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LSUC targets female exodus

|Written By Robert Todd

For as little as $15 a year from each member, the Law Society of Upper Canada could make it easier for female lawyers to remain in the profession while balancing family demands, says a report from the retention of women in private practice working group.

‘I think it’s important that we promote diversity in every regard, including a reasonable balance between men and women in the legal profession,’ says Lisa Borsook.

“This is a key initiative in improving access to justice for everyone in Ontario,” says Bencher Laurie Pawlitza, co-chairwoman of the working group. “The law society has a role in helping to lead the changes that the profession must make to retain women in private practice.”

The report includes two potentially groundbreaking proposals: the creation of a parental-leave program for sole and small-firm practitioners that would give recipients up to $9,000 over three months, and a locum service that would keep practices running while lawyers are on parental leave.

For medium and small-sized firms, the report recommends the creation of the Justicia Pilot Project, which would see participating firms with more than 25 lawyers adopt programs aimed at retaining females lawyers, as well as helping them progress in their careers. It would include the collection of demographic information about firms’ lawyers, which would be kept confidential but used to track internal progress.

Convocation has granted the working group permission to take its report out to the profession for consultation. Written submissions are being accepted until April 18, after which the working group will present its final recommendations.

The report outlines some of the challenges female lawyers face. It notes that the demands of a career in law often clash with family life, and that conflict is the biggest reason why lawyers leave the profession. Childbirth and parenting responsibilities are the most pressing challenges for females. 

Women now represent 50 per cent or more of law school graduates in Ontario, according to the report. In 2001, women represented about 51 per cent of Ontario’s population, while female lawyers at that time made up 32 per cent of the legal profession and 24 per cent of lawyers in private practice. Women currently represent 37 per cent of the legal profession and 28 per cent of the lawyers in private practice, according to the report.

WeirFoulds LLP managing partner Lisa Borsook, who was a member of the expert advisory group for the report, says Ontario is behind jurisdictions such as the United States on issues of diversity and equality. Firms in the U.S., she says, have been mandated by corporations they work with to reflect the ethnic and cultural diversity of their communities.

“I don’t think we should stick our head in the sand,” says Borsook. “I think it’s important that we promote diversity in every regard, including a reasonable balance between men and women in the legal profession.

“What a waste of time, money, brainpower not to do that. We have to find a way not to squander all the time and the money and the effort that everyone put into having women lawyers in the profession,” she adds.

The report notes that the stakes are high for the profession in terms of stemming the exodus of female lawyers, with the turnover costs for firms pegged at $315,000 for a four-year associate.

“A shift in thinking is required both on the part of associates and on the part of the employers/firms,” says the report. “This shift would recognize the biological reality of an associate’s child-bearing years, for which some accommodation is required, the long-term nature of a career in private practice, and the economic realities of operating a law firm.”

Firms participating in the Justicia Pilot Project will be asked to collect demographic information about their lawyers and develop pilot programs, such as maternity/parental leaves and flexible work arrangements; encouraging networking and business development; and mentoring and appointing women to leadership positions.

The working group also recommends the creation of a five-year pilot project involving practice locums for small firms and sole practitioners. The locums would be listed on an online registry, and the program would help participating lawyers navigate the switchover to a locum.

The parental-leave-benefit pilot program would get underway at the start of 2009. It would make available to lawyers in firms of five lawyers or less $3,000 per month, for up to three months, to help pay for expenses associated with keeping their practice running during a maternity, parental, or adoption leave.

It’s estimated that the program would cost the law society about $500,000 in 2009, rising to $540,000 at the end of the three-year experiment in 2011. That breaks down to about $15 per member.

The working group also recommends some collaboration with law schools in the initiative to keep more women in the profession. It specifically calls for schools to work with the law society in providing information on the business of law, types of law practices, and practising in diverse work settings.

University of Western Ontario Faculty of Law Dean Ian Holloway is open to working with the law society on the issue. But he says if any significant headway is to be made in the short term, change is needed at the top-management levels at big law firms.

“There’s no doubt that we law schools have to be part of the solution,” says Holloway. “But if the solution is going to be found in anything other than three generations, then the law society has to begin at the top, has to begin with the management culture of law firms.

“I’m not blaming managing partners for the problem, but there’s something about the management culture of law firms that is very inefficient in business terms.”

Holloway says part of the reason is that lawyers aren’t trained as business people. Another problem is that “the partnership model encourages people to be focused on the relatively immediate short term.”

Holloway says it can be discouraging for professors and law school administrators to see passionate female students jump ship soon after graduation.

“What’s frustrating for me is to see dreams dashed so early,” says Holloway. “We know that, nowadays, most people will have three or four careers . . . That’s the reality of today’s globalized world. But what’s frustrating is to see hopes and ambitions and keenness dashed so early in careers.”

Borsook notes that the law society’s ability to solve this issue is limited, as it can’t mandate that law firms accept its recommendations. On a practical level, she says, business and cost issues must be kept in mind.

“We’re running a business here,” she says. “We can’t have a business where nobody’s here. People have to work.”       

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