Advancing Women in the Legal Profession

Women lawyers still face challenges as unconscious biases continue to slow their progress. But some are seeing signs of significant improvement
Advancing Women in the Legal Profession

When Melissa Fox-Revett left a lucrative nine-year tax practice with a downtown Toronto firm to open a restaurant in 2010, the reason was likely all too familiar to many women lawyers: an inequitable work-life balance.

The then 47-year-old told a newspaper that the long hours demanded by her career were incompatible with raising three children. “I was coming in at 7 a.m. so I could leave at 6 p.m. and see my family,” she said. “And I’d still get ‘the look’ when I left. I didn’t go to the gym, didn’t go for lunch. That’s not what I signed up for.”

Her decision to leave the profession, however, felt like “a tragedy,” she said. “A part of me will always wonder what might have been. I do feel like I lost something. It does hurt me.”

Fox-Revett’s departure from the profession was hardly an isolated occurrence. It was so commonplace that two years earlier, in May 2008, the Law Society of Upper Canada had released a report on the retention of women in private practice.

Noting that women had been entering the profession in record numbers for at least two decades, the authors countered that positive news with a disturbing negative: “However, they have been leaving private practice in droves largely because the legal profession has not effectively adapted to this reality.”

Citing the obvious – that “childbirth and taking on a significant share of the family responsibilities impact on the choices they make in their professional lives” – the report bluntly concluded that the profession had failed “to adapt to what is not a neutral reality.”

One of the primary recommendations that emerged from the report at that time was the establishment of the Justicia Think Tank (better known as the Justicia Project), whose purpose, says Janet Minor, Treasurer of the LSUC, was to engage with law firms “to develop first best practices [to support women in the profession] and a commitment to execute them.” Fifty-eight firms, of all sizes, took part in the three-year project, which wrapped up in 2014.

Numerous specific initiatives, involving policies on flexible working hours and other family-friendly practices, were developed during the project’s tenure. Some firms, of course, already had policies on such matters in place. Many did not, but they now had resources, and perhaps a new motivation, to adopt them.

Although there are no metrics so far to assess what kind of impact the Justicia Project has had on the group of women in the profession (other provinces, such as Alberta, have set up their own Justicia Projects as well), Janet Minor thinks it is “making a big contribution.”

No matter the ultimate scope of its influence, it seems clear that the Justicia Project was but one of a growing number of specific undertakings designed to support women lawyers, not just with work-life balance but with other concerns, such as advancement to the C-suite.


Finally, the issue is getting the attention it deserves.

For some time there have been more women law graduates than men, but now there are more networking associations, and more lawyers in management championing gender equity.

But the necessity of gender-equity initiatives is still clear, says Doreen Saunderson, a member of Field Law’s executive committee and the firm’s Managing Partner starting in July: “There are still some systemic barriers and challenges for women.” She points out, though, that her firm, which has offices in Calgary, Edmonton and Yellowknife and 121 lawyers, “probably has one of the highest ratios of female partners [at almost 32 per cent] for a firm our size.”

Catherine Wade, a partner in the Vancouver office of Dentons Canada LLP, also sees the necessity. “We’re still not there. In respect to women [in the C-suite], progress has been very slow.”

“It would be great if we could take gender out of the equation entirely,” says Daphne Lainson, a partner at Smart & Biggar/Fetherstonhaugh in Ottawa, “but I don’t really see an easy way to do that, even though Canada is pretty equally split in terms of gender. But for whatever reason, we’re just not seeing the same equal split within the law.”

Lisa Borsook, an Executive Partner (and former Managing Partner) in the Toronto office of WeirFoulds LLP, agrees there are areas of the profession that could be improved when it comes to women. “I would like to see, in the [Toronto] downtown law firms, more opportunities for advancement into senior management positions and senior equity positions,” she says. “I would like to see more female managing partners and more women in positions to influence how their colleagues are practising law.”

While the number of women serving as managing partners is on the rise to some extent, they are still far more the exception than the rule. “That’s true when I look around,” says Saunderson. “When I go to managing partner or firm leadership forums there aren’t a lot of women in attendance here in Calgary or at the national ones I’ve attended.”

Among the ongoing initiatives to support the advancement of women into the upper echelons of law firms is The Judy Project, run by The Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. It was launched in 2002 after Judy Elder, a senior executive at Microsoft Canada, passed away. She had been a passionate supporter of women in the professional fields, which led her friends and family to approach the school to explore what they might do to celebrate the considerable legacy she left.

This led to the creation of The Judy Project, an annual executive forum “uniquely designed to support and prepare women who are ascending into executive leadership and C-suite positions,” the Rotman School of Management explains. “Employing a variety of learning approaches, the program integrates leading academic research by Rotman faculty with expertise from an impressive roster of distinguished CEO and executive guest speakers from Canadian and global organizations.”

The one-week forum, held annually in May, brings together 25 women who have been nominated by their CEOs and identified as having the potential to move into senior positions, says Geeta Sheker, who has run the project, which she describes as “highly experiential,” since its inception. “Three law firms ‒ McCarthys, Blakes and Oslers ‒ were founding sponsors of the project and they typically send a senior lawyer every year,” she says.

While there are no statistics to assess the effectiveness of the project, Sheker says, “a number of women who took the program have moved on to C-suite positions.” She cites Dale Ponder, who was a member of the initial 2002 group and is now Managing Partner and CEO of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, LLP, as an example of someone who moved up quickly through the ranks.

A 2014 participant was Patrizia Piccolo, of Rubin Thomlinson LLP in Toronto. “One of the legacies of the Judy Project is the personal advisory board (PAB), an ongoing, everlasting relationship with six other members of the project who act as personal advisors and a support system,” says Piccolo, who spent three hours with her PAB one morning in late February. “It gives me an opportunity, in a very confidential way, to bounce ideas around and discuss any issues I might be challenged by. None are lawyers, quite deliberately, and, to me, it’s a fabulous resource.”

Piccolo, who had joined Rubin Thomlinson as a partner from a regional firm, was encouraged by one of its founders, Janice Rubin, to participate in the project. “I thought it was a great idea and looked at it as an opportunity to grow personally and also to get to know a lot of people in the non-legal world,” says Piccolo.

She says her Judy Project experience helped her discover that which “set me apart from my competitors and why I deserved to be at a higher level. I had a fabulous experience. The best words to describe it? It was life altering. I came to some realizations about myself and my capabilities and my strengths that I don’t think I saw before I went there.”

Prior to participating in the Judy Project, Piccolo had taken for granted her considerable people skills. Following a series of presentations she made at the project, “someone said to me that if she had to pick out of a roster of lawyers, she would be attracted to me because of how I presented,” she says. “Until that moment I hadn’t realized that what sets me apart in my field and industry are my people skills and my ability to present. Even in front of thousands of people, I don’t really break a sweat. I hadn’t really understood I could use that to my advantage to build an even bigger and better practice than what I had [so far].”

Evolving from the Judy Project is the Business Leadership for Women Lawyers program, which began in 2008, also at the Rotman School. “It’s the only initiative of its kind at a business school in Canada,” says Sheker, Co-founder and Director of the program. “All three of the law firm heads [of the Judy Project] felt it was really important to do something for women. They really wanted to retain and advance women, especially at the associate and senior associate level, a time when women tend to leave the profession.”

The goal of the program, a two-day event held annually in April, is to retain talented women lawyers “and give them the skills they need to advance their careers, build their practice and build their networks,” says Sheker. “A lot of the women taking the program say they wish they had some of the skills [that they acquired at the program] earlier in their career.”


For many advocates of women’s issues, it is all well and good to do advocacy work and create support systems, but the real question is what law firms are actually doing internally to improve the retention of women lawyers.

Michelle Awad, a partner and board director at McInnes Cooper in Halifax, says her firm has what it calls a promotion of women committee, which is headed up by a partner at the firm but also includes associates to assist women at all stages in their careers. “One of its recent [endeavours] is a sponsorship project in which we assign a mentor to [the women] to make sure they see opportunities and capitalize on ones that arise,” she says. “We want to make sure they’re finding their way in the profession and on the whole.”

Dentons, says Wade, addressed this problem in early 2016 by having a cross-Canada initiative “in which each of the provinces held a panel discussion on tips for aspiring women looking to get into boards and C-suite and management positions.”

Although Lainson has seen some gains for women lawyers in Canada (a former Chair of the women’s committee of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, she has seen more progress in the US), she’s not sure initiatives like the Justicia Project have made much of an impact. “I just don’t feel there are more women now in leadership roles in their firms or running practice groups,” she says.

For long-term change to occur, it needs to begin at an early stage in a woman’s career. At Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto, efforts to assist young women lawyers start when they join the firm, says Peggy Moss, a lawyer and former Assistant Attorney General in Maine, who currently serves as Blakes’ Director, New Business Development and Proposals. “This year, the articling students on their own get together every month and bring in a woman partner or woman in-house to talk about their careers bluntly and honestly. I think it shows that women themselves are initiating and really reaching out in the profession and the firm is delighted they’re doing that.”

Blakes has also, in the past, sent some women to a program in the US called “Preparing for Rain,” run by Sara Holtz, a California-based trainer and author of Bringin’ in the Rain: A Woman Lawyer’s Guide to Business Development. On her website, Holtz says that since 1997 she “has trained and coached thousands of women lawyers from leading law firms in the US and Canada to help them grow their practices.”

“She trained us and we are now doing a year-long program called ‘Making it Rain,’” says Moss. “It’s a year-long program aimed at middle-level to senior associates.” For example, she says, “we have the head of a marketing group and a woman partner and the head of professional development group and a woman partner meet with associates, and do some training on business development. Over the course of a year, the participants are expected to come in and talk about concrete things they’ve done on business development.”

The results? “What we find is that the amount of business development and cross-selling the group has done has actually increased by bringing lawyers within the firm together,” says Moss, which is interesting, especially considering that the firm has about 300 lawyers in the Toronto office alone.

From her vantage point at the Rotman School, Sheker says she believes that, in recent years, “the will is there” for law firms to change in ways that support women but “it’s the unconscious biases and stereotypes that get in the way.”

Borsook, who describes her interest in assisting women in the legal profession as “an avocation,” offers an example she often uses in speeches of how unconscious bias can occur. “Let’s say a Mareva Injunction comes into the office and absolutely has to be turned around the next day. So the senior male litigator [on the file] has three associates with whom he works, each of whom he respects enormously. One is a woman who he knows has two small children at home. So he says to himself, I’m going to do her a big favour. I’m not going to disrupt her schedule. I’m going to go to this other guy and I’m going to have him work on it because I know that over the 24 hours he’s not going to be able to go home. She does not even get the opportunity to consider whether or not she wanted to call her partner [at home] and say you’re in charge tonight. She doesn’t get that opportunity.”

When it comes time for partnership consideration, she says, “unfortunately, what invariably happens is that the partner says, you know, I worked with this guy in intense stressful circumstance over 24 hours and he did a fabulous job. [The female associate] didn’t even have a chance [to become a partner] because everyone thought they were doing her a favour.”

Many women lawyers, however, want to note that many mentors and leaders in the profession are increasingly adapting to maternity (and parental) leaves. About three or so years ago, Iris Fischer, a partner at Blakes, was scheduled to take part in a five-week libel trial that would have begun when she was on maternity leave with her second child. “My daughter would have been about five months old at that time and I wasn’t planning to be back at work by the time the trial was to start,” she says.

When she told the senior litigator on the file, Paul Schabas, that the trial date would be an issue for her, “he said, without any hesitation, that we’re just going to have to move the trial by a few months [which he made happen],” to a date when Fischer’s husband could take parental leave and she could be back on the job.

“I think a lot of lawyers would not have done what he did, so I was very lucky to have a champion like him,” she says, but adds that she’s “seeing a lot more of that kind of thing, where senior partners have done everything they can to help associates they value in their transition to and from maternity leave.”

Many law firms have entrenched maternity (and, increasingly, paternity) leave programs or informal, but completely accessible, ones. The same goes for flexible work hours and the opportunity to work from home. McInnes Cooper, as one example, has a formal policy that applies equally to men and women who have a newborn or adopted child. “We top up EI for associates for six months and the lawyer can take up to a year of parental leave,” says Awad. “For partners, we pay their draw for six months.” 

Some firms, says Lainson, “have tried to make sure that when women go on maternity leave they don’t fall off the map. They are paired off with another lawyer who stays in touch with her so she can return where she left off.”

At Weiler, Maloney, Nelson, in Thunder Bay, ON, “we’ve always had a flexible work arrangement,” says Brad Smith, who was actively involved in the Justicia Project. “It’s just never been cemented in writing.”


While there’s no question that challenges remain for women in the profession – “and our racialized professionals suggest there are particular disadvantages for racialized women,” says Minor – there are signs that change is occurring.

One positive factor is that women lawyers, unlike in the past, are often interacting with clients who are women. “I now deal with a lot more women,” says Annette Casullo, a partner at Will Davidson LLP in Huntsville, ON. “It’s been a really refreshing change.”

Fischer is finding the same thing. “Many of my clients are women. Many of the in-house counsel I deal with are women,” she says. “A lot of them are around my age [35] and have young children and understand the sorts of challenges we are faced with. In some ways, I think being a female lawyer is a growing advantage.”

To Wade, the new generation of lawyers, both women and men, are bringing a new approach to the issues that affect the profession. “What I see in the younger lawyers is that, to them, it’s not gender-specific when it comes to a request for more [work-life] balance,” she says. “They don’t label this as a gender or diversity issue but as a business issue. I find that a promising scenario.”

To Smith, “not having a level playing field or not retaining women disadvantages the profession. And it’s not just for altruistic reasons to say that. There’s a cost when a woman lawyer leaves. There’s plenty of information out there to justify the business case of keeping women in the profession.”

The reality of factors such as childbearing and imbalanced family responsibilities, as the LSUC points out, will not go away for women lawyers. That means, therefore, that if the primary measure of a lawyer’s worth to a firm – “the number of hours we sit on a chair or stand up in court,” as Borsook puts it – continues to dominate, many women will continue to face a somewhat more difficult road than their male counterparts. “It may not be politically correct to say this,” she adds, “but I think women have more on their plates.”

Like many other senior lawyers, however, Borsook sees significant improvement in the way the profession treats women from the way things were several decades ago. “I think in 2016, all law firms generally are conscious of the challenges that women face in practising law. It’s just that many are still not absolutely certain what to do about them. At the end of the day, when law firm leaders are trying to think about what’s going to make their practice profitable, there are different equations they need to take into consideration.”