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Survey probes secrets of successful women lawyers

|Written By Helen Burnett-Nichols

Having a mentor as a career champion is a key element in the success of many accomplished women in the legal profession, according to the results of a new survey of high-achieving female lawyers.

Sheena MacAskill launched her survey after becoming frustrated with talk about women’s struggles in the legal profession.

Through a work-based behaviour assessment tool and survey, former McCarthy Tétrault LLP partner Sheena Mac-Askill took a look at whether a group of 22 women lawyers identified as “high performing” by their firms had similar experiences with regard to work ethic, mentorship, past leadership, and competitive sports.

MacAskill, who now provides career coaching, transition counselling, and consulting services to law firms and individual lawyers, also examined whether participants have similar work-based behavioural tendencies.

The target group, from 12 small and large firms, involved women in their fifth to eighth year of practice just having entered partnership or on the cusp of doing so. Of the group, half of which was made up of litigation lawyers and the other half made up of corporate lawyers, some were married, others were single, and some had children.

An overwhelming number of participants, says Mac-Askill, said their mentors were their champions. In fact, more than 50 per cent reported that their mentors had power to promote them.

“They were quite mindful about having selected these champions because they knew if they paired with powerful partners, it was a road to better work, access to clients, the path to partnership,” she says.

Jennifer Conroy Keating, a member of the litigation and dispute resolution practice at Torys LLP, participated in the survey and says she considers it very important to have a mentor whether through a formal or informal process.

“I found it very important to have people that I can talk to about work issues or strategy or file-specific questions, as well as career development questions,” she says.

“It is important to have women in the office that you can look up to; it is important to have role models,” she adds.

Similarly, survey participant Deborah Glatter, director of professional development and student programs at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, explains that “some women can achieve without having a champion, but it’s much harder, and pairing an excellent woman lawyer with someone in a position of power in the firm is a really good recipe for success.”

MacAskill adds: “I believe that you can’t succeed now in private practice unless you have a champion who’s going to help you up the ladder. And these women recognized that early on, most of them, and did have those champions. But I think there’s so much more potential out there for partners to be career mentors.”

Results of the study of work-based behavioural tendencies also showed interesting similarities among the participants, especially with litigators who all came out as having active work-based traits with most being dominant, driven, competitive, and action-oriented people.

On the other hand, within the group of corporate lawyers, the survey noted a blend of active and passive traits, and participants scored overwhelmingly high on people skills.

Also emerging was the fact that 80 per cent of participants had significant past leadership experience, including student government, university newspapers, debating, and competitive sports.

“It’s not to say they’re not without their struggles, because they certainly are, but this kind of attests to the fact that there are women out there succeeding and what they have in common, if anything,” says MacAskill.

“I was just getting kind of fatigued hearing all about why women are failing and how the law profession is failing women and women are dropping out by droves. I thought it’s so depressing, and wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate those who are really succeeding,” she adds.

Glatter explains that the information coming out of the survey is useful for firms in terms of both incoming lawyers and existing lawyers.

Firstly, she says, the identification of women who are likely to succeed helps the firms know which women to hire. Trends about successful women also help firms to guide lawyers along those lines to boost their chances of success.

“All of that information is useful to hopefully increase the chances that these women will succeed, become partners, sit on our executive, help run the firm in a meaningful way. We want more women at the top so we are anxious to acquire any information that might help us realize that goal,” says Glatter.

For women lawyers entering the profession, results such as these allow them to position themselves, to see what others have done that has resulted in success, and to consider whether that path is one available to them at their current firm, Glatter notes.

Conroy Keating adds that although similar traits were shown among survey participants, there were anomalies that were also useful to see.

“It’s instructive to know . . . what characteristics they’re displaying, but it’s also important to know that you can still be successful in what you’re doing even if you feel that you don’t actually have those particular traits.”

    Audrey Wakeling has considered the support of family. And I'm sure the mentor people will included this aspect of real life in their next survey. Most likley oversights are not meaning to be they are just focused.
  • Partner

    Audrey Wakeling
    I wonder whether the level of support outside the working lives of the successful women lawyers--help from parents, spouses who made a substantial contribution at home--was different than that enjoyed by less successful women. Is that one of the keys to success?
  • partner

    Mike Walker
    You could survey successful male lawyers and discover the same thing applies. Those with good relationships within their firms are more likely to succeed.
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