Business case for the retention of women in the legal profession

Women are entering the legal profession in higher numbers than ever before, but keeping women in the profession continues to challenge law firms in BC, Canada and across North America. It is an issue that the Women in the Legal Profession Task Force has begun addressing with several initiatives, including developing a business case looking at the need to take action to recruit and retain women lawyers.

In 2005, the task force began studying the “No Glass Ceiling” program of the Bar Association of San Francisco, in which law firms choose to make a public commitment to support women lawyers. The business case development follows a meeting held in October 2006 with representatives from some of the larger Vancouver law firms and other institutions that employ lawyers to look at the need for a similar commitment program in BC.

“Senior partners at BC law firms have indicated that the conditions for the type of commitments program that exists in the US don’t currently exist here,” says Gavin Hume, QC, task force chair and a senior partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP. “But they have indicated that there is an interest in developing a BC-specific business case for the retention of women, and we are planning to develop this in consultation with BC lawyers.”

Commitments under the “No Glass Ceiling” initiative include embracing the concept of part-time partners and flexible work schedules, offering networking opportunities and client development activities that include women lawyers at all levels and establishing gender-neutral billing. Results of a July 2005 San Francisco Bar Association survey showed that 63 per cent of responding firms had reached their commitments to have women make up at least 25 per cent of their partnership ranks. Sixty-nine per cent also reported having reached the goal of 25 per cent for management positions.

In the United States, larger corporations continue to put more attention on diversity, and have demanded that the services they contract with — including law firms — are equally diverse. In addition to the “No Glass Ceiling” initiative in San Francisco, the Chicago Bar Association has launched a “Call to Action” to promote women’s leadership in the legal profession. The Bar Association notes that firms with high percentages of women in leadership financially outperform organizations with low percentages.

The Law Society’s equity studies of the early 1990s showed that BC women lawyers were leaving the profession in disproportionate numbers to men and that many women faced discrimination in the practice of law, difficulties accommodating work and career responsibilities and barriers to career advancement. More recent studies from across Canada and the US show that these problems persist for women lawyers.

The Benchers struck the Women in the Legal Profession Task Force in December 2004 to update the studies, address equity and diversity in the legal profession and develop policy recommendations.

The business case is expected to be released in the fall