We’ve come a long way, baby … or have we?

An update on women lawyers and the legal profession

When Ellen Schlesinger looks at the Law Society of BC’s business case for retaining women in law, she sees herself. Literally.

“I look at the statistic in the report that says “of all the women called to the bar in 2003, only 66% retained practising status in 2008,” and that’s me. I was called in 2003, and I’m no longer practising law.”

Ellen SchlesingerSchlesinger articled at a national law firm. She recalls the moment she realized she didn’t have to make it work.

“I remember I was having dinner with a friend from law school and he said, ‘you look terrible,’ because I was really exhausted and I told him, ‘I feel terrible.’ The articling experience for me, personally, was really challenging — not so much in the type of work, even though the hours were demanding, but just in terms of my personality. I didn’t fit with it. I felt like the competitive atmosphere, the focus on billing and some of the internal politics that can be present in firms was just dispiriting.”

“It would be subtle things like having people at the firm ask me whether I had plans to get pregnant, because if I did it might affect my advancement at the firm. I was young when I was articling. I was in my early 20s, so the thought of having kids was a long-term plan.”

Schlesinger said the small things added up.

“You feel like personal decisions you make might have a toll on your career, so you feel like you’re not sure who’s really in control of your life: is it you who makes the decisions or is it the structure that’s already in place in the law firm? I think it all comes together. If you’re in a situation where you feel like you’re not being ­respected for your gender or being included, all these factors add up and especially in women.”

It’s common knowledge in the legal world that the numbers add up, too. Law societies across Canada and other parts of the globe all have data illustrating the same trend: women leave the practice of law in greater numbers than men.

That’s why the Law Society of BC launched The Business Case for Retaining and Advancing Women Lawyers in Private Practice (PDF) in 2009. It explains the economic benefits for law firms of retaining and advancing women, and provides both reference materials and best practices for firms to use to create solutions that work for them.

chart: Practising status of lawyers in 2008 who were called in 2003Law Society President Gavin Hume, QC was on the task force that put together the business case.

“We know law firms are a business. When you pare back the layers, at their core they have to make money. So we knew it wasn’t enough to argue the social or ethical reasons firms should play their part in making the practice of law an environment in which women want to remain. We had to show firms what’s in it for them, and that’s what the business case articulates.”

Among other things, it outlines three good business reasons to keep women in private practice:

1. competing for clients who are increasingly demanding diversity in the legal teams they hire;

2. attracting the best and brightest, including women, with equal opportunity workplaces; and

3. avoiding the enormous costs of turnover and attrition, which is estimated at more than $300,000 for every lawyer who leaves.

Nevertheless, even if every firm in BC recognized the value of the business case, it alone would unlikely be enough to stop the exodus of women from law.

“We know that this is a complex problem,” said Susanna Tam, a staff lawyer in the Law Society’s Policy department, whose primary focus is equity and diversity. For a period of time, she, too, left the practice of law.

“Women leave law for all sorts of reasons, as do men, so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But we do hear, again and again, about certain common factors, including lack of mentorship and the need for greater flexibility and control over work-life balance.”

chart: New BC lawyers by genderTam is working with the Law Society’s Equity and Diversity Advisory Committee to bring solutions to BC to help address those common factors.

“We are in the midst of a feasibility study to bring Justicia here.”

The Justicia Project is already underway in Ontario. The Law Society of Upper Canada launched it in 2008 and now has almost 60 participating firms. Among other things, under Justicia, signatory firms commit to:

1. developing processes to compile and maintain their own gender data; and

2. implementing policies and programs designed to retain and advance women, such as: parental leave, flexible work arrangements and networking and mentoring.

Six firms in BC have already expressed interest in being a part of any future roll-out of Justicia here.

“I’m extremely pleased with the reaction I’ve had from firms,” said Tam. “I was contacting them as part of the feasibility process to gauge interest for the program in BC and many said, ‘where do I sign?’ Ontario spent three years building the program in partnership with the firms, so we need a bit more leg work here before we launch, but it was gratifying to see how much enthusiasm there is among firms.”

At the same time, Tam is also working to get a change of status survey in place to collect more qualitative data about the factors that cause women to move from, for example, full to part-time or non-practising status.

“We need to know what makes them leave so we can figure out what’s most likely to make them stay,” said Tam.

Ellen Schlesinger is clear about what didn’t work for her, but she wants to know what’s making other women leave. Schlesinger now works as a counsellor. She has just received ethical approval for her Masters thesis at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Vancouver. For her study she will interview women lawyers who have left the profession and explore their feelings at the time they made their decision, as well as the characteristics of their current careers.1

“The two ways my study will be really important are that recent research in 2007 found that women lawyers internalize their dissatisfaction with their work and it comes out as depression. So when I interview my participants, I’m going to be asking them what they were feeling at the time they left the practice of law. So firstly, my study will be useful for mental health practitioners in informing them of some of the issues facing women lawyers in counselling. Secondly, by examining the characteristics of the participants’ current careers, career counsellors will be able to use that information to see what other occupations women ­lawyers might find attractive.”

Schlesinger hopes to have the thesis completed by next spring and plans to publish it.

“I’d like the results to be accessible to the law community as well. My study will involve qualitative interviews with people, really opening up and having them tell their stories, and I will be looking for emerging themes. If my study finds women left because of A, B and C, then the legal community will know that if they address those factors there’s a greater chance of keeping women in the profession.”

Retaining women lawyers remains an important component of the Law Society’s strategic plan, and President Hume wants to see the Society do everything it can to achieve its goal.

“Women consistently take the Law Society’s gold medal for academic achievement at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. In fact for the last six years, women have swept it,” said Hume. “We know they bring extreme value to law. We also know the public is best served by a legal profession that is representative of them. It is therefore vital to the health of the profession that we do a better job of retaining women lawyers. However, as a regulator, we cannot effect change on our own. Creating an environment in which women feel welcome is ­everyone’s responsibility, and we are more than pleased to do everything we can to contribute to keeping women in law.”


1 More information about Schlesinger’s study and how to participate in it can be found at http://www.ellenschlesinger.com/.


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