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‘Priority of profit’ a barrier for women lawyers: Charron

|Written By Tim Naumetz

OTTAWA - The speech that Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Charron decided not to give at a recent symposium on women in the legal profession might have sent shock waves through the ranks of Bay Street lawyers.

Justice Louise Charron

As it is, just the text of her prepared speech, included in the literature taken home by more than 100 female lawyers, will likely stir debate through the legal community for some time to come.

The text, prepared for Charron by a former Supreme Court law clerk who now lectures at the University of Ottawa, criticizes the desire for profit and long billing hours that drive big firms in private practice.

The speech, undelivered but still circulated under Charron’s name as part of the literature for the Women Lawyers’ Symposium in Ottawa earlier this month, adds the “priority of profit” to a list of reasons for why a third of women lawyers quit within 10 years after their call to the bar.

“The ‘priority of profit’ represents a significant barrier to institutional change in the private practice environment,” the text of Charron’s speech says. “Many law firms are so focused on profit that they may be unable to appreciate the value of apparently ‘competing’ priorities like shorter hours, flexible work schedules or pro bono legal work.

Lawyers who value non-monetary goods, including family, social time or community endeavours, may feel that they simply cannot or do not wish to compete in the money-driven world of a law firm.”

The speech was prepared “at the direction” of Charron by former law clerk Jena McGill, an attribution says. Footnotes cite several recent reports and data from Canada and abroad to demonstrate that progress has been slow since former Supreme Court of Canada justice Bertha Wilson led a Canadian Bar Association task force on gender equality in the legal profession in 1993.

“Until the necessary evolutions in our society are fully realized, an immediate step towards remedying women’s attrition from private practice is for law firms to adapt and accommodate their practices to the current realities of women’s lives,” the text says.

Though Charron pointed out the prepared speech to her audience, all but a handful of whom were women, she decided to focus her remarks instead on her own experience balancing her career as lawyer and judge, her personal and professional lives, and the need for flexible work arrangements.

She did, however, joke about the cost of legal services.

“One of the things justice Charron said, tongue-in-cheek somewhat, but I think it was the only issue she raised in this regard, [was] ‘I can’t afford a lawyer,’” says Alison Dewar, a labour lawyer with Raven Cameron Ballantyne & Yazbeck LLP in Ottawa.

“If she can’t afford to have a lawyer, then who can? Of course, she was saying it tongue-in-cheek but she was also saying it to make a point about how maybe some of the ways in which we’re doing things is not worthwhile.”

Dewar agrees demands for long billing hours and time pressures are a barrier for women who want to start families, something made worse by the fact that, in most cases, the female spouse continues to shoulder most of the family burden at home.

“You get judgments about whether you’re suitable for a partnership in your first maybe seven years or so,” says Dewar, pointing out maternity leave affects billable hours during that key period.

“The pressure for profit is an enormous systemic barrier. It affects young men in very negative ways as well. If a young man wants to, for example, take parental leave [and] wants to be an equal partner in the house, his ability to do those kinds of hours is very difficult as well.”

Laurie Pawlitza, co-chairwoman of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Retention of Women in Private Practice project, says the need for transforming the traditionally male-dominated environment at many law firms surfaced at symposium workshops.

She tells Law Times one of the panellists noted her firm offers Toronto Raptors tickets to partners for business and client development but said she would prefer taking clients, along with their spouses, to an activity like the Toronto International Film Festival.

“So, it’s about recognizing that it’s perhaps time to broaden our horizons about things like business development and client development and what women will access in the firms with respect to that,” says Pawlitza.

Tom Conway, a bencher and litigator with Cavanagh Williams Conway Baxter LLP in Ottawa who was instrumental in the law society’s efforts on women in the profession, says firms face pressure to change.

“There’s a generational component to what we’re doing,” he says.

“A lot of people coming into the profession now, men and women, are saying, ‘You know, I want to have a family and I want to have a practice but I want them both and I don’t want to be sacrificing my family for my career.’”

One of the more high-profile figures in Canadian law, Clayton Ruby, says it’s time the LSUC addressed the problem directly.

“We’ve been talking about it for over a decade, and it’s time for the governing body to actually make some changes,” he says. “While it’s good and important to talk about it and to approve programs that people are having and to make sure that we communicate what things can be done, it’s time to take it more seriously.”

For more on this issue, see "LSUC all talk on women and legal aid" and "LSUC on women and legal aid"

  • Good Comment

    Rob Harvie
    Referring to the comment of Marcy Kain - that is exactly the female lawyer I would hire in a minute in my firm.
  • Priority of Profit

    Sharon Lax
    It continues to surprise me that women have so little confidence in their ability that they think that pregnancy and family inhibits their ability to succeed at a legal practice. Madame Justice Charron and others in particular the recent changes by th LSUC of Ontario seem to focus on this as the main barrier to women in the profession. Today in the Toronto Star a study of MBA women revealed a 5% disaparity in pay for female MBA's over male.

    When will we finally address the stereotypical behaviour and barriers which exist in the workplace with gender being one of the greatest. These barriers are there for women even if they have no intention of having a family or marrying for that matter.

    In order to balance career ambitions with gender demands how can you explain the barrier when it is possible to work from anywhere in the world including a neo-natal ward.

    Our goals should be to use our skills and expertise and to desire the best possible cases equally with the goal of having a great personal life and family.

    What better role model can we provide for our children than having a truly gratifying career and life where we make a difference?

    It is time to take the first step which is a comprehensive study of women in all aspects of the legal profession to review their salaries, backgrounds, articling experience, employment after the bar, partnership, compensation, time off for maternity leave, opportunities to take the lead on major cases or major transactions, etc.

    If in reading this you are interested please contact me by email
  • How sad

    Marcy Kain
    It is sad to think that someone in Justice Charron's position actually beleives that a priority of profit is a barrier to women.

    Imagine, if you will, a man making such a sexist suggestion in years past. That women have barriers because of their inherent tendency to prioritize family (i.e. children) over their careers. Because isnt that really what Justice Charron is suggesting when you get down to it? Wasnt that the assumption that was frequently used by employers to overlook female applicants - that they are mothers and therefore not as valuable or as capable of an employee? We were paid less, hired less frequently, and not given the same responsbilities as men when we were hired because of that. Is Justice Charon now suggesting that the logic behind those sexist practices has merit???

    I had thought we had come farther than that in our fight for equality - commentaries like hers simply take us back 50 years. Very sad, indeed.
  • re: Sick of hearing \"can\'t have it all...\"


    I think that the men have never asked to have it all. Family to a man is a very different thing than "Family" is to a woman. A man has a wife for his family. I'm not entirely sure what a woman has for family, but "husband" as it traditionally was, was not it. Unless "husband" becomes a lot more like "wife" a woman will never have it all. Unless maybe she's a lesbian and finds a sperm donor she likes.
  • Here, here!!

    Rob Harvie
    I agree entirely with Justice Charon..

    I have always had a desire to be the starting center for the Toronto Maple Leafs.. however, unfortunately, the team's closed-minded attitude towards putting profit and winning ahead of family considerations has made this an unrealistic goal for millons of men like me.

    Because of my family responsibilities, I was not able to devote the hundreds of hours expected by narrow-minded professional hockey teams to develop what they refer to as "skills" to play "at their level".

    Just because I'm 47, overweight, and devoid of any significant skill shoudl be no barrier to the job of my choice - and I'm demanding an immediate review of NHL hiring policies so that I might yet suit up for the leafs.

    It's not like I could do any worse.
  • Sick of hearing \"can\'t have it all\"....

    Nobody EVER asks a man if he can "have it all"....and I'm sick and tired of reading that women have to "choose".

    It is an innate human trait to want to participate in "work" and I shall have it all and I shall do it all and I can't wait for the day when nobody equates these things to being a man or a woman.

    For my daughter and for my sons, I can't wait for the next generation to "equalize" everything!!
  • Busy Dad

    I have been a partner in a 40 lawyer firm. Recall vividly the day one of the senior partners told me I was not "sacrificing" enough to move up in the partnership. Moved my practice to a boutique firm, where we have an equal partnership. Best move I every made. All of us have busy family lives. With three kids and a working spouse, I would been miserable trying to balance work and home in the old firm.
  • retired/author

    Mary E. Martin
    I practised law for thirty years starting in 1973 and raised three children. How was it possible in that period of time? There was but one option--to practice either in a very small partnership or on my own. It would have been impossible to be the kind of parent [highly involved on a day in, day out basis] and function in a large or even medium sized firm. The pressures stated in this article were even greater then and throughout my practice. When my third child was born, I moved my practice from downtown Toronto to my home. Although this was long before the advent of "home" offices [pre-computer and fax], it was the best decision I ever made because all my responsibilities were literally under one roof. The clients were delighted to come to the office in a much more relaxed setting and not to have to go downtown. It also even gave me time to write novels inspired by my practice. [website below] But it is most reassuring to see that the issues raised in this article may be seriously addressed.
    Mary E. Martin
  • There are Choices

    The thing that this article ignores is that life is about choices, for both men and women. If someone wants to work Bay Street hours and is prepared for the inevitable trade-offs in the other areas of their lives, then they should be compensated appropriately. On the other hand, if a man makes the choice that they want to work less hours, for example, to coach their son's hockey team, then that's fine, but don't expect to be a top biller (although you will still make a good living). There are lots of people of both sexes who make the choice to work in smaller towns or in out-of-downtown practices so they have more time. Some of the most successful male lawyers are also crappy fathers (I know, my dad was a busy lawyer, and sucked as a dad as he was never there), so why do women expect it should be different? Why is this even being discussed? It's about individual choices, nothing more.
  • What no one is brave enough

    To state the obvious? Money trumps family, even if by failing to maintain our population the amount of money people can ultimately make is limited?

    Why am I not surprised?

    I suppose the counterpoint to this is that women shouldn't believe that they can have it all, and that division of labour (and not just the kind that occurs in the delivery room) as was traditionally done (maybe overdone is the right word) still makes some sense.

    Imagine a family comprised of 2 Bay street lawyers? How would they do anything except bill, sleep, eat and entertain clients?
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