For Women in Law By Women in Law

Guest Blogger, Janelle O’Connor, discusses women supporting other women in law and how advantageous it is to find power in the pack.

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I’ve never subscribed to the whole “be masculine to be successful in law” thing. I am authentic at work. I often wear mini skirts. I am known for my empathy. And after attending the Trial Lawyers’ Association of British Columbia’s (TLABC) Annual Women Lawyers’ Retreat, I have been thinking more about the need for women to more actively support other women in our profession.

For almost 20 years, I have heard female lawyers talk about the “boys’ club”. Men are notorious for supporting each other in this profession. Why aren’t women?

There are systemic social issues at play – but also our own biases. Women experience overt, and covert, gender discrimination from the moment they are born, and we all have unconscious biases that take many forms. Sometimes these biases result in something I call benevolent sidetracking, such as not asking the female lawyer to take on a challenging file because you don’t want to disrupt her family life with the time and travel involved. Be alive to these perceptions. Never assume a female lawyer doesn’t want to take on a file because she has children or seems too busy. Instead, let her determine whether she has the time, energy and desire to get involved.

Biases also show up in many other ways. Over the years, I have observed many female lawyers who seem threatened or jealous of a female peer succeeding in the profession. Their biases are revealed in a subtle way, often with backhanded comments about how she doesn’t deserve to be in the position that she is in (such as, “I heard they only made her a partner because they needed a woman”). These comments are problematic – not only do they undermine that woman, they undermine all of us.

I think it is important to confront and be aware of our biases – it makes us better people and better lawyers. It’s natural to feel competitive, especially for those of us operating in high performance environments, but it’s important to keep those negative emotions in check and not let them influence our relationships with each other. Celebrating another woman’s success will not dim your own light – in fact, it will likely make it brighter. There are many challenges to women thriving in law – the last thing we should be doing is holding each other back!

I have had a lot of incredible women champion me along my professional journey. It is these women (and men) rooting for me – referring me great work, going out of their way to introduce me to influential people, ensuring my position was heard at a negotiation table, putting my name forward to speak at an important event, and countless other acts – that have made all the difference to my career. I have never thought of those relationships as a form of “networking” because they have become such genuine, meaningful connections in my life.

The thing is, in my professional life, I routinely exploit my one true advantage – a strong female support group. Having a sense of camaraderie with other women in the profession creates opportunities for us to support each other in our endeavors. I think it’s important to invest time and effort in getting to know other women at all levels of seniority and in all different areas of practice.

I recently read a study that found 77% of the highest-achieving women in business had strong ties with an inner circle of two to three other women and were three times more likely to get a better job than women who did not have that female support system.1 Study after study demonstrates that women who support women are more successful in business, including recent research by the Harvard Business Review finding that professional women with an inner circle of other women are more likely to achieve better jobs with better pay.2

Having access to the kind of insight and advice that women provide other women in this profession is crucial to your career advancement and, frankly, your happiness in the profession. There is nothing that compares to “been there, done that” advice – we best learn to navigate the profession through watching, listening to and experiencing others like us. We’re better together and, well, it’s also way more fun.



About the Author

Janelle O’Connor is a civil sexual assault and class action lawyer at Murphy Battista LLP in Vancouver, BC. She acts exclusively on behalf of plaintiffs. She works with amazing female lawyers who celebrate her successes and, thankfully, point out her blind spots along the way. She is grateful for the community of people around her (men and women) who continue to coach, mentor, influence and advocate for her.

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