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Senior women lawyers 'vastly underrepresented'

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

Money isn''t everything, especially when it comes to deciding whether to stay or leave a firm.

Kirby Chown has set up a women

That, coupled with a major shift in Canada's workforce place as baby boomers age and retire, means law firms have to change and adapt to the new generation of workers - more than half of which are women.

In Canada, 10,000 baby boomers are turning 60 every day, says Judy Ann Jaeger of Human Capital/Genderworks. This aging workforce has a major impact on business, with some corporations losing up to 50 per cent of their workforce in the next decade.

Law firms are not immune. They too will have to replenish their ranks as older, mainly male, lawyers retire.

Culture, environment, quality of work, lifestyle, and work-life balance are 80 to 90 per cent of the reasons behind a lawyer's decision to leave a firm, reports Deborah Gilles, executive director of Catalyst Canada, a research and advisory group for women in business and the professions.

"There's a clear link between an associate's perception of work-life balance and their willingness to remain in a firm," says Gilles.

Currently, 56 per cent of law school graduates are women and those high numbers have been around for quite a few years, but as McCarthy Tétrault LLP's Ontario regional managing partner Kirby Chown says, women are highly represented in the lower ranks of law firms, but are "vastly underrepresented" in the firm management and senior partner levels.

Only 17 per cent of partners at law firms are women, according to Catalyst, and more men than women associates tend to leave their firms. Many women leave the profession for good, but others move to in-house counsel where the hours and expectations are usually more predictable. The Canadian Corporate Counsel Association says about 50 per cent of in-house counsel are now women.

"Women face gender bias and exclusion," Chown recently said at a conference for managing partners. "It is of immeasurable importance for senior management to say women are important to the firm."

She said men get a lot of information through established informal networks, which don't really exist yet for women in law firms. So firms should put in place a formal system so women understand the path to partnership (tricky at the best of times) and have access to the same clients and opportunities as their male counterparts.

Not only is it important to make law firms better places for women to work, it also makes business sense. As noted above, about half of all in-house counsel are women. Women are opening businesses at a much greater rate than men. The market for law firms' services is changing, therefore it's good business for firms to change along with their clients.

As well, men and women communicate differently. Again it makes sense for firms to have new,  different ways of communicating and networking with the increasing numbers of female clients.

"You need a focused strategy where female lawyers engage female clients as to what they want," says Cristi Cooke, founder of Majority Marketing in Ottawa, which focuses on marketing to women. "But there is also an 'integrated solution,' where the whole firm is involved in finding out what women want."

McCarthy's Chown is one of the rare women in law firm management. She has put into a place a number of initiatives [see sidebar] for helping to retain and integrate female lawyers. Although hers is the largest law firm in Canada, Chown says her strategies can work for organizations of any size.

One of the big ones is to set up a women's network, which allows women to establish their own culture within the firm, find their voice, and become leaders. It has to be a grassroots thing, she says. It can't be dictated by management. Women in the firm must be receptive for it to work.

"It's difficult to establish a network if you don't have a senior champion who is a woman," notes Chown. "It has to be led by someone with some power. It won't work with a second-year associate at the helm."

Her group has been very well attended and, as a result, has set up a formal structure and subcommittees to work on particular issues or projects. One of the most successful in-house networking events was having one of the senior partners host a catered meal in her home, says Chown.

"It allowed people to 'meet' each other."

The group has now moved to focus more on business development. Most law firms have tickets for sports events as a way to connect with clients, but that doesn't necessarily work as a way for women lawyers to relate socially to clients.

Cooke says you have to be aware of social structures. "'My house is bigger, car faster' attitude doesn't really work with women clients."

Chown says they've come up with some creative ideas such as group cooking classes, wine tastings, cultural instead of sports tickets, and running a golf clinic instead of simply inviting clients to play a round of golf.

Karen Bell, a business of law consultant, says, "It's part of the ability to serve client needs and realize that accommodating lawyers is similar to the experience that their clients are going through."

Law firms should also provide mentoring by women lawyers for women lawyers. McCarthys has formal one-on-one mentoring, but the women's network has also formed mentoring circles that include whole groups of lawyers.

And the importance of providing flexibility and alternative work options for not just women who go on maternity leave or have small children but also for fathers of babies and young children goes a long way to making associates feel comfortable and therefore willing to stay on with a firm.

A Catalyst survey released a couple of weeks ago found 69 per cent of those who had never used a flexible work arrangement would like to use one, and 86 per cent of people who have used a flexible work arrangement in the past would like to use one again.

At a cost of approximately $315,000 to replace an associate, law firms should be doing all they can to retain and encourage young women to join their law firms. Word of mouth goes a long way.

Six strategies to help retain women in law firms

Kirby Chown, the Ontario regional managing partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, is one of the few women in the senior management ranks of Canadian law firms. At a recent managing partners conference she shared her ideas for better integrating women lawyers into the culture and business of the firm and therefore making it more attractive for them to stay.

Here are her strategies to help retain women lawyers:

1.    Develop a business case for keeping female senior associates in the firm and increasing their numbers in the partnership ranks and firm management.

2.    The firm should communicate its commitment to the advancement of women internally and externally.

3.    Form a women's network and support it. These networks build relationships, give women a voice, develop leadership skills, and provide a support network.

4.    Provide business development opportunities tailored to women lawyers and women clients.

5.    Enhance maternity leave/parental leave support and other work-life balance measures.

6.    Support formal and informal mentoring between senior women lawyers and younger associates.  


       - GJC
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