Women at the Top

Some adjectives are more telling than others. Take, for example, the adjective “first” in the context of the law firm appointment announcement. It rarely appears when firms trumpet the appointment of a new national, regional or local managing partner — unless the appointment has gone to a woman.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with emphasizing a particular law firm's progress on the diversity front, but simply to acknowledge that women managing partners, although no longer an uncommon breed, are still a relative novelty in the profession as a whole.

Indeed, the National Association of Women Lawyers' latest National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms found that only 6 per cent of managing partners in the United States in 2009 were women. The most discouraging aspect of the survey, however, was that that number had hardly budged, rising by a single percentage point since 2006.

Comparables for Canada are not available but anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of women managing partners in this country is growing somewhat more quickly, particularly at local and regional levels. The trend is also one that defies geographic boundaries or firm size, as evidenced by the appointment of Jerri Cairns as Managing Partner of Alberta's Parlee McLaws LLP and Çlise Poisson's appointment to the same position at Montréal's Lavery, de Billy L.L.P.

Still, such appointments are hardly de rigueur, especially in the context of the growing number of women entering the profession. Yet Lexpert had no difficulty finding interviewees for this piece, which brought together a number of woman managing partners in person and by telephone to discuss the emergence of women as national, regional and local law firm managers. So while it's unclear whether or not the proportion of women as managers in law firms will ever reach parity with the number of men in similar positions, what is clear is that they will have an increasing influence on the firms they manage and on the profession.

Which leads to an intriguing question: do women managing partners manage differently than their male counterparts?

If better is different, at least one study suggests that women do manage differently. In 2008, employment consultancy firm Peter Berry Consultancy conducted a comparative study of 1,800 Australian female and male chief executive officers and managers for the Steps Leadership Program. The study concluded that women make better business leaders than men in all but two areas of management: command and control of management operations, and focusing on financial returns.

Women exhibited more strategic drive, risk-taking, people skills and innovation, and were equivalent to men in terms of emotional stability. “Women are ambitious, bold, mischievous, colourful and imaginative,” said a statement authored by Gillian O'Mara, General Manager of the program.

Men, however, were more task focused, concentrating on the job rather than relationships. Men believe that “bottom line dollars are the only game in town,” O'Mara added. “Their key motives and preferences in life appear to be around revenue, budgets and profit. At work and at home, they are driven by financial opportunities.”

The conclusions to which the study points are not at all clear. It may well be that women manage better in six of eight leadership areas, but if men's style leads to a stronger bottom line, isn't that what it's all about?

The answer to this question may have been obvious in the past, but it's not quite as clear now. To begin with, the study does not go so far as to suggest that focusing on the bottom line necessarily leads to a stronger bottom line: rather, it suggests only that that is what men care about most. This leaves ample room for the argument that focusing more directly on factors other than the bottom line can indirectly produce a better bottom line — which would make women the better managers despite their less intense focus on profits.

Indeed, what the study doesn't ask is whether women or men are more successful managers, where success is defined as leadership that best advances an organization's particular goals. And while there's an overwhelming case for concluding that profitability is a key part of a law firm's goals, more and more attention is being paid to an underlying issue: in a structure where the owners are the individuals doing the work (as opposed to public corporations where management does the work and shareholders own the company), what other goals, such as work-life balance, imbue the partnership and to what extent is the partnership prepared to forsake some degree of profitability in order to achieve these goals?

For the purposes of this article, then, the key issue is the extent to which the gender of law firm managers influences the answer to these questions. As will become apparent, however, the answers aren't obvious. Indeed, reading between the lines of what our interviewees have to say is an absolute necessity to understanding their bent.

“Women do most everything differently than men,” says Lisa Borsook of Toronto's WeirFoulds LLP, who, despite the firm's venerability – it was founded in 1860 – was nonetheless one of the first women to be appointed managing partner of a large Canadian firm. “I perform a lot of the same functions as my predecessor, but I probably manage my professional and personal households in different ways.”

Borsook believes that today's women managers have been shaped by the fact that they paved the way for others and had to deal with the same issues as they rose through the ranks. “For us to get here, we had to learn to juggle all our responsibilities while at the same time pretending that we had no other responsibilities other than the immediate ones that arose when we were in our homes or offices,” she says. “But the next group will be different.”

Cairns of Parlee McLaws agrees that women of her generation “try to do absolutely everything,” but believes that differences in management styles are more related to individual characteristics than gender-specific. “Everyone comes with their own background,” she says. “Women may be a little more prone to a consultative approach, but on the whole, the range of management styles that we see in women is not very different from the range that we see in men.”

Anna Esposito, who managed Mississauga's Pallett Valo LLP – where five of the 11 partners and 15 of the firm's 29 lawyers are women – from 2005 to 2010, believes that the current generation of female law firm managers is practically oriented. “We tend to be very time-sensitive because of our range of responsibilities,” she says. “We could never afford to be at the office just so some senior partner could see us here. We had to be really good time managers to make sure all our balls stayed in the air. At Pallett Valo, that translates into a philosophy of client service and right-size thinking — we don't have the time to make a client's problem bigger than it is or to bring too many people to
bear on a file.”

Anne Kennedy, who from 1997–2000 managed Pallett Valo, took on the reins again as of January 1, 2011. She shares the view that much depends on the individual regardless of gender. “But I do believe that women are more consensus-oriented,” she adds.

As Nora Osbaldeston, Managing Partner of Miller Thomson LLP's Toronto and Markham offices, observes, any tendency women have to be more consultative finds its roots in the way they approach others generally. “Women probably have a greater tendency to communicate on a personal level than men do,” she says. “They're also more team-oriented. As one of my partners observes, ‘When I'm coaching girls, I don't have to teach them how to pass.' But that doesn't mean I can't flip the switch, or that men can't either.”

Kim Thomassin, McCarthy Tétrault LLP's Managing Partner for the Québec region, believes that individuals' management styles transcend gender differences. She does, however, see herself as “nurturing” and suggests that's a quality that comes more intuitively to women than to men. “I really care about getting to know people's stories, and that helps me connect better and build on the connection more easily and genuinely,” she says.

Esposito also believes that the particular traits of an individual are going to be “more indicative” of one's management style than one's gender. “I do ask myself, however, whether there is a ‘motherly' aspect to female managing partners, and perhaps there is,” she says. “The makeup of our firm, with so many women at the higher levels, does make it a kinder, gentler place, one that doesn't abide ogres in the corner offices who constantly yell at staff.”

Women may also be better equipped to deal with the issues law firms face in retaining and promoting their female lawyers. “I'm more aware of the challenges that women encounter in practice and in maintaining a work-life balance,” Borsook says. “When I deal with woman associates and partners, there's an undercurrent of understanding that comes with our common experience.”

“Can't do it,” then, may resonate differently with women managing partners than it does with men. “When a woman tells me that she is unable to do something, I don't even give it a moment's worth of thought,” Borsook says. “I also have a natural response that informs every conversation I have with female staff, and connect with them in a way that's intuitively different from the way men relate. But when it comes to committees and the firm as a whole, they are collectives made up of both sexes, and I run them differently from the way I interact with a woman alone.”

In contrast, Deborah Weinstein, Co-Managing Partner with Paul LaBarge of Ottawa's LaBarge Weinstein Professional Corporation, offers a definitive “no” when asked if women manage differently than men. “They certainly don't in my firm,” she says. “Sometimes I can be more sensitive, sometimes Paul can be more sensitive. Sometimes I'm more discreet, sometimes he's more discreet. And when it comes to understanding issues that are unique to women and communication with them, Paul and my other male partners are very aware of the gender differences and the pressures they bring to bear on professionals.”

Weinstein apart, there's something very lawyerlike – very “hedging one's bets,” very “no … but” – in the way that our interviewees responded to the question about whether women manage differently than men.

It's almost as if these women – strong individuals themselves – were torn among their acknowledgment of the powerful influence of individuality on leadership, quite apart from gender considerations; an inclination to avoid generalizations about gender differences; and a competing visceral recognition that women were more likely to bring certain characteristics to the leadership spectrum than men were.

From this perspective, a collective response to the question emerges. It acknowledges leadership as an arsenal whose parameters embrace core constituents that have a certain elasticity. On this level, it matters not whether the leader is male or female. But the way in which these core constituents – such as the ability to make decisions – manifest themselves is a function of individuality, which is by definition composed of a host of varying characteristics.

One of these characteristics is gender, including variations in the inclinations (and therefore style) to which members of each sex are disposed. But these inclinations defy straitjacket assignment to either sex and for that reason are not governed solely by gender, but also by the degree to which the inclination resides in particular individuals regardless of sex. There are also the realities imposed by societal norms. “I'm an avid golfer,” Osbaldeston says. “But I won't be going on a weekend golf trip with three male clients.”

The upshot is that, once political correctness is taken out of the equation, the answer that emerges from our interviewees is that women as a group are more likely than men as a group to bring certain characteristics to bear on leadership. Whether or not they actually do so, however, stems from their individuality — the expression of which is, arguably, the ultimate
gift of diversity.

Equally germane is the identification of the characteristics that women are more likely to employ as leaders. On close examination, the words our interviewees used – “consultative,” “consensus-oriented,” “personal communication,” “nurturing,” “motherly” and “kinder and gentler” – can all be comfortably grouped under the rubric of “bonding.”

This may be a good thing. In an era that features multinational firms comprising thousands of lawyers where retention of associates, attrition of women and work-life balance are major challenges, having a leader who is more prone to foster bonding could be a decided advantage for a law firm. This is especially true at a time when there is a greater convergence of gender issues than has ever been the case. “Young male lawyers are very involved in home life these days and face a lot of the same issues that their partners do,” Cairns says. “To some extent, they need the same kind of understanding.”

And as more female lawyers enter the managing partner ranks, their “female” characteristics will become more prone to modification by the experiences of the males who preceded them. Much like the opposition party that suddenly finds itself in power, they may discover that the realities when governing are more intrusive than they are in theory.

As Borsook notes, for example, the greater consciousness of overall profitability that comes with being a managing partner has impacted on some of her attitudes. “I look at work-life balance a little differently now that I realize how difficult it could be to run a law firm if 42 per cent of lawyers – hypothetically speaking – were on maternity leave,” she says. “I'm also somewhat more sympathetic to male colleagues who harbour a kind of resentment about the compromises they may have to make to ensure that women stay in the workforce.”

Could it be that the profession is actually making progress? Perhaps. Not only have lawyers moved beyond eschewing traditional sex stereotyping of women as passive and timid and therefore at odds with so-called “male” attitudes traditionally regarded as indispensable for the success of leaders (such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, decisiveness and forcefulness); it seems there are now signs that the profession is actually incorporating “female” attributes (integrity, diligence, cooperativeness) inclusiveness and sincerity – into current leadership models.

But if that's the case, where are the women managing partners? They remain decidedly underrepresented in a profession whose female count has grown exponentially.

In dealing with this anomaly, however, our interviewees were absolutely clear that the obstacles to their rise did not spring from the men in their firm. “The advancement of women in law firms has less to do with the relations of lawyers amongst themselves but considerably more with life issues stemming from personality and family,” Borsook says. “What I heard in my professional development was, ‘If you want to pick up and do that, you go, girl.' And none of the challenges in responding to that arose from the lawyers with whom I worked.”

Weinstein's experience is similar. “The reason I've been able to move into law firm management is because I never considered being a woman to be a disadvantage internally or in the business development or client-relations spheres,” she says. “Maybe the reason I haven't experienced a glass ceiling is because I don't see one.”

Indeed, Borsook's view is that it is the billable hour – not any perceived glass ceiling – that presents the greatest impediment to growth in the ranks of female managers in law firms.

“Women are more likely confronted with choices about what to do with their time than men are,” she explains. “A woman lawyer with a young practice and a family is unlikely to opt for the type of administrative managerial hours that might lead her on the path to managing partner. There are just so many hours in the day, and in our current system, too many of them have to be billable hours.”

In other words, the current system does not lend itself to partnership or management as a first choice for women seeking advancement in the profession.

“A lot of senior women have seen the next step on the success ladder as an appointment to the Bench or a government appointment,” Osbaldeston says. “It's only when that changes, and when more women are attracted to partnership as a viable career option, that we'll have more women managing law firms.”

There is considerable support for this view. In her 2007 publication Bar Codes, Jean Leiper, Professor Emerita at the Department of Sociology at King's University College at the University of Western Ontario, undertakes a qualitative examination of women lawyers' attempts to reconcile their professional obligations with other aspects of their lives.

Her work is based on interviews of 110 Ontario-based women lawyers. “Bar Codes is about the unstated expectations in the profession, especially the ones relating to the value of linear time as a way of measuring people's performance and the importance of straight, uninterrupted linear time as the model for career advancement,” Leiper notes.

The notion that things would change when there were more women in law has proven overly simplistic, she maintains, as advancement in the practice of law is still governed by rules made for men. The almighty docket, an archetypal expression of linear clock time, continues to drive the success bus. “Long hours continue to define good legal practice,” Leiper says. “But most women lack the kind of support that made this approach possible — the kind of support men had in the days when women would stay home, manage the household and support their husbands' career ambitions. In fact, many women lawyers remain responsible for family and household organization.”

The result, Leiper's interviews disclose, is that women are to some extent still regarded as imposters in a world where the masculine value of meticulous timekeeping remains a touchstone of success.

Since Leiper published her work, however, much has changed, and seems to be changing ever more rapidly. Most significantly, the shift to value and alternative billing is depreciating the billable hour as a measure of success and a criterion for advancement.

But Dale Ponder, the Toronto-based Managing Partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, a firm where women also manage two of the firm's local offices and where Jean Fraser became the firm's first female managing partner in 1993, argues that some time will pass before lawyers see the end of the billable hour, if ever. “It won't change in our lifetime,” she says. “And whether the billing is hourly based or not, it doesn't change the fact that we're in a professional-services business and clients want you there, especially when they're doing big things or high-end work is involved.”

Ultimately, Ponder says, the fact that women are the primary caregivers, and the impact of that reality on the choices they make, will continue to factor in the presence of women in law firms' upper management ranks.

But she adds that while the number of women in partnership ranks is relevant because it reflects on the number of women eligible for upper management, the numbers need not be determinative.

“At Osler, the percentage of female partners is among the highest, if not the highest, of the major firms in Canada, but it's still nowhere near 50 per cent,” she says. “Nonetheless, we have three women in managing partner positions at the national and local level.” As Ponder sees it, it's all about the “tone from the top” and the merit-based opportunities that individual law firms provide.

Thomassin is of similar mind. “I don't think more systemic changes are necessary,” she says. “There are certain realities that come with the market we're in and what the clients' expectations are in that market.

“These realities mean that adding man-agement responsibilities to practice and family duties is something many women don't want to do. For those who do, they, like myself, are fortunate to be in a generation where gender is not an issue, and where the people who are interested and right for the position will get the job.”

That doesn't mean that things will or must remain the same forever. “Many women lawyers are very fulfilled in their careers and very well compensated and they're okay with that and see no need to enter management ranks,” Weinstein says. “But the time may come where we need to find a different solution that broadens the ranks of law firm managers, and that's when we'll need to have a more fulsome discussion.”

But Kennedy argues that vigilance is always necessary. “Things may be okay, but they may not continue to be if we leave the system to itself,” she says. “There's a good argument that systemic change should always be on the agenda.”

From all appearances, Kennedy and concerned others need have no fear on that score.

Julius Melnitzer is a legal affairs writer in Toronto.