Gender quotas in the corporate sector are something that many people are advocating for. Law is no exception – many lawyers are advocating for some form of policy to help ensure there is gender balance in the legal profession. But is it necessary to go the quota route when some firms are achieving gender parity without them?

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lisa Munro, a partner at Lerners LLP – a London, Ontario based litigation firm. Lerners has managed to achieve something that many firms dream of: gender parity. And they did it without implementing gender quotas.

Munro, who is a commercial litigator in the Toronto office of Lerners, explains that gender parity simply happened organically, over time. It was not necessarily a hard objective or a set goal. It happened as a result of making it a goal to attract good lawyers and keep them. Keeping good people is just a good business decision, stresses Munro.

Munro believes that firm culture is essential to ensuring that women lawyers stay practicing law (we know the attrition rate for women in private practice is high). Having women among the leadership in a firm is key. Munro points to a past female managing partner at Lerners who was a real trailblazer. She helped shape the overall culture of the firm, acting as a role model and mentor, and making it easier for women to succeed. Others partners at the firm have also made the advancement of women a priority, notes Munro.

Lerners is part of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Justicia Project, and has such things as flexible maternity and parental leave policies. But according to Munro, policies are not enough. “There needs to be demonstrated support for these initiatives from the top and ingrained in the culture”, says Munro.

To be clear, Lerners parity is at the associate level and not at the partner level. But it is still a huge achievement, especially given that almost half of the women lawyers at Lerners are partners. More firms can follow their example of how to achieve parity without resorting to quotas.

 

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As lawyers, we are often told we can do many things with our law degrees beyond just practicing law. But what can we do with a law degree if we want to actually practice law? The list is perhaps a little more limited. Work with a firm in private practice or as a sole practitioner, or work in government, not-for-profit or in-house.

But wait, there’s another option: freelance lawyering. That’s right, freelance lawyering is a real thing and there are people doing it quite successfully.

I first became aware of this interesting niche-area when I was attending a women’s lawyer networking event several months ago. I met a lawyer there who introduced herself as a “freelance lawyer”, a term which was so new to me I had to ask what it was. That lawyer turned out to be Erin Cowling, a Toronto-based freelance lawyer who is also the co-founder of “Flex Legal Network” – a network of freelance lawyers who practice law independently.

Here is how it works. Let’s say a law firm gets a really big case and needs a few extra lawyers to assist with the legal work, but they don’t want to hire new associates to help with just one project. This firm would give Flex Legal Network a call and get set up with a lawyer with the appropriate expertise and background to help them on their big case. Other things Flex Legal Network can assist with include legal research, drafting, second-chairing a trial, document review, website content production such as blog posts and court appearances.

Flex Legal Network was founded by Erin Cowling and Ashleigh Frankel, both busy moms who, after years of practicing law in traditional firm environments, decided they wanted more choice, flexibility and balance.

They realized there are many lawyers out there who need an extra hand or two to help with large projects, and are looking for cost-effective and flexible solutions. Flex Legal Network involves lawyers from all different areas – criminal, family, corporate, etc. so they are able to meet a wide variety of needs. Because freelance lawyers do not have the overhead that law firms have, they are able to keep their rates reasonable and make themselves an attractive option for firms looking to outsource their overflow work.

Because I practice insurance law, of course I wanted to know how their insurance works. Cowling says that the lawyers in her network are all registered with the Law Society of Upper Canada as sole practitioners. Their professional relationship is with the lawyers they service, not the clients of those lawyers. However the same professional responsibility requirements exists for them as would any lawyer in a lawyer-client relationship.

Freelance lawyering is certainly innovative and interesting, but is it a good thing for the legal industry as a whole? Could it result in less associate lawyer positions for young lawyers because it is easier for firms to opt to outsource their work?

Cowling believes freelance lawyering is a positive, not a negative, to the legal professional by providing lawyers with alternative fee arrangements and meeting an industry demand.
Time will tell what the impact of freelance lawyering is on the legal industry as a whole. But it is a great that it exists as an option, especially for lawyers who want to utilize their skill set but are looking for more flexibility and work-life balance.

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Lawyers are used to helping their clients solve their problems. It’s our job, and we take pride in it. In a busy law practice environment with a seemingly endless stream of emails, calls and last minute crisis moments, lawyers don’t often take the time to focus on themselves.

Sheena MacAskill is a lawyer who has carved out a career path for herself coaching lawyers. But wait, aren’t lawyers supposed to have it all figured out when it comes to their careers? We graduate law school, join firms as associates, work hard and then make partner, right?

As it turns out, it isn’t that easy, and legal careers these days can take many unexpected turns and can come in different shapes and sizes. This is where someone like Sheena comes in. A former big law lawyer, Sheena has coached many lawyers through major career events like a lay off or a career change, to major life events like becoming a parent.

I first met Sheena at an event hosted by Young Women in Law, where she shared some tips about how to ace a performance evaluation at work (tip, don’t be afraid to brag about your achievements and take credit!).  She made a really good point that I think everyone should print out and frame on their desk, “you are the only person who will take care of your career, don’t expect others to.”

When you let your career go on auto pilot, or wait for others to recognize you and give you promotions, you can easily end up stuck in a job you do not like. Sheena’s advice is to write a list of career goals for the year, and keep it somewhere front and center where you can check it as often as you check your email. Be accountable to yourself.

It isn’t just major career events that lawyers sometimes need guidance to get them through, it is also major life events too. Sheena offers maternity leave coaching for women, to help them set up their practices for leave and prepare for the new work life balancing act ahead.

As a new mother myself, I can see how a service like that could be very useful, especially if you are in a small firm or are a sole practitioner.

Regardless of the stage you are at in your career, career coaching can be very useful.

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Last week I was called to the Bar in Ontario (my second Call ceremony since I am called in BC). Bar Call ceremonies are events  filled with tradition and history, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some modern flare. This year the Law Society of Upper Canada encouraged Bar Call participants to post photos and videos of the ceremony on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #Called2015.

It added some fun to an otherwise serious affair, with people taking goofy selfies and posting fun photos online. Here is a timeline of photos I took to document the day:

 

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The day kicked off at Roy Thompson Hall in downtown Toronto, where excited lawyers-to-be congregated outside wearing their robes, tabs, court shirts and vets with grey or black pants/skirts. This look never goes out of style!

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Roy Thompson Hall is packed and the opening speeches and keynote address have been given. The candidates for the Call to the Bar are called individually and presented to the Treasurer by members of the Convocation, which include Law Society Benchers, Judges and other distinguished guests.

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After all the candidates are Called, the Convocation adjourns and a special sitting of the Court of Appeal and the Superior Court of Justice takes place immediately, where the newly called lawyers swear their oaths.

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Let the festivities begin! Ontario now has some newly-minted lawyers, and some very excited family and friends.

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All in all, it was a great day!

By: Kathryn Marshall

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If you take a look at the average law school class in any school in this country, you will notice at least half the students are women. This is a great improvement from decades past. However, when you take a look at your average private practice, you won’t typically see this kind of gender parity.

The attrition of women from the legal profession is an issue of great concern. This is especially the case in private practice, where the drop-off of women is the most significant. While women make up around 50% of law graduates, on average they make up only around 34% of lawyers in private practice.

Thankfully, this situation is not being ignored. In 2008 in Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada launched the Justicia Project, a project designed to examine and support the retention of women in law. It has been a success thus far, with 57 participating law firms and inspiring the creation of similar projects in other provinces.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Janet Minor, Director of Equity Initiatives at the Law Society of Upper Canada and Josée Bouchard, Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, about the beginnings of this project, what it has achieved thus far and where it is headed.

The Justicia Project (background can be found here) was launched to address the problem of women leaving the legal profession in numbers that were widely disproportionate to men. While lawyers leave law practice all the time for a variety of reasons, it was clear there was a cause behind the high numbers of women bowing out from law.

Initially, the Project commenced focus groups and consultations to explore and determine the reasons behind the attrition women from law. The studies found that responsibilities and pressures that come with balancing law and family were a big reason why women left law. While all working parents struggle to find balance, the demanding and time-intensive nature of law can make it especially challenging.

The Project wanted to address this cause through engaging law firms across Ontario and providing them with resources to help them retain and empower women. These resources include manuals, policies and guidebooks, which you can check out on the Law Society of Upper Canada’s website here. The resources cover a variety of useful topics, like a Guide to assist lawyers and firms in developing flexible work arrangements and a Guide for helping forms prepare for the parental and maternal leave of lawyers.

As a new parent myself, I am particularly interested in the toolkit for new parents and information about how to set your practice up while you are on leave and what to do when you return. What to do with demanding clients and files while on maternity leave is a top question of mind for many lawyers planning to start a family.

One of the goals of the Project was to encourage firms to develop standard policies and practices surrounding maternity and parental leave, rather than the ad-hoc policies many firms adhere to. For example, many female lawyers simply negotiate their own personal maternity leave arrangement with their firm, so the practices become ad-hoc instead of standardized. With these resources, many firms now have the tools to integrate policies into their firms.

The Project also facilitates workshops, conducts research and hosts events focussed on equality issues designed to equip women with key professional skills to help them succeed. The next event will be on October 29th – details can be found here.

It is a little too early to see what the overall impact the Justicia Project has had on the legal profession, but so far the numbers look promising. Since 2000, there has been a 10% increase in the number of women in law.

There is still plenty of work to be done to retain women in law, but progress is being made, no small thanks to projects like Justicia.

By: Kathryn Marshall

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