The pandemic brings many hardships, but also provides many opportunities
The key issues women in law face aren’t new, but as with so many other areas over the last year the COVID-19 pandemic has added a new dimension to preexisting challenges.
“Women are lawyering in a home environment where they are still the default parent — the one to manage the children, to juggle childcare, to deal with the homeschooling,” says Rose Leto, partner at Neinstein Personal Injury Lawyers. “To have the burdens of the household placed upon you while finding a way to keep your day job and be competitive and marketable in a legal environment is super challenging.”
It’s even more challenging to figure out how to get out there to show you’re accepting of work, have your ideas heard and questions answered or prove you’re deserving of a promotion when you're not even just not on the same floor, “you’re in a different world.” Not to mention the fact that most of these marketing opportunities have historically been geared towards men even before COVID with after-hours drinks, for example.
As women who are not new to the legal profession, Leto says there’s an obligation not just to peers and contemporaries but also to young women entering the field “to help them find their path, to stand with them and stand behind them and empower them,” and in a COVID world that help is more important than ever.
Sonia Nijjar, lawyer at Neinstein, agrees, adding the pandemic’s pressure on things that have always been problems has made it clear that young women in law need sponsors — not mentorship but sponsors, “people who will go to bat for you, who will make space for you or show you how to make space and have ample space available to share with you.”
“It’s a challenge not only other women in the law have to be alive to — women who have obtained leadership or other opportunities that give them that platform — but men too,” Nijjar says. “We need allies everywhere.”
New layers to old problems made up much of the conversation last month when women and allies came together — virtually of course — at the Women in Law Summit 2021, where Neinstein was the title sponsor and Leto and Nijjar the co-chairs. The summit, meant to recognize, celebrate and boost the careers of women in the legal profession and inspire the next generation of leaders, definitely took the time to discuss the legitimate barriers women in law and women in industry generally face — but it also made room to explore the opportunities that have emerged.
“We wanted to turn the conversation on its head a little bit and think about what this current climate provides in terms of potential opportunity for leadership,” says Nijjar.
There’s a lot to be learned from women in other industries and disciplines, she notes, “who have shown us the male archetype to leadership is no longer the one that should be dominant, and is maybe not the most effective in meeting challenges and moving towards a more progressive future.”
Leto and Nijjar spoke about women in the media over the last year — female leaders like Angela Merkel in Germany, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan and, closer to home, female public health leaders such as Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Theresa Tam who have responded well, communicated strongly and earned people’s trust — during their presentation at the event, Opportunity in Crisis: The Power of Female Leadership. These women have leadership styles that are empathetic, data-driven and based on trustworthiness and resilience, Nijjar says, and are directly challenging male archetypes that centre around being aggressive and outwardly confident without necessarily having the backing.
“We thought about how that might work in the law — how a relational leadership model is overdue and something we look at as a potential opportunity for any organization, including law firms, to start harnessing those types of values,” she says, adding these are skills women have developed due to circumstances that called for them to be more resilient, agile and adaptable to their surroundings.
Part of Leto and Nijjar’s presentation was about how some of these traits naturally fit into what lawyers do. Many are litigators and advocates and represent diverse client populations where a leadership model based on empathy and the recognition of the importance of inclusion and diversity and understanding those concepts in a relational way is essentially a requirement. When you have that model and those traits at the forefront of what you’re doing as an organization, that naturally leads into what lawyers do, which at its core is advancing their clients’ rights and interests.
Leto and Nijjar, along with their firm, wanted to be part of the event as changemakers and lend their voices to the cause. Real change is needed when it comes to the barriers and challenges women face, and that means a conversation has to be started — but more importantly it has to continue.
“We wanted to speak out, to collaborate, to share our experience and hear theirs and talk about things that worked and ways we could all work together towards meaningful change,” Leto says. “It’s a unique event and the hope is that the spirit of it continues beyond the conference.”