WOMEN IN LAW - For Michelle Henry, the professional is personal

Partners and associates shouldn’t shy away from talking about tough topics, she says

WOMEN IN LAW - For Michelle Henry, the professional is personal
Michelle Henry

For Michelle Henry, it’s not an option to leave her personal life at the door — nor does she want to.

“I'm West Indian, and I'm very open about my culture. I'm very open about my family— I come to the office on a Monday and I talk about how my son had a hockey tournament,” she says. “Because I have a big family, there is always something personal going on. . . You spend so much time with this job, it's hard not to talk about what's going on outside, because it's an important part of who I am.” 

While Henry — a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Toronto — knows others who like their privacy, she grew up around 10 siblings. 

“Having so many siblings sort of prepares you to be a litigator, because you're used to arguing your way through everything and trying to be on top in the end,” she says. 

The reality for her — and many others — is that she finds herself travelling more back to St. Lucia to help her parents and siblings, she says. For lawyers who are constantly responding to emails, it can be vital for law partners and associates to know what’s going on in each other’s lives, she notes. 

“I plan to be in this profession for a very long time. And I want to enjoy it,” she says. “You realize that at the end of the day — so what if you didn't make that extra hundred hours or extra bonus or whatever it is, right? . . . . You've got time to go to the gym, you went to your daughter’s track meet, and there's value to that as well.” 

As a labour and employment lawyer, Henry spends her days helping companies deal with issues like the wage gap and negotiating contracts. But even when she’s not lawyering for clients, she devotes time to helping associates with their own negotiations. 

She will be speaking on “tackling the wage gap” at the Canadian Lawyer “Women in Law” Summit, Feb. 12, 2020 in Toronto.

“Some of our female associates come back from maternity leave. And maybe you want to have some arrangement where you work four days, just for that transition period. Many times, you have associates say, ‘Okay, I'm going to take a pay cut, I'm going to get a prorated compensation because I can only work four days a week,’” she says. “You should not always assume that it's a straight 20 per cent cut in terms of your salary . . . . think about the value you bring to the firm.” 

Henry says she remembers the temptation as a young lawyer to compare herself to others — who is in the office the latest, who is billing the most hours. While it’s important to listen, be polite and have evidence to make your case, she says women sometimes face an extra pressure during salary negotiations — to avoid the “angry woman” stereotypes.

“Some lawyers in the summer take off every Friday to go play golf — you don't see them asking for a 20 per cent pay cut,” she says. “If you are a valued employee, I always say the firm is going to bend backwards to make sure you are accommodated.” 

For younger lawyers, she says it can be a confidence booster to know that you can always walk away from the table.

“If you're a really good lawyer, I think use that to your advantage in terms of negotiating [for yourself],” she says.

Despite the challenges that face lawyers in private practice, Henry maintains a love for litigation. After going in-house for 18 months, she returned to BLG. 

“There are long hours. You feel it's worth it, because you are enjoying your days,” she says. “What gets me through the difficult times is to know there will always be work. I try not to get stressed out about the files that I have in front of me, the deadlines. . . . if you tell yourself that you will do as much as you can manage, at some point you really have to make an effort to use your resources around you.” 

She says that it’s important for young lawyers to have not only mentors, but champions. “Champions are really the people who have your back in the office when you aren’t there,” she says, adding that even when delegating, she wants to make sure that she “spreads the wealth” and that associates can have a life outside the office.

“I don't want all the female lawyers to leave. We all go through these times — getting married, having kids, moving from associate to partner — things that you want to have conversations about and it is always hard to do that,” she says. 

As an equity partner, she says every senior lawyer has an incentive to keep the talent in the firm and on Bay Street.

“Especially when you're going in so many hours at the firm, it's good to have the people you can go to and say, ‘Listen, I'm having a hard day, can I just walk through this with you?’” she says.

To hear more from Michelle and other leading women in law, book your ticket to the Canadian Lawyer Women in Law Summit here.

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