My brilliant, brief career

Women lawyers are abandoning private practice 'in droves,’ citing systemic biases. So what are firms going to do about it?

KATE LUNAU May 26 2008

My brilliant, brief career

Women lawyers are abandoning private practice 'in droves,’ citing systemic biases. So what are firms going to do about it?

KATE LUNAU May 26 2008

My brilliant, brief career

Women lawyers are abandoning private practice 'in droves,’ citing systemic biases. So what are firms going to do about it?

Monica, a 29-year-old Toronto lawyer with two young children at home, is by all standard measures a success. She has struck the kind of work-life balance most professionals only dream of, even finding time to walk her daughter to school before heading to the office most days. This Monica (not her real name) attributes to her firm, which allows her to work flexible hours to spend more time with her kids. But her enviable arrangement has come at a price. For one thing, she says, she gets put on less important projects than her full-time colleagues. Also, she will probably never make partner. “Do I feel like Fm reaching my potential? No,” she admits. In fact, if her daughters one day decided to pursue a career in law, she says she would discourage them—as she sees it, female lawyers always have to choose between work and home, no matter what flexible arrangements are available.

Monica’s career may have stalled, but at least she hasn’t left private practice altogether. Earlier this year, a task force for the Law Society of Upper Canada—the regulatory body for Ontario’s lawyers and paralegals—concluded that women have been leaving law firm jobs “in droves.” Over 50 per cent of law students in Ontario are now women, and yet female lawyers represent only 39 per cent of the province’s legal profession, and just 28 per cent of lawyers in private practice. Look to the ranks of partnership, and women are even scarcer: one Massachusetts study pegged the number of female equity partners in local law firms at just 17 per cent. “Private practice has not adapted to [women’s] realities, such as childbirth and family responsibilities,” the LSUC said in a recent release.

Yet the cost of losing female lawyers is clear. “Some of the best and brightest are women,” says Bonnie Warkentin, an LSUC bencher and co-chair of its Retention of Women in Private Practice Working Group. And some clients prefer them. In the U.S., large corporate clients are beginning to request diversity statistics of their firms, a trend that’s slowly coming to Canada. “A monolithic environment is not creative,” says Veronica Jackson,

a B.C.-based lawyer and chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Forum. Not only that, a high turnover rate is expensive. Firms invest a great deal of time and money in each new lawyer they recruit and train. Studies have put the cost of the loss of a four-year associate at about $315,000.

Across North America, the legal profession is anxious to address female flight. The LSUC, for example, will vote on May 22 on a wideranging series of proposals aimed at retaining Ontario’s women lawyers, including improved parental leaves, flexible work arrangements, networking and mentorship initiatives, and a practice locum program that would help small-firm lawyers taking a leave of absence to find a substitute. Meanwhile, other so-called family-friendly initiatives—like part-time hours and on-site daycare—are popping up in firms across Canada.

It all seems very progressive, except for one thing, experts say: lawyers who actually make use of these policies risk facing a pro-

fessional dead end. According to a 2006 survey by Catalyst Canada research group, about one in four lawyers in private practice has used a flexible work arrangement—of these, over 50 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men think it has limited their careers. “There’s an unwritten rule that if you work flexible hours, it’s a barrier to partnership,” says Monica.

The legal profession is one that’s built on “face time,” says University of Calgary sociology professor Jean Wallace. In the typical law firm, she says, “it is the norm that you’re there all the time.” Needless to say, scaling back on one’s hours can be career suicide. In her 2004 study on motherhood and the legal

profession, an anonymous female lawyer told Wallace: “Our company says it believes in work-life balance and that’s its policy. Yet when it comes to being here after hours to get the work done, if you try to say you’ll do it the next day or later, that would not be an acceptable response.”

And appearances are everything. Wallace has met lawyers who leave a spare jacket at their desk before rushing home for dinnerjust to give the impression that they never left the office. Indeed, according to a report in The New York Law Journal, when female lawyers with kids are away from their desks, their

absence is often attributed to “involvement in family affairs.” Meanwhile, when childless lawyers step out of the office, it’s generally assumed they’re with clients or engaged in some other “work-related activity.”

Maybe that’s why in the U.S., where family-friendly programs are standard at large 0 firms, the number of employees who take w advantage of them hovers at just over five w per cent. In 2007, Flex-Time Lawyers LLC, a § U.S.-based consulting firm, conducted a sur> vey with Working Mother magazine to deter“ mine the 50 best firms for women lawyers. % While all of the firms chosen claimed they o consider part-time and flextime lawyers for ¡5 partnership, the survey found the number S




of these lawyers actually promoted to partner was “very low”—an average of four per firm over a five-year period.

Lawyers who do make use of these arrangements face additional anxiety about falling behind—ironically, they often end up working even harder as a result, yet their careers, and salaries, stagnate. In a recent study of 13,000 Australian professionals (including lawyers), Canadian academics Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins concluded that parttimers are often more stressed out than their full-time colleagues. “Women in our study were paid for an average of 20 hours a week,

but they actually put in 28 or 29 hours,” says Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. On top of that, they often had extra family chores to handle. “It is my opinion that family-friendly policies do not help at all,” Duxbury says.

There is, however, one group of professionals that seems to benefit from family-friendly programs: dads. A 2008 study of 670 Alberta lawyers in private practice, co-authored by Wallace at the University of Calgary, found “little support” for the notion that women use these resources to achieve better work-life balance. In fact, these programs seem to have

virtually no impact on a female lawyer’s productivity-women bill the same number of hours, whether they work for a family-friendly firm or not. Meanwhile, fathers seem to benefit quite a bit, the study says: those who work at family-friendly firms see their productivity drop, and their leisure time rise.

For women considering a career in law, one of the most troubling aspects of female flight from private practice is a dearth of mentors at the top. Julia (also not her real name), a 30-year-old Toronto lawyer who recently left private practice, says the few women partners at her firm were actually less approachable

than the men. “They had the attitude of, 1 don’t want to hear too much complaining, because you don’t know how rough I’ve had it as a woman,’ ” she says. “There’s a premium on toughness. You have to show you can handle whatever gets thrown your way.”

Like countless other firms, McCarthy Tétrault—which has offices across Canada, and one in London—has standard family-friendly policies in place, emergency daycare and flextime among them. Still, its female lawyers are attempting to carve out their own space within the larger culture. One initiative is a women’s newsletter, published three times a year. “Having your name known in a law firm is the currency of power,” says Kirby Chown, McCarthy Tétrault’s Ontario regional managing partner. “So we publicize ourselves.” And because there aren’t enough senior women to act as mentors to younger associates, peer-

to-peer mentoring has taken off. “This isn’t about women lawyers fitting into a male culture,” says Chown, who was also part of the advisory group to the LSUC’s task force. “This is about making our own culture within the firm.”

And that’s an important step in preventing female lawyers from bailing. A legal career should be “a marathon, and not a sprint,” Chown says. Monica agrees: “If you want to be on longer partnership track [and use flextime], that should be okay.” The firm would benefit, too. Wallace’s Alberta study found that women with children over the age of 13 are just as productive as women without kids—maybe because teens are helping out at home, she speculates. Even so, Julia, the Toronto lawyer, admits, “I’m surprised when I see women who are partners at law firms. Especially those with children. I don’t know how they do it.”

Until the legal profession stops “rewarding those who never say no,” Duxbury says, family-friendly policies—no matter how wellintentioned—seem unlikely to stop the exodus of women from law firms. It is, after all, a business. “A client with a million-dollar lawsuit doesn’t care about your two-year-old and his teething problems,” Higgins adds. So perhaps firms need to hire more lawyers and support staff, critics suggest. Or maybe lawyers need to get better at separating a client’s “true emergencies” from things that can wait. In the end, almost all agree that it’s the culture of the profession that has to change—so that lawyers who leave the office at 6 p.m., for instance, don’t feel stigmatized. “It’s not the bosses being the bad guys, it’s the profession itself,” Wallace says. “And it’s going to be up to [lawyers] to say, is this all there is to life?”

Julia asked herself that very question, and the answer she came up with was no. She left her position at a prestigious Bay Street law firm last year to take a job as in-house counsel at a bank. She likes the predictable hours, she says—it’s a 9-to-5 job. Yet she misses working somewhere “where law was the main concern.” She’s currently considering applying to teacher’s college. M