private practice. It would be worthwhile for everyone involved in the Justicia projects around the country to read it.

Lawyers or law firms with questions about Justicia or how to participate should contact Michael Lucas, the LSBC’s manager of policy and legal services mlucas@lsbc.org.

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