Women must push themselves out of their comfort zones, says Woods managing partner Caroline Biron
When Caroline Biron was called to the bar of Quebec in 1992 and embarked on a litigation career, there were far fewer women working in the field than there are today.
“If you look at the litigation demographic, you’ll see a lot of women in the first 10 years of practice, and less women as you move up the ladder,” she says.
In 2019, Biron was made managing partner of her law firm, Woods LLP in Montreal, and spoke to Canadian Lawyer about what it takes for women to succeed in what has been a predominantly male practice area – and profession.
First, she says, “women who choose litigation as a career have to be aware that it is a difficult environment” due to litigation’s combative nature. “Very often those battles are hostile; so, women need to realize it is an environment in which they need a lot of self-confidence, and resilience, and the ability to elevate yourself from your clients’ problems,” she adds.
Building a network, a presence and an expertise
An interesting career as a litigator means developing a clientele of one’s own, and “this isn’t something that happens overnight,” she says. It requires building relationships.
“The first file you work on, you will meet with your client, witnesses, and opposing counsel. You need to be a very aware of and sensitive to your impact: you want to always make a very positive, significant impact, no matter where you stand in a courtroom.
“You need to be interested in other people’s stories; you can’t limit yourself to the parameters of the litigation, but need to be interested in the broader picture, [which] will also develop very significant relationships with your clients.
“You won’t build [a network] by going to cocktail parties; you have to be mindful of any encounters in your daily life, and the impact of those. That’s what will help you develop a network which will serve you and give you a steady flow of files.
“You need to develop a clientele or an expertise, which helps put a value on you,” says Biron. Law firms value specific expertise, and “clients that likes to work with you and appreciates you.” Make sure you have a good relationship with the client, she says, including being very honest about your opinion on the merits of his case. “If you always have an honest discussion, realizing that it’s stressful for a client to be involved in litigation, you’ll develop a very useful relationship, and will build a network that will nurture your practice and make your partners see you as very valuable to the firm.”
Finding a mentor, and beating off imposter syndrome
“A mentor is very important; it’s a sounding board,” says Biron. “A mentor can give you a lot of feedback, and [provide] a safe place to discuss any doubts regarding your career, or a particularly difficult client. A mentor can help you stay in the profession, and it can certainly help you advance in the profession.
“Make sure you put your name forward for appropriate opportunities that present themselves; I find a lot of women wait before they raise their hand for certain opportunities. I’ve seen this often, [this] imposter syndrome.”
Women will often hesitate to put themselves forward for positions in their bar association or law firm, for example, reflecting on how they aren’t qualified to do the job, “whereas a mentor may help you to seize the opportunity.”
“If somebody asks you, then you should always say yes,” she says, unless of course it’s something you really have no interest in. “You should seize the opportunities for your career; when you accept a specific task, or position, then you should always be able to demonstrate what you can do, and develop new relationships. It helps you get better, and builds your skills.
“My advice for women is they have to trust themselves, and leave that place where you’re always very comfortable. You have to cherish the opportunity that is given to you when you’re not so comfortable, and then you’ll realize it’s not so difficult, it’s not such a problem. That’s how [women] will advance.”
The art of negotiation and the ‘glass ceiling’
Statistics have shown women leaving the legal profession “because the workplace is very difficult, and can become very hostile.” Biron has heard the so-called glass ceiling described as “an ozone layer of toxic gas.”
“You get there, you enter into the ozone layer, and then don’t feel that great; you question yourself, and feel you have to leave,” says Biron, adding that she has not a single friend from law school who has stayed in private practice.
“When I became a managing partner -- it’s a difficult place, and it’s where you need to have a lot of self-confidence, and have specific things you want to achieve, which will really motivate you in the morning. ‘I’ll get through whatever difficulties I need to get through, I trust this is an important thing to do, and I’ll get through any difficulties.’
The reason I'm able to do this job now is because have all those years behind me as a litigator. Being able to negotiate is being able to identify a win-win situation. The perfect outcome isn’t necessarily a judgement you’ve won, but a negotiated solution.”
Be realistic about the demands of the job
“I love this work; I find it incredibly rewarding,” she says. “But you need to be very realistic about what it will take, and make sure you’re getting the support [you need]. Now, you see people getting more help from coaching, to get particular skills. So you shouldn’t hesitate to invest in your career; don’t hesitate to improve.”