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The invisible woman: Women in Law Summit explores how to help women lawyers and partnership numbers

Where are the women in leadership — and when will firms help women step into the light?

The invisible woman: Women in Law Summit explores how to help women lawyers and partnership numbers
Clockwise from top left: Thouin, Kou, Dwyer, Moshiri, Bugden, Gurmukh, Roy, Stewart, Stevens, Osadchuk.

A cross-section of Ontario’s lawyers shows that the role of women in firms diminishes as you move up the ranks.

In 2016, 8.8 per cent of Ontario lawyers were female associates and 9.8 per cent were male associates. Two years later, 9.2 per cent of lawyers are female associates and 10 per cent are male associates.

By contrast, the Law Society of Ontario’s 2018 annual report shows that about 12.4 per cent of lawyers in Ontario were male law firm partners, compared to only 4.3 per cent of lawyers who were female partners. That means that, of 41,576 lawyers in Ontario, 5,168 were male partners out of the 23,594 male lawyers. Of 17,982 women lawyers, 1,770 were partners.

Not only are nearly 75 per cent of partners men, but unlike their male counterparts, there is a steep drop-off in the total number of women lawyers ages 50 and beyond.

Where are they?

“An inclusive workplace sets people up to success,” said Nikki Gershbain, chief inclusion officer at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. “It was a numbers game for a time. It became clear that didn’t work: It failed to ensure that people were receiving opportunities. People are leaving private practice in greater numbers than their non-diverse counterparts. It’s not because they don’t aspire to leadership or aren’t capable. So, what is the problem?”

The LSO has been strategizing on how to reverse this trend since the early 2000s — when it reviewed the situation in other provinces and found similar issues.

These numbers might reflect historical biases, but at Canadian Lawyer’s recent Women in Law Summit, women described how even as active practitioners, they can feel invisible: talked over in meetings, doing more “unseen” work at home, working more non-billable hours preparing for maternity leaves, having their financial contribution count for less because of a split between who is client-responsible and matter-responsible.

Then there’s the business development — fishing trips, hockey games, mixers at the same time as school pickup. A movie clip of Indigenous lawyers showed how they weren’t viewed as lawyers — and unlike others, were forced to go through metal detectors.

“I spent a lot of time when I was younger beating myself up for not having the zing to just ‘stand up for myself,’” said Cindy Kou, a business law associate at Gowling WLG, describing her run-ins with biased comments.

When women go on maternity leave, the team has to almost literally remind clients that she has not disappeared, said Mario Nigro, a partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP, who sponsors young women in the firm. By continuing to cc the woman on emails and invite her to client lunches and meetings, Nigro calls the strategy “keeping her warm.”

“It’s very hard. It’s just very, very [hard] because you haven’t done anything wrong. No one’s done anything wrong in the sense that the client is saying, ‘You’re not around anymore. I’m going to go to work with X. X is now doing great work.’ And, often, they forget about you. You come back and the relationship is gone,” he said.

Despite the docketing system and the natural case-by-case setup of law firm work, Geneviève Boulay, counsel with Westaway Law Group, noted that women working part time or from home face the stigma that working from home is not really “working.”

“If I have to leave because I have an appointment or my child is sick, I actually say that,” said Alena Thouin, corporate secretary and deputy general counsel, Financial Services Regulatory Authority. “As opposed to saying, for a personal matter, which is what I used to say. I actually actively stopped saying that, because I wanted to people to know that if you need to leave, that’s OK.”

Even when they’re in the office, women said it could be difficult not to see their identities reflected in the rest of the firm — creating pressure to suppress their own identities. Gershbain noted the lonely feeling of being the only queer lawyer when she started out, while Patience Omokhodion, a partner at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, recounted people’s apparent surprise that she was both British and Black.

“You don’t just stop being the person you’ve been at law school — and then all of a sudden you’re a new person. There is a new element, but you bring with you all that experience,” said Gina Alexandris, senior director of the Law Practice Program and special advisor at Ryerson Law.

“Two years ago, I [thought] I’m doing pretty well in my career. We had an opportunity to be at a meeting where there were a lot of senior-ranking workers and business professionals. There was a boardroom table and chairs around the wall. My instinct at that point, even though I was going to be a contributor at the meeting, was to sit in the chairs around the wall. . . . I am so grateful to this day for our colleague and friend who came up to me before we were all seated and very quietly told me, ‘You need to sit at the table.’”

Alexandris noted that another way women seem to be written out of the conversation is that roles where women are well represented — government, clinics, in-house — aren’t part of the traditional definition of “success” taught at law school. Life goes through cycles or “seasons,” oscillating between opportunities to get out and network, times where you nurture your existing networks and times when you draw on those relationships, says Colette Stewart, senior legal counsel at Interac.

“There’s a time in your life where you can’t be out, you can’t be at everything,” says Stewart. “As women, it is so important to recognize what is happening in your life and be purposeful with your time and energy. Sometimes, we think about networking against our time and personal responsibility. . . Those networks will open a door for you when you need a job, because you do have to leave a role because it doesn’t fit with your life. Those things are real.”

Lawyers at the summit put much of the onus on firm leadership to quit papering over the work women do to support the profession.

“It’s important for you to recognize female talent: In your organization, who is a potential leader? Maybe they don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle,” says Stewart. “So then invest in that person — money, time, resources, get that person to actualize the potential. To be frank, don’t allow your traditional mindset or others’ traditional mindsets to influence who you recognize. She may not come in the package you’re used to — it takes skill to recognize.”

Dal Bhathal, legal recruiter and managing partner at The Counsel Network, said that women can take steps to keep their work from fading into the background: They must keep a tally of the problems they’ve solved and successes they’ve had at work — both to remind themselves and to remind others when it comes time to negotiate pay.

“I’m on the compensation committee at the firm and it’s amazing when you look at the difference between the memos of the male lawyers versus the women. There’s actually a big difference,” said Michelle Henry, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.

“Generally, even men will take credit for everything, and women, we don’t tend to take a lot of credit. We only take credit when we really are the ones who work on the file. You really have to say, ‘How much did I bring value to the file?’ And if you did, then you need to take credit for that. Another difference is, the men will tell you exactly how much they want you to pay them.”

But while it’s urgent for firms to take action on a structural level, speakers at the summit said, women must also re-write the stories they tell themselves about success.

“There’s a lot of research, and the consensus is that women have trouble negotiating strongly on behalf of ourselves,” said Rebecca Bromwich, Gowling WLG’s national manager of diversity and inclusion.

“We have much less trouble negotiating strongly when we’re negotiating for others: negotiating for children, negotiating for our clients, negotiating for people we care about. . . . When you are negotiating your compensation package, think about reframing in your mind about who you are fighting for. Yes, it’s worth arguing for ourselves, but we’re also arguing for our families. We’re arguing for women in general.”

What women in law can say

When faced with a biased comment: In that moment, give yourself a pass. But make a plan for how you would like to have reacted next time.
— Cindy Kou, Gowling WLG

 When a diversity and inclusion-related discussion gets heated and you call someone out on their bias: Don’t let people shut down during difficult conversations.
— Charlene Theodore, Ontario English Catholic Teacher Association

 When heading into a pay negotiation: Have a trusted co-worker write a draft of your pay memos or review them.
— Daphne Lainson, Smart & Biggar

What men at firms can do

When planning business development opportunities and firm events, consider associates’ lives and priorities. Create teams around each file so that work can be handed back and forth seamlessly before and after leaves (parental or otherwise). Formalize time for lawyers to take lunches with law school colleagues.
— Jacquelyn Stevens, Willms & Shier, Environmental Lawyers LLP

 Build in ramp-ups and ramp-downs of work around parental leave, gradually reducing or increasing hours and shifting more work to a non-billable format. While these periods can still be negotiated, setting a standard avoids an endless period giving mothers less valuable files or travel because of their young children at home.
— Michelle Henry, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

 Encourage men to take leave to deal with issues such as aging parents or sick children. Encourage young women to put their names forward for bigger opportunities.
— Lydia Bugden, Stewart McKelvey

 When someone exhibits bias, a silent pause and asking, “Why do you ask that?” can prompt people to recognize their bias at play.
— Denise Dwyer, Ontario Ministry of Education

 Reduce subjectivity in partnership promotion discussions with formal applications.
— Rebecca Bromwich, Gowling WLG

 Ask women how they want to be supported — but remember it’s not the job of women to educate us.
— Sunil Gurmukh, Western Law

Budget for diversity and inclusion events and retention programming every year.
— Charlene Theodore, Ontario English Catholic Teacher Association

 Acknowledge that almost everyone — men and women — hold unconscious biases that reflect traditional gender roles. These can only be overridden consciously.
— Laleh Moshiri, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

 Don’t play head games that put women down as part of your litigation strategy.
— Shara Roy, Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP

 Set an example within your team that it’s OK to have a personal life.
— Alena Thouin, Financial Services Regulatory Authority

 Tell clients that equity is a priority for you.
— Colette Stewart, Interac

 Institute more competitive maternity leave, walk the “walk” on work-life balance, trust employees to get work done, set widely understood compensation targets, give women tasks they can use as stepping stones and don’t turn your back on women when they come to you with an issue.
— Rose Leto, Neinstein LLP

 Don’t fall back on excuses: that you’ve already “dealt with” the issues of women in your firm through a policy that’s merely window-dressing, or that you’re the “exception” to the rule when it comes to a systemic issue.
— Dale Osadchuk, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

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