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‘Call to arms’ for women

|Written By Robert Todd

Female lawyers in Ontario have access to a new suite of resources aimed at keeping them in the profession, as the Law Society of Upper Canada has introduced a swath of new programs that include a parental leave benefit and locum service for those in private practice.

Kirby Chown says firms should prioritize the retention of women.

“It’s really a call to arms for lawyers in the province of Ontario to participate in these projects and get onside with the law society so that Ontario can be seen as a leader on these issues,” says Kirby Chown, McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s Ontario managing partner, regarding the final report of the retention of women in private practice working group.

The law society’s Convocation on May 22 passed nine recommendations in the group’s final report, which brings in measures aimed at closing an exodus of females from a formerly male-dominated profession.

“Having read many studies on the problems relating to the retention of women that have been undertaken by private bodies or bar associations in Canada and the United States, I really see this report as being thorough and comprehensive, and coming up with some very interesting and innovative proposals for dealing with the issue,” Chown says.

The report includes nine recommendations. For large and medium-sized firms - those with more than 25 lawyers and the two largest firms in each region - the law society will administer a three-year pilot project, called the Justicia Think Tank. Participating firms will adopt programs promoting the retention and advancement of women, including collection of demographics, provision of parental leaves, business development opportunities, and placing females in leadership roles.

Large-firm lawyers will be targeted with a leadership and professional development institute, a web-based resource centre, and by the collection of data regarding changes of status with the law society.

Small-firm lawyers and sole practitioners will have access to practice locums through a five-year pilot project. That measure is aimed at filling the gap for lawyers unable to find an adequate replacement to guide their practices during leaves of absence.

A three-year parental leave benefit pilot program will get underway in 2009. It will provide benefits for those in firms of no more than five lawyers who aren’t covered by other parental financial benefit programs. The program will offer $3,000 a month for up to three months.

Other measures include the provision by the law society of direct resources for females, such as career development advice and online resources, collaboration between the law society and law schools on provision of information on the business of law, the creation of an advisory group consisting of women from equality-seeking communities to help implement the recommendations, and the development of networking strategies for women from equality-seeking communities.

The final measure is a review mechanism that’ll see programs reviewed after three years of implementation, and after five years for the practice locum program, at which time further strategies also will be considered.

The cost of the programs from 2009 to 2011 is estimated at $600,000 per year.

The largest expense will be the parental leave benefit, which is expected to be used by about 60 lawyers per year. The report’s conservative estimate pegs that to translate into a cost of about $500,000 per year, which would mean $15 per LSUC member.

The working group said in a preliminary report submitted to Convocation in April that clashes between work and family life, particularly those caused by childbirth and parenting responsibilities, are the biggest reason why women leave the profession.

The strain that exodus causes on demographics of the profession is clear, said the report: while women currently represent at least 50 per cent of law school graduates in the province, the overall number of female lawyers in private practice remains low.

Although women represented about 51 per cent of Ontario’s population in 2001, female lawyers at that time made up 32 per cent of the legal profession and 24 per cent of the lawyers in private practice, according to the report. Women now represent 37 per cent of the legal profession and 28 per cent of lawyers in private practice, said the report.

The exodus also causes financial strain.The report estimated firms incur turnover costs of $315,000 when a four-year associate leaves.

Chown says she’s been surprised by the number of female lawyers who work for firms that lack a written policy for maternity or parental leaves. “When there’s a suggestion that the law society is seeking law firms to participate in making sure those policies . . . are going to be put into place, then this is a really important first step of consistency and transparency, so when women are choosing law firms they want to work at, they will know that is something that law firm has signed on to.”

Janet Whitehead, a Sarnia lawyer who prepared the County and District Law Presidents’ Association’s submission to the law society, says the organization is pleased with the measures. She notes the measures signify a “tremendous landmark” for the profession and will benefit not only lawyers, but access to justice in general.

“It represents not only a recognition of the changes in the face of our profession over the past two or three decades, but it’s also tremendous in the sense that it appears that we’ve got lawyers across the province, regardless of the size of the firm or the individual type of their private practice, coming together to recognize the value of retaining women, and to realize that we all need to work together to advance that issue.”

Maryellen Symons, chairwoman of the Ontario Bar Association’s feminist legal analysis section, says the measures recognize “that women are not a monolithic group.”

“Francophone women, aboriginal women, racialized women in the legal profession have specific issues,” says Symons. “Issues about the intersection of gender and other aspects of identity, and it’s really important to pay attention to that.”

Symons says the report recognizes that “one size doesn’t fit all” and that measures must be molded depending on the lawyers’ style of practice.

“All of the solutions are going to have to be adapted and calibrated so that what suits a lawyer in a large firm in Toronto won’t be recommended as ‘Oh just perfect’ for a sole practitioner in [a smaller area],” she says.

Chown says firms should prioritize the retention of women not only for reasons of equality, but to help the bottom line also.

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