Women get advice on success in law

Two weeks after Supreme Court Justice Louise Charron criticized law firms for putting up barriers to women (see "''Priority of profit'' a barrier for women lawyers: Charron"), prominent practitioners who have lived through them gathered to give their advice on how to succeed.

Last Monday, the Law Society of Upper Canada hosted A Guide to Success: A Dialogue with Women in Law in co-operation with the Women’s Law Association of Ontario.

The event at Osgoode Hall featured several panellists speaking about their experiences in the law and included discussion on how women can break into the legal community.

Speakers included Beth Symes, a partner at Symes & Street; Kim Bernhardt of Grant & Bernhardt; Kathy Laird, executive director of the Human Rights Legal Support Centre; and Anne Ristic, assistant managing partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP.

For her part, Ristic noted there are some areas, such as developing a network and finding clients, that women still have to work harder at than men.

“There is that implicit assumption that men are more credible,” she said. “But I think that the way women can tighten that gap is by diversifying their body of work. Developing a rapport with clients will become more of a conscious thing as your career develops.”

Ristic added that mentoring opportunities, which often come through informal experiences, can be quite useful.
“Especially at larger firms, I find at least, that mentoring programs are extremely useful because the experiences you gain from them come from a variety of sources, whether formal or informal.

At my firm, you have a mentor throughout your associate career, and I think that process is invaluable because there is always someone to go to for advice. “Lawyers love to give advice - take advantage of it.”

According to the law society, women accounted for 53 per cent of lawyers called to the bar last year. But as the symposium made clear, the barriers between men and women are ever more transparent, a fact Charron highlighted in remarks prepared for a similar event in Ottawa last month at which she decried law firms’ “priority of profit” as a roadblock to women’s success and advancement.

In summing up her advice, Laird pointed to the importance of experiencing as much as possible as a young lawyer in a field that is becoming increasingly diversified.
“Different things on a resumé can add to how opportunities will start to show up,” she said. “Try to experience as much as you can.”

Another key part of the discussion focused on how lawyers can find a balance between work and home life, an area of interest for some young women starting out in the profession who wish to have a family at some point.
Bernhardt, however, gave a clear response to that issue.

Noting she entered the profession late, having gone to law school after having children, she said the most important thing for women to remember is knowing when to shut off and to give themselves and their clients boundaries.

“You need to find flexibility, set a target for yourself, ask yourself what you’re going to do, when you’re going to do it,” she said. “You have to give yourself boundaries. Make sure your clients know when they can and can’t get a hold of you.”

The ability to prioritize is an important quality to master, a skill Bernhardt said will also help to lead a career in the right direction.
Symes, meanwhile, provided one of the simplest ideas of the evening on how young lawyers can not only build relationships with clients but also start up a firm of their own.

“I had coffee, lunch, drinks, whatever, with anyone who would go with me,” she said. “At that point, it’s not so much about getting clients but it’s about getting advice. The clients will come. Setting up your own practice can be incredibly lonely, and I urge anyone wanting to do it to find a partner.”

Ronda Bessner, the mentoring initiative committee chairwoman at the Women’s Law Association, mediated the session. Despite a treacherous winter storm that hit earlier in the afternoon, about 40 women took part in the symposium.

“The event was very well attended,” Bessner says. “The room was filled with women at various stages of their legal careers. We had a lot of people from various jurisdictions, from large, small, and medium firms. A lot of people have told me how helpful it was.”

Bessner adds these kinds of events are important because they allow women who are starting out to get information on how to be successful as well as receive support from senior professionals.

“We wanted to make sure the event showed how important the mentoring process is and that there are sources of support that provide help to young lawyers in the areas of work and life balance, networking, and the practice of law itself,” she says.

“The women on the panel on Monday evening are great examples of the kind of people that younger women can go to for help in different aspects of the profession.”

Overall, Bessner was happy with the outcome of the evening. “I think the fact that we had panellists from different areas of the law was extremely important and vital for the attendees because a lot of them are just starting out. There are a lot of people that need advice like this because a lot of this isn’t stuff you can learn at school.”

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