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Uphill climb is an ‘unfortunate reality’

Mentors could help ease attrition of female lawyers
By Jillian Kestler-D'Amours
February 24 2017 issue

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For young female lawyers, having more experienced women to lean on for support and encouragement, or for advice on the gender challenges for them in law, often goes a long way.

In fact, it’s the key, according to several top female attorneys, to keeping women in a profession that they say is still dominated by, and largely catered toward, their male colleagues.

“Sometimes young women need to know that there are role models with whom they can look up to, whom they can turn to,” said Toronto defence attorney Roots Gadhia.

“I wish somebody was there for me 20 years ago when I first went out to kind of guide me through the process of how to deal with judges, or Crown attorneys, or defence counsel who were taking advantage of me in the way that they undermined my capabilities,” Gadhia said.

The low retention rate among female lawyers is not a new phenomenon: the Law Society of Upper Canada reported in 2008 that though women have entered the profession in large numbers, they are leaving private practice “in droves.”

That’s partially the result of the personal responsibilities many women shoulder, including childbirth and taking care of families, and “the failure of the profession to adapt to what is not a neutral reality,” the report said.

“The departure of women from private practice means that the legal profession is losing a large component of its best and brightest in core areas of practice,” the report said.

Another report published in March last year found that women in criminal defence practices appeared to be leaving that sector of the industry at higher rates than men.

That was influenced by “gender-based challenges,” the report stated, including financial and logistical issues stemming from taking time off to have a child, a reliance on legal aid certificates and differences in how they were treated by judges and others in court.

“When we speak of attrition in the workforce of female lawyers, I think that is a reality and a very unfortunate reality. I don’t think that there’s an easy or simple answer to why that is occurring,” said Janice Wright, a partner at Wright Temelini LLP.

She said attrition is especially pronounced for women at more senior levels, and this then creates the problem of having fewer, experienced, female mentors for younger lawyers.

“I think it is very important to have female role models, to have younger female lawyers be able to look around and see other female lawyers being successful in a whole variety of environments,” Wright said.

She added it can be liberating, however, to recognize there are myriad ways to have a successful law career.

“Understand the depth of choice that is really available to them and pursue a career that makes sense to them individually, rather than trying to fit into some cookie-cutter model that isn’t working,” she said.

For Sarah O’Connor, a lawyer at O’Connor Richardson Professional Corporation in Toronto, attitudes, tone and even the words used to describe female lawyers have shown her that women don’t get the same level of respect as their male colleagues.

O’Connor recalled having a paralegal refer to her in front of a judge in open court as “the pretty girl.”

She said she has had a prospective client tell her he wouldn’t retain her because he wanted to ask her on a date instead. On another occasion, she said a client would only speak to a junior male lawyer in a meeting, rather than the female lawyers handling the file.

“It’s more work on every little thing that can come up, so I’m prepared and over-prepared to deal with anything,” O’Connor said, about how she copes. But in general, she said that sexism is something she and other female colleagues have learned to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

“It’s kind of like that Ginger Rogers quote,” O’Connor said, “where she had to do everything that Fred Astaire did, but only backwards and in heels. As a female lawyer, you’re going to have to work harder to get the same level of respect.”

Miriam Anbar, an employment lawyer at Rodney Employment Law, said gaps often exist between the expectations at a large law firm and a lawyer’s ability to have a flexible schedule and well-balanced life.

For women specifically, little things add up, from pressure to return early from maternity leave, to not being assigned a file, or getting a promotion, because the firm sees them as being held back by family issues.

But taking an entrepreneurial approach to managing a law firm and giving lawyers more flexibility in their schedules and targets other than billable hours or new clients, can go a long way to keeping women in the field, she said.

“I think law firms need to think outside the box and they need to be more creative and come up with better ways of giving lawyers more choice,” Anbar said.

“I think it does end up translating to the firms’ success because if you have a happy, engaged employee, they will be more productive and ultimately, your firm will perform better.”

While Gadhia said finding a work-life balance is difficult for women in many professions, what makes law different is that in many cases, a lawyers’ worth is his or her billable time.

“And if you don’t have the time, and you’re not able to bill, and if you’re not able to give the time to your client…firms don’t see you as a financially viable option,” she said.

Gadhia admits that criminal law “is its own animal” and it comes complete with “banter that isn’t politically correct,” “misogynistic comments” from colleagues and sometimes even sexist attitudes from judges or others inside and outside the courtroom.

“You can take offence, or you can just let it roll off your shoulders,” Gadhia said.

She said she tries to ignore the comments “in a way that doesn’t condone their behaviour and at the same time lets them know you have boundaries.”

“Sometimes a quick word, like, ‘that wasn’t very nice,’ is enough. Or, ‘I’m sorry, you must have been talking to someone else,’ to put them on notice. I’ve actually said to a couple of people, ‘Why would you say something like that? That’s kind of gross,’ ” she said.

Ultimately, Gadhia said she believes that being prepared is the best defence against sexist attitudes and other pressures women bear.

“If you are prepared and you’ve done your work, it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing a skirt or not,” she said, “at some point a judge is going to have to give you the platform to represent your client.”

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