Making it work: Women in law roundtable

For decades, probably ever since women began practising law in Canada, there has been no shortage of discussion about how to keep women in the profession. In her groundbreaking 1993 report “Touchstones for Change”, Canada’s first female Supreme Court justice Bertha Wilson stressed the difficulties faced by women lawyers with children, urging the profession to measure a lawyer’s performance by standards other than hours billed.

Click here to read the biographies of the women in law roundtable participants. 

At the time, she made over 200 recommendations for improving the lot of women in the profession. Now, 15 years later, the Law Society of Upper Canada has released its report on retaining women in the profession and many of the same issues raised by Wilson are still present: a high proportion of women enter the legal profession at the initial entry level (more than 50 per cent of lawyers called to the bar are female), and that there is a higher attrition rate for women than men from private practice.

While the profession is working towards finding solutions to ensure women remain and suceeed in the practice, Canadian Lawyer gathered together five senior members of the bar to share their stories, discuss why they stayed in the profession, and their thoughts for future generations’ success. Joining editor Gail J. Cohen at the roundtable were: Justice Eleanore A. Cronk of the Ontario Court of Appeal; Linda Rothstein, managing partner of Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein; Kirby Chown, Ontario region managing partner for McCarthy Tétrault LLP, Carla Swansburg, senior counsel for the RBC Law Group, and Mayo Moran, dean of the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law. Read the bios of all our participants here.

Following are some of the highlights of the lively roundtable discussion, which took place April 15 at Toronto’s Verity club.


JUSTICE ELEANORE A. CRONK: One of the reasons I went into law was not just because of the father who wanted to be a trial lawyer, it was because of the mother who was very accomplished in her own right, but believed strongly in women being autonomous, having an independent source of money, not being dependent on the men in their lives for their financial security, for having something that would give them a sense of self-worth that was very personal, and that was encouraged in the family environment that I lived in and grew up in. And I think . . . and law, for me, was exactly that.

And I think law presents exactly the same opportunity to women today, in 2008, to do that, that it did in 1971. And I think it is really important to reinforce that because I think . . . I continue to say to women that law is an extraordinarily rewarding profession for women, despite the difficulties. I think it is a licence for women to do what they want to do in life, to always know that there is an ability to be financially secure if you need to be, and to make your own decisions. And I think there are very few professions or business opportunities that afford that to women, and law still does.

LINDA ROTHSTEIN: Law and my career, in particular, were an incredible refuge for me for a period of four years when I was dealing with marital breakdown. And I can remember being so profoundly aware of how lucky I was that I could retreat to my office and be successful, or feel mostly successful most of the time in my career when I was going through that very painful personal experience, and imagining what it would be like for women who didn’t have a career and had to face that down. And just being completely overwhelmed with the feeling that that would be extraordinarily lonely, difficult, isolating, a thousand times worse than anything I experienced. It was an extraordinary feeling of refuge, walking into my office every day, living through that.


ROTHSTEIN: I can tell you the period of time when I felt most excited about my career was when I and 17 of my closest partners founded Paliare Roland. I consider that my greatest professional accomplishment, being part of the founding of a law firm. So, for sure, for sure, that whole period of time, the six months before, the six months after that whole year.

CARLA SWANSBURG: [I]t was the day that I got the job that I have now, because I think I have the best in-house litigation job in the country. And that was sort of my thinking when I got the job, and that remains my thinking three-and-a-half years later.

MAYO MORAN: It is similar in the sense that I think probably the most exciting day was the day I found out I became dean. And I remember the person who phoned me said, “Are you sitting down?” And I said, “No.” And the person said, “Well, you are about to make history.” And I was, like, “Oh, my God.” [I]t was scary, of course, but really, really incredible because I was the first woman.

KIRBY CHOWN:  I think for me . . . when I got this management position at McCarthy Tétrault in 2002, you know, I had in the back of my mind, I thought, “Gee, it seems to me we could be doing more for women,” just thinking of my own firm. And so, finally being in a position where I had some power, I was sitting at the table, I had resources. Having that wonderful experience where you have an idea in your head, but that it is actually then embraced by a broader group of people who take it and get excited, and say, “Yes, we can do things.” And, at those moments, you think, “Yes,” you know, “change is possible”, and you need a whole army of people who are wanting to do it. But that was a wonderful feeling, to sort of transform an idea into the start of action.


CHOWN: I don’t think there is any way of preparing. You come up and there is the hurdle, and you think, “Am I going to fall down, or am I going to leap over, or am I going to climb over?” So, I started my hurdle running early. I had twins in my first year of practice. And in the litigation group of McCarthys, at that time, there were two other women and neither of them had children. So, a woman having children at that stage in their career was a novelty in the law firm. So, I didn’t have a lot of role models to see how women managed that, but it was instructive. Talk about engaging and stimulating to have twins . . . well, I had to figure these things out right away. How was I going to manage learning to be a litigator, and manage having these children. So, it was a bit of trial and error, but it was like, “Here you are, open your mouth, start requesting, because if not, you know, you are going to be overwhelmed.”

SWANSBURG:  Well, even when I interviewed at the firm that I ended up first working at, it was almost like that is when I saw the hurdle because the whole first round of interviews, I didn’t meet any women. And because I had come through law school at a time when there were, almost half as many women, you really notice that, “Wow, where are all the girls?” But it was almost sort of coming out a bit too naively because I didn’t realize until I actually got here and got into the profession that it was such a male-dominated world. And I found, and it perhaps was something that I and other women had brought on themselves, but the determination was, “Well, I will just have to do better than the males. I will just have to work harder than the men. I will just have to sort of prove myself.”

ROTHSTEIN: I really think it is critical to find at least some men in your early years who are very interested in you as a person, prepared to befriend you, have fun with you, share a laugh with you, and encourage you in the career. If I look back at some of those early years, some of the advice I got from some of my male colleagues was lacking some insights that they would now have. I think I really was excited by the challenge of overcoming obstacles, and I think most people who like advocacy — not just women, but also men — like the challenge of overcoming obstacles. I think there is a correlation, we were talking about, between musicians and advocates, and I think there is also a high correlation between people who like hiking and canoe trips and advocates. This is one of my private tests, and if you look at my law firm, which I am very proud to say, has lots of women in it, they all love canoe trips. Like, you have to be prepared to put up with those cold, dark, rainy nights in a wet tent because you know, when the sun comes out and you start paddling again as a team, it is just such a fabulous experience, and you feel so great that you weathered that night.


CRONK: I think, in the ‘70s and in the ‘80s . . . there simply weren’t enough women in mainstream litigation. So, the result was . . . you just simply worked very hard. Maybe at the back of your mind, you were saying, “Well, I will just prove that I can work harder, and be not as good as, but better than.” The standard was never “as good as,” the issue was better than the men, staying later, and getting up early. That was very much a product of the times. I think that has changed. But, at some point, very quickly, it had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that you were a woman; it had to do with whether you belonged in the environment that you were in.

SWANSBURG: I figured, “Well, what else can I do that would be a rewarding career, that would be intellectually challenging, that I am capable and qualified to do, and that gives me some responsibility, and some autonomy?” And I thought about it many times over my career, and there was no other answer. This was the profession that would give me all of that,

ROTHSTEIN: [I]t is hard to recreate exactly why I stayed, except for that sense of wanting to overcome that obstacle, frankly, which is a bit irrational. They are no longer clearly defined in my mind, but there are all kinds of things that are very personal. Like, I remember there were a whole bunch of female friends who felt profoundly guilty about going to work. I wasn’t. I didn’t suffer that, not in any large measure. Why? I don’t know why. I didn’t think my kids were being inadequately taken care of by a nanny. I didn’t think that I was going to be a less effective mom. In fact, I wasn’t at all sure that I should be with my kids 24/7. But I think that is a huge thing. I think for women who had that feeling, that they were really, in some measure, failing their children, that was a huge sort of magnet that pulled them out of any sense of contentment when they came to work every day.


MORAN: I always felt [in the academy] I was totally on equal footing, just as you said, and I loved being dean. But . . . I felt that there were questions asked of me because I was a woman. There was a certain set of questions that would not have been asked with the man exactly like me. And maybe that is just being the first, or . . . who knows what it was. Part of it is about children. [O]ther deans have had many children, and it was never a question. But, when you are a woman and you have a young child, all of a sudden, it is a question, no matter what you have done. And so, I have been quite aware of needing to respond to a slightly different set of questions, and to sort of prove myself in a certain way in a sense that I don’t necessarily think a man just like me in every way, I don’t think those questions would have been asked.

Now, like the people around the table, I like rising to the challenge, right. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t like showing that those views were wrong, and why they were wrong, and how being different could bring something to the table. But I have definitely felt aware of the need to make that clear. Where there was no diversity of opinion was on one fact, which is that having children is the biggest, I think, challenge for women in the legal profession, and elsewhere. I mean, that was the one thread that you could carry through everything. Everything else varied, right, but the one thread you could carry through was that it posed a huge challenge. I think it is great for kids to have mothers that love what they do, when they are really engaged in their lives.

SWANSBURG: And if you do want to have children, I say to people — and nobody is going to listen — but there is no time like the present. You have to sort of separate your personal self from your work self and just decide that you want to have children, and live with whatever the consequences are, which may or may not be significant.

CHOWN:  What I worry about is young women feeling the guilt and feeling the pressure when they have small children, they are trying to build a practice, is trading off momentary relief from the pressure by going to a less interesting job, or leaving the profession altogether, and back to this engagement, intellectual stimulation. We know, with our older children, there comes a point in which they are on the voyage out. They don’t need you as much. And I am worried, then, about women in less satisfying jobs intellectually. So, I think it is worth weathering. Like Carla says, it is always balancing the challenges with the rewards. But the rewards are quite significant, I think, to us as individuals, as thinking beings, as people who want to effect change.


CRONK: We didn’t have the role models [in Canada]. They certainly weren’t in England, but they were in the U.S., both in the judiciary and the practice. So, there was just a whole convergence, I think, of that. So, it was a real sense of women trying to make it, period, that was not either unique to or restricted to the law. And so, women began to look to those other women, both for support, and for clients, and business development, and for mentoring.

ROTHSTEIN: I wasn’t aware of the role models in the States. But I was aware of Eleanore Cronk and Sheila Block [of Torys] years before I met them, and I hung on to those names, I can’t tell you, fiercely, fiercely, for years, before I ever met them, because they were out there doing it, and we were all aware that they were, right. And, in fact, you [Cronk] drove me home from an inquest in 1986. I showed up for a small client. You were on for the Toronto Western Hospital, as it then was, in a senior role. And at the end of one day, she drove me home . . . and chatted with me with like I was a lawyer, and I knew what I was doing, and even sort of suggested that I had done a good job. That kept me going for a couple of years.

CHOWN:  And, as Linda says, I remember at law school in the trial advocacy course . . . if you wanted to be a litigator, you go to this course, and week after week, male litigators would come, and I would be saying, “I don’t think that is a model.” Then Sheila Block came, and I went, “Oh, what is this?” . . . absolutely stellar litigator, and . . .very effective. And I thought, “I could be one.”


CHOWN: It is such a busy career. If I look as a litigator and as a parent, I could do those two things, but I didn’t do things for myself. So, where male colleagues are playing squash, and playing hockey, and doing other things that men do when they get together . . . there was just no time for that. So, it is a sacrifice that you don’t like to acknowledge at the time.

ROTHSTEIN: I feel like some of my female friendships suffered over the years. I mean, I still have some very, very old friends, thank God, but there was very little time for them. So, they have had to be very patient with me, because, like Kirby, I felt like there were only two things that I could possibly do at the same time, and that was raise children and practise law.

MORAN: I guess I find it hard to imagine a world where I wouldn’t push myself hard to do what seems to matter. So, when I think about it, I think what I have sacrificed, but it was probably inevitable, was ease. I have no ease in my life.

CRONK: But if you look back on it after however many numbers of years it is — 25-plus for some at the table, 30 for a couple of us — I had no sense of making sacrifices at the time. But when I look back on it, what was lost is hours and hours and hours time, just time, thinking of the amount of time in the first 10 or 15 years of your career that you devoted to your career, as opposed to your friends or your family or your non-law interests. The numbers would be so scary, I believe, if one were to ever add them up.


CHOWN: I have two pieces of advice: Number 1, as a young woman, try and go to a firm that has an interest and a commitment to trying to deal with issues around retention of women, and being a more family-friendly place. Unless you are very resilient and very willing to be a pioneer, it is a hard road to deal with as the youngest member of a firm to try and make changes. But secondly, I think we as women have to continue to advocate for our very conservative profession, looking at ways that law firms of all sizes and shapes can more fairly and adequately deal with women with young children, because it is an enormous brain drain if the profession doesn’t get there.

ROTHSTEIN:  But I think women have to get the confidence to say it is long term. I actually think that is a leap of faith for most women, to be able to say to themselves in their early years, “I actually am going to make it. I am going to get there. It doesn’t really matter if I become a partner one year earlier. I am good. I can do this.” And the same thing about the kids. Absolutely the same approach about their kids, that, you know, there are going to be some slips and falls all over the place, but it is all going to work out. They love their kids. Their kids are going to love them. It is going to sort itself out.

MORAN: [I]t also really important to try to find a basis for hope because hope can push change, you know. And if you don’t feel there is hope, then you are not going to stay and push for change.

CRONK: That debate is going to have to be held. But it is going to take things like that outside the big law firms to actually help legions of women who are trying to cope with this, because . . . the majority of women aren’t practising in the firms, or the environments represented by women at this table. They are in law firms of five or fewer. And they don’t have the support in their [firms]. So, frankly, I have lost patience with the male managing partners, or the men of influence in the major firms who do not appreciate this is an issue because it was an issue 15 years ago, and they allowed it. [What] is causing Kirby’s male counterparts to pay attention, apart from people like Kirby and people like Linda, is there is this hemorrhaging of women from the big law firms. So now, it is a business issue. And the people who aren’t paying attention are losing the economic consequences of it. So, I think the wake-up call is late, but I don’t care to make it religion, as long as I get religion.

CHOWN:  There is another thing that women have to be very careful of in law firms is not always accepting the tasks that go to women. So, you must resist being the one who organizes the social events, or runs the art committee, and you must strive to be on the committee that divides up the money for the partners, or the committee that is doing business planning for your practice group, because those are the committees that actually contain, again, the elements of power and information.

CRONK: They have to be just a little bit more assertive in saying . . . what was the tradition when I was trained in the ‘70s and ‘80s, “I want a piece of the argument, I want to be on my feet”, because the comparison is, on the defence and Crown side that we see in the courts, there is a whole caldron of just astoundingly accomplished women in the Crown offices at the appellate level and at the trial level, and defence counsel who are on their feet every day. And on the civil side, they are not getting even counsel roles. So, they should be more assertive in doing that.


SWANSBURG: Well, as a client now, I would put it a little differently in the sense that it is . . . I don’t golf, and I can tell you it is phenomenal the number of times I have been invited to golf, and people are quite astounded that I don’t golf, because I am a lawyer, after all, and even a lot of female lawyers golf, but I don’t golf. And so, I always appreciate the opportunity to have sort of female-oriented events, if only because so many of the traditional client development opportunities are not very female friendly.

MORAN: I go out to events a lot, but I am a social person, so that really helps. But, I need to get up and go around and talk to people and make them know who I am, and it is a lot of work. [T]he female deans get together, so that is a great opportunity, and I think those things are really important. But, at the same time, I would imagine that it is the same for most women in leadership positions, you actually, ultimately, need to be able to bring people with power on board, and most of those people are still men.

ROTHSTEIN: I would be considered, in my firm, a pretty good rainmaker for a woman, and that is fair. People wouldn’t say that about some of the other things that I can do, but in the rainmaking department, they would say I am pretty good for a woman. But I can’t compete with my male colleagues. I just am nowhere close to as good as my male colleagues at bringing in significant business. I have tons of female contacts. I have lots of professional contacts. I might even be almost as well known as some of my male colleagues. But I can’t come close to bringing in the important work that my male colleagues can. And I think it is because I still find that part of the business quite difficult. I don’t golf. Sporting events I like, but I don’t love. So, it is an important element still, as long as men continue to hold traditions of power and have money, that we find ways, not only to network with other women, because that part I actually find easy and enjoyable and kind of stressless and effortless. And this is a typical example, you know, put me in a room with women and serve us breakfast and we are all happy and we can stay forever. And I don’t feel like I don’t have anything to say. But with men, it is still a real challenge, even with my seniority.

CHOWN: I am interested in networks, as well, internally because networks, and particularly male networks, are the best source of information that leads to power in law firms. So, when women aren’t part of these — they aren’t going out golfing with their practice group head, they aren’t getting a little bit of information about the next great brief that is coming on, and “Why don’t you go on it? I think, we have to internally in law firms figure out how to get women the same information. And maybe we have to do that more mechanically. If men understand the path to partnership because they have been coached by a male mentor, women may not have that if their mentors are less senior and other females. So, can we give them that information, to, simply, even the playing field?

ROTHSTEIN:  Well, I think professional associations, for me, had been a huge entrée into the profession more generally, and even sort of the broader legal business community, for sure. And I think women can compete very successfully in any number of professional organizations without really much difficulties. And all joking aside, if you are young, you still don’t have kids, you are the least bit athletically inclined and interested, take up golf, for God’s sake.


CRONK: [T]he definition of leadership in law firms, in particular, often comes with a constellation of characteristics that relate to taking charge and seeking opportunities, being independent. And so, in not asking for those opportunities, you are undercutting yourself in many ways by, you know, being held up against the standard that you are not demonstrating those qualities. So, it can hurt you.

MORAN: It is tricky for women to exercise that right, in a way. As you said it, you don’t want to be seen as pushy. I think women that do that are more likely to be seen as pushy, and it is more likely to be seen as problematic for women. So, I think you actually walk a bit of a fine line trying to assert yourself and be seen as someone who is capable of being in a more leadership position without being seen as pushy, aggressive, offensive. . .

ROTHSTEIN: I think men struggle with it, too, for sure. But I think women have to think about a whole bunch of things that men don’t have to think about that incredibly complicate the equation. To become effective leaders, to become respected, liked, admired leaders, I think, is really difficult. And I think it is everything about our presentation that doesn’t equip us very well for that job in the end.

CRONK: Women are not tolerated in our professional community or in the business community if they are strident or cold. And both of those things are seen as real character flaws in women, and the public simply doesn’t accept them. Whereas in men, different labels are attached to them. And some of what we are seeing in the popular press right now about what is happening on the political stage in the U.S. is a reflection of exactly those things. So, women have to be, assertive, confident in their abilities, but they cannot be offensive to their male or female colleagues.

I think women undersell themselves all the time They don’t have the same degree of confidence as their male counterparts have. So, the result of that is you can take five peers in a room, and it is the women who will be saying, “Why am I here?” It is the men who are saying, “Why aren’t I at the head of the table?” And they make a real mistake in forgetting that they have leverage, and underselling themselves.

SWANSBURG: [I]t is such a fine line between being seen as a leader and being seen as a troublemaker, I think. And you really walk that tightrope, I found, every day of trying to raise your hand and ask for the opportunities without being labelled a whiner or a troublemaker or not a team player.


ROTHSTEIN:  I spend a lot of time with female clients in senior positions telling them not to begin those difficult conversations with an apology, and women just have to stop that. That has been a very difficult lesson to learn. But women start by apologizing for all the things they don’t know, and they didn’t do, and they can think of, and so on. And it does not create the reaction they are seeking, it creates quite the opposite one.

MORAN: It is a sense of humility that can be appealing, and I think actually can work to bring people on board. But it is very, very tricky. You have to be very careful not to undercut yourself.

CHOWN: I was just going to say that I remember, as a young litigator, the women in our group noticed that every time the men came back from court doing a motion, they would say, standing in the middle of the hall very loudly, “I was great. I really killed the other side.” And women will come back and say, “What a lucky break. I don’t believe I slid that one through.” So, it was all about accident and luck. . . . I remember we said, “Okay, the next time we go to court, we are going to come back and stand in the middle of the hall, and go, ‘I was great.’” What was amazing is we all found that sort of uncomfortable.

SWANSBURG:  I remember learning about the victory lap, and there were a number of mostly senior men who, if they won in court, would walk around the halls and tell everybody about it. Women never did that.


ROTHSTEIN: I really believe a vacation . . . as soon as you have one, you plan the next. So, I think that is really, really important. I do think it is important to find some other passion in your life if you can. Sometimes a partner, sometimes a hobby, whatever else it is. And for everybody who finds exercise any kind of an outlet, it is obviously a really good and healthy way to round out one’s life. Like everything else in my life, there are periods where I have been exceedingly good at it, and there are periods, like recently, where it is not a part of my life at all.

CHOWN: I would add to that friends. I think it is very important to maintain a network of friends that are not your work colleagues. And sometimes, under pressure, we mistake our work colleagues for our friends, and you may be lucky and have a few work colleagues that actually morph into being friends, but I think it is very important to have an exterior network of people that you can turn to, you can cathart to, you can have fun with, you can laugh with, but they are separate from those you are working with on a very intense basis, on a day-to-day plane.

MORAN: I think you need to be a bit daring with your personal life, as well as with your professional life, because we all live in worlds like, I feel like I could work 24/7, and I have to be a bit courageous to say, “I am not going to. I am going to go away in the summer. I am going to have a holiday. I don’t care if all the other deans work all the time, all summer. I am not going to work all summer, and I am not going to work all weekend, and I am going to be able to do it.”

CRONK: I think friends are enormously important, and I think you have to have continuing contact with people who are outside of the legal world because it is a barometer of reality, whether you are a judge, whether you are a practitioner, whether you are in the academy. It is a very insular world. It is really easy to believe that law runs everything in life, except the legal world. And, of course, that is hugely untrue. And people with a whole lot of common sense who aren’t related to the law can bring you down to earth real easily.

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