With International Women’s Day falling last month, I took some time to reflect on my experience as a young woman in the legal profession and the particular challenges and opportunities that I have encountered in my almost three years of practice.
This reflection is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of the challenges that women in the legal profession face, nor am I going to touch upon the topic of intersectionality, which is absolutely deserving of attention, but is beyond the scope of my personal reflection here.
In my year of call (2019), the Law Society of Ontario’s Annual Report published that in total, 43.5% of licensees were female. Interestingly, of the licensees under the age of 30, 2,301 were female and 1,672 were male, which indicates that there were more female lawyers under the age of 30 than male. Indeed, according to this report, females out-represent males in practice up to the age of 49. This is contrasted with the category of those practicing over the age of 65, in which there were 7,640 males versus 1,617 females.
This increase in female representation, however commendable, does not appear to tell the whole story. There are a multitude of fantastic articles written by female lawyers more experienced and familiar with the academic study of the challenges that women face when practicing in the male-dominated field of law than me that I have come across over the past few years. I especially enjoyed Canadian Women in the Legal Profession: From Non-‘Persons’ to Chief Justices by Sara Collin, Women in the Ontario Legal Profession: Change and Continuity – or Tranformation? by Mary Jane Massman and The invisible women: Women in Law Summit explores how to help women lawyers and partnership numbers by Anita Balakrishnan.
While there are many challenges highlighted by the aforementioned lawyers and scholars, there was one observation that resonated with me in particular. Firstly, a number of articles addressing this subject touch on the topic of the lack of retention of female lawyers in the profession, in other words, the “exodus” of female licensees from the profession in comparison to their male counterparts. This trend shows up particularly in the statistics surrounding the number of female partners versus males.
In particular, with regard to the “exodus”, Sara Collin’s article referenced the three main reasons cited by the Canadian Bar Association as follows: discrimination, carrying a heavier load of childcare and domestic duties, and a lack of work-life balance.
Personally, and in speaking with my fellow female lawyers, I believe that there is a true and deep-seated fear associated with these considerations. For example, when we turn our minds to the future of our personal lives, especially with regard to growing our families, the questions inevitably creep in: Will I fall behind my peers? Will my career trajectory suffer? Will I be able to maintain the same pace of work? If not, what does that mean for my advancement in the firm? Will my colleagues resent me for having to take over my workload while I am on leave? Will my clients forget about me and move on to another lawyer? And, ultimately, will I continue my practice?
My understanding is that these questions are directly related to the knowledge that women tend to carry a heavier load of childcare and domestic duties. It also speaks to the persisting systemic problem identified in the aforementioned articles that women must try much harder and be significantly better before they get equal recognition to their male counterparts.
For me, at least, there has been some mental reprieve from these pressures as I have had the opportunity to witness many counsel practicing successfully while maintaining that critical work-life balance. This highlights why the representation in the profession of female lawyers is important to me. Representation allows me to see with my own eyes that my fears can be managed; that the issues I have identified can be addressed.
I was exceptionally fortunate to have Kari Barry, a female lawyer practicing in Sault Ste. Marie, as my articling principal. From Kari, I received the best substantive legal mentorship a budding lawyer could ask for. I was instilled with a strong foundation of legal ethics and I learned top-tier strategies for practice, all while getting hands-on file experience. I use those skills everyday.
However, as I enter this stage of my life and practice, and as I write this reflection, I find myself thinking more on some of the non-legal things I learned from Kari as she mentored me. This is a critical point that I want to make in this reflection – the importance of female mentorship is more than the items listed in the articling rubric and it is more than learning the substantive law of the practice. It is gaining an understanding of how we, as female lawyers, can navigate the often treacherous waters in the profession that lead to the aforementioned “exodus”.
Near the end of my articling period, Kari welcomed her third son into the world. I was able to observe Kari’s commitment to both her family and her practice during my time with her. I personally witnessed her many successes in both areas. When the questions and doubts start to creep in, I consider myself lucky to have Kari’s example to refer back to and to gain the courage to proceed as I truly wish, without letting my fears hold me back.
My fortune continues with Rogers Partners LLP where I not only have the opportunity to receive the benefit of mentorship from more experienced female partners and associates, but I have the honour and privilege of working with newer calls and students as well. Given the impact that my mentorship experiences have had on me in shaping the lawyer that I am becoming, I do not take this responsibility lightly.
I hope that this reflection has communicated to you, the reader, the specific reasons why female representation and mentorship have had a positive impact on me, and I hope it gives some indication of the ways that the profession stands to benefit from addressing the particular challenges that female lawyers face.