Harper Grey partners create Life in Law to help women lawyers deal with challenges they face

Kim Jakeman and Una Radoja started a support forum for women lawyers seeking to balance life and law

Harper Grey partners create Life in Law to help women lawyers deal with challenges they face
Una Radoja, Kim Jakeman

It wasn’t until attending a Women in Law conference in San Francisco in 2019 that Harper Grey partners Kim Jakeman and Una Radoja realized the extent of how challenging it was for many women in the legal profession.

The statistic that hit home, says Jakeman, is that 71 per cent of women lawyers who decided to leave practice cite work-life balance as the main reason.

As well, Jakeman says, while there have been advancements in how firms treat women lawyers, women still overall make less than their male peers and are less likely to rise through the ranks. As well, Jakeman says women are often given the unbillable “housekeeping” tasks, such as organizing retreats or office parties.

“These are things that are not remunerated, they’re not really considered part of compensation, yet it comes at the cost of having less time to market their practice and do high value billable work.”

Radoja says that since she was called to the bar in 2008, she has seen improvement in efforts by mid-size and larger firms to deal with the challenges that women lawyers face, such as being made partners or put on a management board.

 “These are fairly obvious things, and should be done, but there is also a mindset in the profession that women aren’t more challenged than men, and I have to justify myself with statistics on why that attitude is wrong.”

So, when Jakeman and Radoja returned from that conference, they had a lot of late-night discussions on what could be done to lower such a high attrition rate, and specifically, what they could do.

The result is Life in Law – a confidential, free support forum for women lawyers that provides a safe place to discuss issues surrounding life in law with a team of experienced female lawyers through phone online chat, and the “Dear LiL” blog.

Since the forum launched in March of 2020, LiL has grown organically, without an advertising budget, as word of mouth and social media have helped spread the word. While initially “powered” by Harper Grey, which worked with Jakeman and Radoja to develop the site, it now operates as a philanthropic non-profit organization and is on track to expand to other firms, likely sometime in 2021.

There has been a groundswell of support from the legal community, with many firms expressing an interest in participating.

Jakeman and Radoja’s firm have also set up both the “Harper Grey" and "Life in Law Diversity awards at the University of Victoria, meant to support undergraduate women who are Black, Indigenous or persons of colour.

To be clear, both women say their time at Harper Grey has been “great,” and they feel they are treated as equals with men. They point to the fact that LiL has been so well-supported as evidence of that. Still, reaching out to the larger community of women lawyers is a great way to share expertise and let women know that there are enlightened firms out there and that others have their backs and offer advice on solving a particular gender-related problem.

“We wanted to find a less formal way to support women in law,” says Jakeman, noting that larger law firms often offer more structured mentoring programs. She and Radoja also wanted to communicate with women lawyers across all firms. There are nine “advisers” who are part of LiL, writing blog posts and communicating directly with women lawyers by online chat or phone. The nine advisers look after the phone line one week at a time, though Jakeman says online chatting is how women who contact LiL start communicating.

The biggest challenge for women lawyers, Radoja notes, is dealing with the cultural mindset of legal work and how it operates. In addition, the legal sector is a competitive place, where billable hours can be a significant factor in climbing the ladder.

For example, even when parental leave is offered to men and women, most male lawyers don’t take advantage of the program, Radoja says. And many women lawyers feel that if they take more than a few months off after having a baby, it will be much harder to catch up with clients and expect that “things will be exactly as you left it after being MIA (missing in action).” So perhaps a system of letting lawyers on parental leave “check in” with clients, or some form of reduced hours, might be a way to deal with these challenges and stay engaged with the firm, she says. And equalize things between men and women, the latter who have less choice in not staying home with a newborn.

Jakeman says that sd “starry-eyed” women law students, she and Una didn't initially think about how they may be treated differently after being called to the bar, especially when they saw women making up a larger proportion of the class, often the majority. “We’ve been lucky, but there are others who have come up against a wall because they are women. We want to help them.”

Radoja says that she and Jakeman are proud of their “baby” and are happy with the LiL platform in building a community. If LiL “talks one woman off the ledge or keeps one woman practising who otherwise might have quit, then it’s been a success.”

Adds Jakeman: “I know it sounds cheesy, but the best part of being involved with Life in Law is when we’ve gotten positive feedback from women we have helped.”

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