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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In April 2014, and again in April 2015, I had the privilege of being invited as a witness to speak before Parliament’s Citizenship and Immigration Committee in Ottawa. Here is the transcript of my testimony in April 2014 with respect to strengthening the protection of women in our immigration system (specifically, changes that can be made to the sponsored spouses program). Full context and transcript can be found here.

I would first like to thank the committee for inviting me here today to speak about what can be done to better protect sponsored spouses in the immigration system.

My name is Kathryn Marshall. I’m a practising lawyer here in Vancouver. I have an honours degree with a specialization in women’s studies and feminist research. I have been a columnist with a daily newspaper here in Vancouver where I have written about women’s issues. The impact of our immigration system and women’s rights are a particular passion of mine.

Immigrating to Canada as a sponsored spouse can be a very isolating experience. In the majority of cases, sponsored spouses are women, and my comments today will focus on them.

Women coming to Canada as sponsored spouses face barriers other immigrants may not face. The sponsor, already a landed immigrant, will have a knowledge of an official language and some form of employment. These provide him with a social network and a greater ability to communicate and integrate into Canadian society. Dependent children sponsored to Canada are put through the best system invented to make friends, to learn official languages, and to integrate, and that is known as the public education system. This leaves a sponsored spouse often without a social support network outside of family and without an easy way to make friends or learn an official language.

Women sponsored as spouses are very dependent on their sponsors, which can put them in a position of vulnerability. It is much harder for women to leave a situation of abuse and neglect when they lack a support network outside of the family. This is especially true in cases where women also had children to care for. It is also much harder for women to leave the relationship when they are victims of practices that are not acceptable in Canada, including polygamy, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honour-based violence and oppression. This is obviously not acceptable.

Action is needed now to help ensure that these women are protected and can enjoy their new lives in Canada as equal, free, and productive members of Canadian society. What we need to do is help women integrate, learn an official language, and understand their rights in Canada.

It has been discussed that language requirements should be imposed before spouses are allowed to immigrate to Canada. Critics have said that language requirements would prevent many family unification sponsorships. Perhaps the best solution would be to require spouses sponsored to Canada to take English or French lessons once they have arrived in Canada. Requiring courses once in Canada could be part of the conditions of residency for sponsored spouses, and these courses could be paid for by the sponsor.

Being able to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages will better enable women living in Canada as sponsored spouses to become involved in the community, meet people outside the home, obtain employment, volunteer, and get education and skills training. Having these language skills will also help women interact with important services, such as women’s crisis centres and health care providers. Mandatory language classes such as these would also have the benefit of providing socialization and the opportunity for women to meet people in those critical first few months while in Canada.

These courses could also include detailed information on women’s rights in our country. Understanding their rights and what options are available to them will assist women who want to leave their spouse due to an abusive situation.

It is also important that women understand they do not have to put up with practices that are unacceptable and illegal in Canada. It is also important that they understand their rights with respect to marital and common-law property, and with respect to family law and child custody and access.

The reality is that many immigrant women fear leaving their spouse because they are worried they will not be able to see their children or will not have access to their home. They may also be fearful of their legal status in Canada in the event they leave their abusive spouse.

Part of the application process should include explicitly making sure that sponsored spouses and their sponsors are aware of women’s rights in this country. One possible measure is signing a document, in whichever language they know best, enumerating their rights in Canada. This document would include that women are equal, have the right to end a relationship, have parental rights, and that spousal abuse is illegal, as is polygamy, forced marriage, and so-called honour-based violence.

Upon entry to Canada, sponsored spouses should also be made aware of the vast array of resources for women, including women’s health facilities, crisis centres, and educational resources, and also how to access them. It would be beneficial if more information were provided beyond just a pamphlet that’s given to them on arrival, so perhaps community organizations would be willing to voluntarily host seminars or workshops for women.

I know the study is focused on the situation of spouses, but I want to direct the committee’s attention to the fact that spouses are not the only immigrant women who need our help. Wives are not the only women at risk. We have tragically seen in Canada situations where daughters have become the victims of honour-based violence. As a country, we need to do a better job of protecting girls from this violence.

Aqsa Parvez, a Mississauga teenager who was the tragic victim of an honour killing at the hands of her own family, had sought help at a shelter, which unfortunately failed to identify the signs and sent her back to the hands of her abusers. The Shafia girls, who were brutally murdered in Kingston, had reportedly sought help from law enforcement and social workers. However, they tragically fell through the cracks.

We need to offer better training to teachers, social workers, workers in women’s shelters, police officers, and Children’s Aid Society agents to help them recognize the signs of girls in danger, and where possible, take action. The study’s scope should be broadened to take into account the situation of daughters. We must do everything we can do to make sure that every women and every girl is free and equal in Canada.

In summary, the best way to protect women coming to Canada as sponsored spouses, and to help these women break out of isolationism and better integrate into their communities, is through education. Learning an official language and understanding their full legal rights and what resources are available to them and how to access them will help fulfill these goals. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about this important issue and to offer some practical advice.

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There are many organizations within the legal profession targeted to women, from networking groups to speaker series. These are great, but they tend to attract more senior lawyers and cover issues that are relevant to that age/experience demographic. Overall, there is a lack of groups specifically geared towards junior women lawyers who are in the first years of their practice – a time when they need support and guidance the most.

That’s what makes Young Women In Law (YWL) a standout group. They are a Toronto based organization that specifically focuses on women in the first stage of their legal careers.

I recently had the chance to speak with Erica Young, a Toronto commercial litigator and President of YWL.  As Young points out, there are many organizations devoted to women in law, but there is a lack of specific attention to young women in the first few years of their practice. YWL aims to fill that gap – members must either be under 40 or in the first 5 years of their career.

YWL was founded 10 years ago by 10 young women in law who saw there was a need to promote and support newly called female lawyers. They have 250-300 members and it costs 100 dollars annually to be a member. While the organization is based in Toronto – it is open to all Canadian lawyers and articled students.

While many ‘women in law’ organizations cover more broad topics like general work life balance issues, YWL hosts speaker events on more specific topics geared to their audience of novice lawyers. These topics include things like navigating career paths, from work assignments to negotiating salary and raises. An important topic that YWL recently addressed was maternity leave – every firm does it differently but there is a lack of public information out there for lawyers looking to find out more. In many cases, the terms of a maternity leave (length, top-up, etc.) is something a lawyer may have to negotiate – taking into account many different factors.

According to Young, the top challenges facing women in law include finding quality mentorship and the attrition of women in the legal profession. They won’t be solved over night, but these are two challenges that will hopefully become easier thanks to groups like YWL.

By: Kathryn Marshall

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