It is no secret that retention of women in the law has always been, and continues to be, an issue. Women are relatively well represented at all three associate levels (junior,midlevel, and senior), where they account for about 46 percent of attorneys. However, this picture changes sharply as attorneys advance to more senior levels. Men continue to be more likely than women to be partners at law firms, 2018 statistics from the Law Society of Ontario show. The statistics, released as part of the Law Society of Ontario’s 2018 Annual Report show that about 12.4 per cent of lawyers in Ontario were male law firm partners, compared to only 4.3 per cent of lawyers who were female partners.
Jennifer King, a partner at Gowling WLG in Toronto and chair of the firm’s Recruitment and Retention committee of its Diversity and Inclusion Council, states that “We can't be complacent, because although there has been some progress, there's still the glass ceiling; there's more women in leadership positions, but still underrepresented.
“I can see the progress, but I can still see the frustration,” she says. Far more women are graduating from law school and working in law firms, but “there's still a drop-off by the time you get to partnership.”
King quotes a lawyer friend, Adrian Ishak, as saying that “women have been in the majority of graduating lawyers since the mid-nineties. Unless you really believe that women are worse lawyers than men, then if there aren't at least 50 per cent of them around your partnership table you don't have the best lawyers at that table.”
The struggle between work/life/family balance for working mothers in all different professions has never been more prevalent then during the novel coronavirus pandemic that we are currently experiencing. During COVID-19, women’s participation in the Canadian workforce has fallen to a level not seen in decades. The trend of women bearing the brunt of pandemic child care while trying to continue working has been the topic of countless articles. The New York Times recently referred to the phenomenon as a "shecession.”
Now is the ideal time for us to think about ways in which we can promote success among female lawyers and how law firms should focus on retention over recruitment to encourage women with familial obligations to remain and to flourish in the practice of law.
It has been my experience, beginning in law school, that whenever I met a fellow mom law student and/or lawyer there was an instant connection and mutual feeling of support and encouragement. Below are a few tips and advice that I have gained from fellow lawyers that are moms, and that I have learned from balancing my own law career with raising young children:
1. Find a Mentor
Find someone who you respect and look up to personally and professionally, and who can support you in your journey; someone who can guide you through difficult and complex situations and can see the bigger picture as well as the important details.
2. Don’t Drop the Glass Balls
I look at the balance as if I’m constantly juggling a set of balls; a mixture of work, personal and family. Balls will be dropped, there is no question about it. The key is to never drop the glass balls. The glass balls morph and change constantly; sometimes they can be family and sometimes they can be work, depending on the situation. Different things in different categories need to be prioritized at different times. Make sure you are flexible and can recognize the glass balls, and let the plastic ones drop if need be. You can have everything, but not at the same time!
3. Stay Present and Focused
I try and be present in whatever I am doing; if I am at work, I am focusing on work. When I come home and have those hours with my children, my focus is on them and not on checking work emails.
4. Let Go of the Guilt and Be Kind to Yourself
The striving to be a perfect lawyer and perfect mom can sometimes feel like a no-win situation, and it fuels feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion that can lead to burnout. Lower the bar and the expectation of the perfect lawyer and perfect mom. Give yourself the credit that is due for all that you are accomplishing, utilize your support system and ask for help when you need it!
The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and Women’s Rights Activist, once said "When I'm sometimes asked 'When will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?' and I say 'When there are nine,' people are shocked. But there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that."
I was recently having a discussion with my five year old son about what he would like to do when he grows up. He listed a few ideas, none of which included my chosen profession. I asked him, “How come you don’t want to be a lawyer?” To which he responded, “Silly mommy; only girls can be lawyers!”
We may not have nine women on the Supreme Court of the United States yet, but I believe we are well on our way!
Author: Estee Nemetz
Estee Nemetz is an associate lawyer at Keslassy Freedman Gelfand LLP (KFG Law), where she practices in the area of real estate law and financing. Estee is at the forefront of the creation of the "Women In Law Initiative" at KFG Law, an innovative program that aims to create an environment in which women succeed and reach leadership and partnership levels at the firm through internal mentoring, business development training, review processes and striving for proportionate representation across all levels of the firm.