Retaining women lawyers

By Lesley Pritchard, staff writer

Women are drawn to the practice of law for obvious reasons. Being a lawyer is a great career for someone with a sharp mind and a desire to serve people who need help.

Women have entered the legal profession in BC in numbers equal to or greater than men for more than a decade. Yet an alarming number of them are fleeing from law firms and indeed from the profession entirely within five years after being called.

Of all women called to the Bar in British Columbia in 2003, only 66 per cent remained in practice five years later. That means one third of the women who had the smarts, the grit and the savings to get through law school and then be called to the bar, were not serving as lawyers in 2008.

The Law Society has committed to explore the reasons behind the exodus and present some possible solutions. The society’s Retention of Women in Law Task Force is presenting a business case for retaining women lawyers in private practice to the Benchers this July. In the meantime, the Law Society’s staff writer Lesley Pritchard presents the current situation, through the eyes of some practising women lawyers in this province. 


Lisa Martz
“I see an exciting new wave of lawyers who are not ashamed of seeking accommodations, without apologizing, without being ­embarrassed that they have responsibilities at home” – Lisa Martz, with her children Leo and Sadie.
Women who leave

Diana Lund (a pseudonym) thought she had made the right career choice. The Vancouver-area lawyer is not so sure now. Called to the Bar in 1999, she enjoyed working at a private firm. She had her first child five years later and then began to experience the dilemma so many other women lawyers have faced — how to raise children and survive the long hours and client demands at a law firm.

Lund has made her choice — she is now a full-time mom with three children at home. She admits she has the luxury of making that choice because her husband’s income can support them. While she is still listed as a practising member of the Law Society, Lund says she is only working on the occasional pro bono file. “I’d like to work for a private firm again,” she sighs in near defeat, “but I’m just not sure how that’s going to happen.”

Lund has serious doubts whether she should have become a lawyer. “For me, it’s not a flexible enough career option — not the way it is structured.” Lund is convinced that being a lawyer is not for a family-oriented person because of the lack of flexibility.

There is evidence that a significant number of women have felt similar regrets. The Law Society of Alberta’s 2004 Report on Equity and Diversity found that only half of former lawyers surveyed reported that if they could do it all over again they would become a lawyer. Some law schools in Canada have begun offering programs for women law students, to help them understand the realities of a law practice and to help them plot their career paths more strategically.

Lund’s story may have a familiar ring to it. More flexibility to address family responsibilities is needed, and she feels the barriers may be too great to make a comeback. While women make up more than half of all law school graduates, they leave law — and in particular private firms — at a rate two to three times the rate of their male counterparts.

Women who stay

There are plenty of women lawyers either thriving or at least making it work in private practice. The latest Law Society figures show that there are 2,227 women in private practice and 1,071 in other forms of practice. Overall, women make up 34 per cent of all practising lawyers. 

In a meeting room on the 13th floor of an office tower in the heart of Vancouver’s financial district, Lisa Martz is eager to talk about life as a partner in one of Canada’s largest law firms. At 42, the senior litigator at McCarthy Tétrault LLP has managed to find some balance. That’s despite the challenges she describes as the “double asterisk” she attaches to her name: two children born close together and an unexpected divorce when the children were very young. Paradoxically, Martz says it was her work that helped her make it through some of the tough times. “I liked my job, the challenge of it,” she recalls, “and I wanted to keep it.” 

But being in private practice is a tough game, even if it does provide a satisfying challenge that helps people. It is client-driven and the profits are based on high billing hours.

It didn’t take long for Martz to realize that there were limits to what kind of reduced hours she might be able to work, even though the firm has flexible work policies. In litigation, she says, she is often dealing with the unexpected and the client has to get the message “I’ll be there for you when you need me.” While she may leave work early some days to meet a family demand, Martz says her Blackberry is always at hand and she relies on an extensive support system including a full-time nanny, the kids’ dad, and a big network of family and friends.

“You have to enjoy the juggle,” she says.

Small communities critical

Five hundred kilometres north of Vancouver in a church-turned-office in Williams Lake, Elizabeth Hunt does the juggle every day. It is late afternoon and the sole practitioner must start packing up to drive one of her children to soccer practice. A member of the Kwakuitl First Nation, Hunt’s practice focuses on Aboriginal law, particularly treaty negotiations and residential school claims, and the work sometimes requires long distance travel. The needs of her First Nations clients are now changing, and she has added more general services such as wills, estates and personal injury. She is also a weekend professor at Thompson Rivers University.

Hunt faces a daunting number of responsibilities in her personal life as well. The single mother of two has to arrange childcare when she goes out of town for business. She survives month to month, spending $1,000 a month on childcare, plus paying down two mortgages, and insurance and professional fees. Hunt also sits on the Law Society’s Equity and Diversity Advisory Committee and is part of the Lawyer Assistance Program, giving peer support to other lawyers. When asked if it ever crosses her mind to leave her practice, she quips “Oh yeah, all the time.” A moment later she adds, “but I’ve got it pretty good.” 

Pretty good, because she feels she has more control than she would have at a big firm. “I can pick and choose,” says Hunt. When her son was born, she ran a law firm out of her home. When she moved to Alkali Lake and became pregnant with her second child, she took the newborn to the office. With some help from women in surrounding offices she could nurse and cuddle her baby girl and then get back to work.

There is no question people like Hunt provide critical services to the public she serves. And she does it while also bringing the qualities and perspectives of a First Nations woman. A credible legal profession must include people who reflect the wider population and she is part of that equation.

Not only that, Hunt carries out her duties in a small community in which her Aboriginal clients would have fewer options were she to leave her practice. BC is experiencing a dwindling number of lawyers in small and remote communities and people are struggling to get their legal needs met.

In fact, a looming shortage of lawyers is predicted, as baby boomers retire and not enough lawyers are being trained to replace them. This comes at a time when the demand for legal services continues to rise.

From private to public practice

Of those women who decide to leave private practice, many become in-house counsel or join government departments. In BC, twice as many women as men (32 per cent as compared to 16 per cent of men) practise as in-house counsel or in the public realm. The hours are often more predictable and contained and the working conditions are frequently more family-friendly and flexible, even though the pay cheque can be significantly lower.

Some women didn’t choose to make this slide over. Anne Clark recalls being pregnant with her second child while she was articling at a firm. The firm encouraged her to accept work elsewhere. “Best thing that could have happened,” Anne says. Being a mom was important to her, and she would be the last person to say she is bitter or that she thought it unfair. And she would not return to a firm, no matter the enticements. “Under no circumstances would I go back to private practice.”

Today, Clark is an experienced Crown Counsel in Vancouver, and she is clear that the move was not an “easy out” in terms of hours or responsibilities; she works hard on the many cases she takes to trial. But her outstanding colleagues, coupled with the flexibility and progressive work environment, is what keeps her there.

Clark muses about whether the tight financial margins in private practice sometimes get in the way of creative thinking. The Crown lawyer recalls herself and two other lawyers sharing office space and “working seamlessly” together on files. “Firms need to be more open to women approaching them with creative solutions like this and give it a try,” Clark says. “The whole service of the client by one person 24/7 is built around the premise another person (often a male lawyer’s wife) is handling the entire domestic front needs to change.”

Some firms embracing change

Back at that 13th floor meeting room at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, Lisa Martz considers the point that many law firms are built on the premise that a man needs to “outsource” his personal life to his wife, and make his obligations at home invisible. She is now seeing lots of positive changes for both women and men because many have stopped hiding and apologizing and started asking for flex-time arrangements and looking for other ways to meet family responsibilities. 

She also sees more firms embracing the presence of women in senior positions, not just because it harnesses potential, but because clients are demanding that women be a part of their legal teams. Then again, Martz enjoys life at one of the more progressive firms in Canada — 20 per cent of partnership positions are held by women at McCarthy Tétrault and the firm has made the retention and advancement of women a priority.

The way forward

Counting on large firms and the determined women who work in them to be the trailblazers is not going to be enough. The Law Society recognizes it must continue to play a role in pushing this issue forward.

It also recognizes that firms do not want to lose their women lawyers. A study done by the research firm Catalyst shows it costs a law firm an average of $315,000 to lose a four-year associate. 

For the wider public interest, there are several important reasons to stem the tide. Keeping more women in private law firms enhances the public’s access to a legal profession that reflects the general population. Women make up more than half of the students the province graduates; they are among some of the best and brightest minds in the province, and yet they still make up only a third of all BC lawyers. The public needs highly trained professionals in private practice who can, for example, litigate for damages, defend accused criminals, and give legal advice on complex family issues.

The next move

It only makes sense to figure out how to keep women in private practice to provide direct service to the public. The Law Society is doing its part to help keep women lawyers in private practice.

The society has introduced a series of measures over the years, including reducing liability insurance for lawyers in part-time practice and providing the option of non-practising membership status with reduced fees. It also encourages law firms to adopt policies on maternity and parental leave, along with alternative work arrangements. The Practice Standards department has also put together an online Practice Refresher Course to make it easier for former and non-practising lawyers, especially women who have left to raise children, to satisfy the requirements necessary to return to practice.

The next step is the completion of the Business Case for Retaining and Advancing Women in Private Practice in BC. That report is to be presented to Benchers after the deadline for this issue of Benchers’ Bulletin. Look for more information in the next issue.


Retention of Women in Law Task Force

Retention of women in the workforceThe Law Society’s Retention of Women in Law Task Force will be presenting its report, Business Case for Retaining and Advancing Women in Private Practice in BC , to the Benchers at their July meeting.

The task force, left to right: Jennifer Conkie, QC, Elizabeth Vogt, Richard Stewart, QC, Kathryn Berge, QC (Chair), Gavin Hume, QC, Anne Giardini, Michael Lucas (Manager, Policy & Legal Services), Maria Morellato, QC, Jan Lindsay and Susanna Tam (Staff Lawyer, Policy & Legal Services). Not pictured: Roseanne Kyle.