Maria Scarfo is the managing partner of Blaney McMurtry LLP. Maria’s career has been devoted to finding effective solutions for her clients while contributing to the management and growth of Blaney McMurtry. As the firm’s Managing Partner, Maria combines her expert litigation and negotiation skills with a proven ability to solve problems and build strong teams in order to ensure that both her clients and colleagues receive strong leadership and results.
Maria is an experienced litigator who defends claims for insurance companies, public authorities and corporations. Her areas of specialty include claims involving institutional sexual abuse and the defence of public authorities; Maria has defended hundreds of public authority defence files and institutional sexual abuse files.
With a well-developed ability to defuse conflict in any situation, Maria is often entrusted to handle sensitive, high profile cases which require a balancing of clients’ reputational, public policy, business and other interests beyond litigation. By actively listening to her clients’ unique concerns, Maria is able to recommend the most reasonable course of action to achieve her clients’ goals and objectives. Maria has resolved hundreds of cases at mediations and she has an excellent record of finding early resolutions in cases resulting in significant savings in legal fees for her clients.
Maria represents clients in highly contentious litigated matters as well as those more suited to mediation. As a result of her adaptability, agility, and sound judgment, she can effectively and efficiently respond to any client matter.
1. How did you get involved in your current area of practice?
I was very lucky to article at my firm and complete rotations in litigation, real estate and corporate so that I had a decent understanding of the different areas of practice. I was interested in litigation and the firm hired me in their general litigation group working half time for the commercial litigators and half time for the insurance litigators. As the early years passed, I found that I really enjoyed the insurance side of our advocacy group. I steadily focused on defending public authorities and then in the early 90s we saw the surge of the defence of historical sexual abuse claims and I became involved in defending those claims as well. I say that I have been lucky because I have had the benefit of being able to pursue the areas of the law that I found interesting and rewarding so that the work has been enjoyable.
2. What qualities and/or skills are important for leaders?
In my view, the best leaders have a good understanding of the best paths forward and can visualize what their organization needs to achieve in order to have continued success. Usually, this means that there are several goals to achieve. A good leader understands that in order to achieve these goals, you need to create opportunities for the members of the team which allows employees to both achieve their own personal goals and the organization’s goals. Practically speaking, this means that a leader has to have good self- awareness (it is not about her), and has to understand how to create the best environment that is motivating and inspiring. A good leader does not order people to do things but instead creates enough understanding and positive examples so that people are quite willing to walk along the same path to move forward. An old friend of mine said that some of the best leaders are not walking in front of you but are either at your side of even just following along in case you need them.
3. What qualities and/or skills do you look for in a junior?
I think the most honest way to answer this question is that a really good junior has a high sense of responsibility, and is organized, reliable, positive, loyal and calm. These are the qualities that take the edge off of the stress that senior practitioner experience.
4. What advice would you give a young woman starting her practice?
I recognize that the cost of a legal education coupled with the cost of living means that compensation will play a major role in making a decision about first jobs. Otherwise, it is important to appreciate that she is embarking on what will hopefully be a multi-decade career. As a result, the first years and then the years approaching retirement are the best times to take chances and try different paths. We have to choose the type of law and type of place to practice based on what is actually appealing to us. It is not correct to just assume that in order to be successful that you have to be in private practice in a certain size of firm. In order to make decisions, we have to access as many people as possible to ask questions and become informed about different workplaces.
Lawyers are much more approachable than you might think and will make time to have coffee to answer mentoring questions. If you do have to start in a position that is not ideal, always try to use the experience to enhance your skills while you wait for a more suitable position. Most importantly, remember that you are starting to build your reputation and become the type of professional who will succeed. The advice not to burn bridges is still great advice as is the advice to present as the type of employee who will be given the best work and the best chance to succeed in an organization. I suggest this approach even if you are not at your ideal workplace. Of course, a woman should never accept any conditions which are inappropriate or threatening in any manner.
5. What advice would you give a mid-level junior looking to advance her career?
This is usually the first time that she will have to decide whether to stay where she is or move on. If it is time to move on, then the main factors to consider relate to whether or not a lawyer wants to pursue private practice. At most law firms, as a lawyer becomes more senior, the lawyer does need to have the ability to generate work for the firm. As a result, a lawyer commencing her career in private practice has a difficult decision to make if she wants to make a move after the first few years. If the move is outside of private practice, it is very difficult to then return to private practice unless she has the ability to generate work as she becomes more senior. It certainly is not impossible as it is possible to return to private practice if she can bring work with her from an in house position.
While it might be in vogue to change jobs to advance a career, a better decision is to really look for opportunities where she currently works. I am biased as I have been at my firm for 32 years. I would suggest that finding a way to move past any impediment at a current workplace is an extremely wise thing to do. If you are able to distinguish yourself as a valuable employee, then success tends to follow. With success, a lawyer becomes much more valuable to an organization and this will mean that she can start to make changes within the organization.
6. What can we do to address the continued attrition of women in law?
The question is even harder to answer now that lawyers tend to have to work longer hours to make less money with the shrinking of available work and the downward pressure on legal fees. This is an important development as it means that demands on lawyers’ time have been increasing. There are fewer options to make workplaces attractive by allowing more flexibility in terms of working fewer hours. However, women are excellent lawyers and effective communicators and greatly enhance the bench strength in any workplace. There are many things that can lead to much better retention of talent. A workplace that is collegial, team oriented and supportive can make a huge difference. The ability to work remotely when you have the best available time will also help because women are usually excellent at balancing many things efficiently. Most importantly, workplaces must sincerely promote an environment where women are able to balance maternity leaves with their return to work allowing them to continue their careers. Again, we have to remember that in a multi decade career, there is ample time to work at different paces/ in different ways to make sure that other critically important personal goals are achieved. Compromise is essential both on the part of the workplace and on the part of the individual.
7. If you could give yourself one piece of advice when you were starting out in law, what would it be?
I wish that I could have appreciated that all problems have solutions and that there was no need to inflict so much stress on myself every time something went wrong.
8. Is there anything else (advice, an interesting experience, tips, etc.) that you would like to share with our members?
Law is a very empowering career for women. It makes us confident and knowledgeable and these benefits are priceless.
This post is part of YWL's Managing Partner Series. This series features Q&A-style blog posts where women managing partners from small, mid-sized and large law firms answer questions about their path to success and share their advice for young women in law.