From left: Emmeline Morse, Signe Leisk, Kirby Chown, Linda Rothstein and Rima Ramchandani
From left: Emmeline Morse, Signe Leisk, Kirby Chown, Linda Rothstein and Rima Ramchandani

A Faculty of Law conference in 2006 on women in law helped to launch the Justicia Project to encourage the retention of women in the legal profession. More than five years later, has anything changed?

By Karen Gross / Photography By Raina + Wilson

Back in the 1980s and '90s, when television shows like Street Legal and L.A. Law were making private practice look sexy and seductive, you could hardly blame a woman for believing that life in a law firm promised endless excitement and boundless opportunity. But for those women who were bold enough to actually try it out, reality often felt like a shockingly cold shower.

"We felt that we were under greater scrutiny than our male colleagues," recalls Linda Rothstein, LLB 1980, managing partner at Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP in downtown Toronto. "We felt that the culture wasn't entirely known or knowable to us. We felt a little bit excluded from time to time and occasionally we were subject to outright sexism."

No one would argue that life for women on Bay Street hasn't come a long way since the days Rothstein describes. What many women do say is that it hasn't progressed far enough fast enough, and it's one reason women are leaving private practice at two to three times the rate of their male colleagues even though they comprise more than half those called to the bar in the last 10 years. Across Ontario, women in private law firms hold just about 21 percent of all partnerships.

It's not a new problem but it's one that has grabbed a lot more attention and scrutiny in recent years, as young female associates continue to exit firms before they make partner—most citing work/life balance as the main issue driving them out. Several years ago, the Law Society of Upper Canada made it a priority, with the creation of a special working group tasked with the Herculean objective of keeping more women in private practice.

"In the old days when everyone had a stay-at-home spouse, the guys were able to devote all their time and energy to advancing in a firm and serving their clients because they didn't have to worry about who was going to pick up the kids," says Laurie Pawlitza, co-chair of the Retention of Women in Private Practice Working Group, and former treasurer of the LSUC. "The demographics of our profession have changed and we as a profession are slow to recognize that."

As part of its plan to move things along, the Law Society launched the Justicia Project, which now counts 58 law firms as members and is being adopted in four other provinces. Though not officially accountable or responsible for submitting statistics, the firms have pledged to adopt new practices that promote the retention and advancement of women. They include parental leave models, options for flex-time scheduling, and alternative paths for advancement that go beyond the conventional trajectories. Many larger Toronto firms had already initiated their own women's working groups, but Justicia has brought the matter into the open and forced a heightened awareness on all sides.

"When I was hired as an articling student in 2001, I was one of 32 and less than half were female," says Rima Ramchandani, LLB 2001, now a partner at Torys LLP. "As time has gone by, the number of women who have left since I began has definitely outnumbered the number of men. I was the sole remaining woman in my group."

Since then, Ramchandani has been heavily involved in the recruitment and retention of women at her firm. It's something she says Torys and others have begun to take very seriously, and not just because it's politically correct to do so. When a talented young associate leaves a firm, the firm loses not only a valuable person, but a hefty investment worth time and money. Clients are beginning to apply pressure as well, and when the bottom line is threatened, even the most traditional operations are forced to make changes.

Women are leaving private practice at two to three times the rate of their male colleagues even though they comprise more than half those called to the bar in the last 10 years. Across Ontario, women in private law firms hold just about 21 percent of all partnerships.

"The best way to deal with this in a law firm is to make a business case for it," says Kirby Chown, LLB 1979, a co-chair in the Large Firm Working Group of the Justicia project and former Ontario regional managing partner of McCarthy Tétreault LLP. "If you have a big client that says it has a big focus on retaining women lawyers, law firms want to say they do too."

But Chown argues there are other inherent factors at play that continue to compete with increasing financial and political pressure. Whether they admit it or even recognize it, she says law firms remain largely male bastions whose members still harbour implicit biases that prevent women from advancing. Justicia provides them with research-based information, aimed at teaching them how to recognize and refine their attitudes.

"If we talk about what does a successful lawyer look like, there would be lawyers who would unconsciously think of a male, tall, and able to work 2200 hours a year," she says. "For women who don't look like that or sound like that and say they'd like to rearrange their practices to fit their lives, sometimes unconscious bias decides that person doesn't have what it takes to be partner."

So a woman who opts to go into private practice after law school can sometimes face a dual challenge: the implicit bias described by Chown coupled with her own struggle to satisfy work demands, often while starting a family at the same time.

"It's hectic, for sure," says Signe Leisk, LLB 2000, a partner at Cassels Brock LLP and mother of three. "I'm always on the go. Luckily while private practice is demanding, it's not set 9 to 5 so you can have flexibility if you need to." That said, Leisk’s husband—a financial planner—has a more regular schedule than she does, and is often the parent at home with the kids in the evenings.

"Probably the most important thing is that I really love what I do," she says. "I try to take a much bigger picture look at it, because on any given day, I don't think anyone balances anything. There are days when you're just going to be swamped with work. And there are days when the home responsibilities are going to need to take precedence."

Along with shifting attitudes, many say changing demographics and a move away from the traditional billable hour model will ultimately help to keep more women in private practice. Skyrocketing hourly fees are sparking protests from clients who are beginning to demand a different kind of payment structure. And more young men coming out of law schools are seeking the same work/life balance that their female counterparts have chased for years. They too want to spend more time with their families, and their spouses often expect them to do so.

"I have certainly heard many a young law student—male as well as female—articulate an overall rejection of the law firm culture," says Brenda Cossman, professor of law and director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. "They don't want to make those kinds of sacrifices. They also want to have a life."

While the pace may be too slow for some, the trend appears to be heading in the right direction. In its 2010 Change of Status report, the Law Society of Upper Canada found that fewer women had left private practice than in 2009, and that more men had left than in the previous year. Men are also increasingly likely to cite work/life balance as the reason for a change in employment. While it's too soon to declare any kind of real shift, there is reasonable cause for optimism.  In many Toronto law firms, women are getting more support in the workplace and feeling more inclined to speak up when they feel they aren't.

"I've been so impressed by all the partners, male and female," says Emmeline Morse, JD 2008, an associate at Fasken Martineau LLP and mother of a newborn baby. "I told the firm I wanted to take a full year and I didn't know what the response would be. Everyone hands down told me to take the full year and enjoy it."

Morse is a founding member and former vice-president of Young Women in Law, an organization created by a group of 10 female articling students who felt there wasn't enough support for their particular cohort. The group focuses on networking and other matters that affect women at a similar stage, such as financial planning, how to dress for work, and how to attain that elusive work/life balance. For Morse, that last issue has become very personal, but she says she feels extremely positive about her parental leave and her return to work once it's over. She predicts a supportive spouse, helpful colleagues, and remote access to files through better technology will make her life as a working parent a lot smoother.

"Those two things—at-home access and couples recognizing that this is a 50-50 split—I think will help us see more women staying in their firms and in private practice," she says.

At the end of the day, what all young lawyers come to realize is that life in a private law firm is often tough and demanding. The hours are long, the clients can be needy, and the days are frequently unpredictable.

"A lot of women pre-empt," says Rima Ramchandani. "They look ahead before they're even ready to have kids. They worry about how they're going to manage their lives in the context of this very demanding job environment." But she and other, more seasoned lawyers are urging women to think carefully and speak up before they leave.

"What happens is often women feel too low down on the totem pole to raise questions and demand things," says Kirby Chown. "But if you are seen as a valued lawyer, they will want to keep you. They won't want to lose that talent."

And ultimately, adds Linda Rothstein, it's more about how you feel about your job, than whether you can balance it with your family obligations. Rothstein raised four children over a 30-year career in private practice. Being a good lawyer, she argues, does not preclude being a good parent.

 "I just don't see childcare as an insurmountable obstacle unless a woman really doesn't have partners who get it," she says. "The practice of law is simply not for everyone. I actually think that's the starting point of the conversation. It's not about juggling. It's about whether you really like it."