Guest Blogger, Nicole Garton of Heritage Law, shares tips and strategies on successfully maintaining a law practice while juggling motherhood, family and community commitments.
On January 22, 2020 I was delighted to present at the CBABC Women’s Law Forum Victoria section meeting on new ways of practicing law to facilitate keeping women in practice. While women have been participating in the legal profession in BC in equal or greater numbers than men for more than a decade, we represent only about 34 percent of all practicing lawyers in the province and only about 29 per cent of lawyers in full-time practice, according to the Law Society of BC. These numbers represent a lot of lost talent.
This is such an important issue and I was so pleased to learn about the unique Life in Law initiative that was established to provide a solution that goes beyond traditional approaches to help lower the attrition rate of women lawyers. There are many synergies between Life and Law’s mandate and my presentation and when Kim Jakeman suggested a guest blog spot I jumped at the chance. It is always great to share content with like-minded people and I hope that sharing a few tips that have kept me more or less sustainably working full-time for 20 years in the private practice of law may help you along your path. While I can’t speak to challenges faced by lawyers at larger law firms, I can speak from my experience of establishing a small boutique law firm.
1. Accept Reality: Systemic Barriers and Unconscious Bias are Still Prevalent in the Legal Profession
A recent American Bar Association study “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See” found that widespread gender and racial bias still permeates hiring, promotion, assignments and compensation in the legal industry. Based on the survey responses of almost 3000 lawyers, the study found that many women and people of colour felt they were held to a higher standard than white men. That feeling was most prevalent among visible minority women, who reported the highest levels of bias in almost every category. Female lawyers reported that they felt they had to walk a tightrope in their behaviour – they reported pressure to behave in feminine ways and a backlash for exhibiting stereotypically male behaviours. They were more often saddled with “office housework,” like taking notes, ordering lunch or comforting a co-worker in distress – taking their time away from valuable billable hours. The report also found that a lack of opportunities to take on challenging work also contributes to high attrition rates among women in law firms. 25% of female lawyers reported experiencing sexual harassment and 70% had witnessed sexist comments or jokes at work. Both male and female lawyers reported feeling that taking parental leave would have a negative impact on their careers.
Another American Bar Association study “Walking Out the Door” found that many mid-level and senior female lawyers leave private practice due to conflicts with caregiving responsibilities and a lack of advancement opportunities.
Many leaders in private law firms are very aware of these structural issues and motivated to effect positive change. There is strong data to support competitive and financial advantages for private law firms that foster more inclusive work environments, including recruiting and retaining top talent, attracting and retaining clients and avoiding high turnover costs. I understand from colleagues who are partners at large international law firms that they are struggling to meet new diversity requirements from large corporate clients such as financial institutions and technology companies. For example, Facebook recently announced a diversity policy requiring that one-third of a law firm’s team servicing their files be composed of women and ethnic minorities. Other corporations are increasingly requiring similar diversity criteria before selecting outside counsel.
In addition to efforts in the private Bar, initiatives such as the Justicia Project and others like it have made admirable efforts to address these systemic barriers, or “death by a thousand cuts,” that result in so many female lawyers leaving private practice. Despite the concerted efforts of many well-intentioned people, law firms, leaders in the profession and regulatory bodies, these structural barriers have remained frustratingly persistent and slow to improve.
2. Know Yourself
It’s a great honour and privilege to practice law. We have the opportunity to really help people, to constantly learn, to resolve serious problems and disputes, to address injustice, to facilitate commerce and business and to witness momentous moments and transitions in people’s lives. Yet with that privilege comes serious obligations and responsibility. Practising law can be very stressful. Juggling competing demands, time constraints, the high cost of legal services and the often enormous stakes involved on a file can make the profession a high-pressure environment. Add the persistent structural barriers many female and minority lawyers face, and it can all become overwhelming.
An important part of success is understanding what success truly means you, apart from external measures or recognized markers of prestige. In his excellent paper “Perfectionism, self-doubt and mental health in the legal profession”, Law Society of BC Bencher and the current Chair of the BC Law Society’s Mental Health Task Force Brook Greenberg points out that lawyers who achieve the traditional hallmarks of success, such as private practice partnerships, are actually more at risk for experiencing mental health issues. Unlike most other professions where traditional career success is linked to better mental health outcomes, the reverse appears to be true for the legal profession. Recent studies have found that higher rates of pessimism appear to be linked to greater law school and career success for lawyers. As Mr. Greenberg points out, the legal profession seems to reward pessimistic perfectionists, the ultimate risk managers. Another study recently found that the more lawyers get paid, the more likely they are to experience depression, dissatisfaction with their career choice and work-life balance conflict.
This is certainly not to say that becoming a partner of a private practice law firm or making a lot of money practicing law will make you unhappy. I have friends who absolutely love being partners of law firms and reaching the pinnacle of earnings, big cases and big deals. And we need more visible female lawyers in these roles because “if you can see it, you can be it.”
What I mean by know yourself is that many people enter law school with idealistic views of justice and the amazing things they wish to accomplish as lawyers and then the momentum of life and practice tends to lead them into traditional law jobs where their true talents and values may or may not be met.
Here is a list of values:
What would you say are your top three? What do those values mean or embody to you? Are you able to use and demonstrate them in your current work environment?
One of the things I have learned through experiencing various work environments is that a key value for me is independence and autonomy. I’m happiest and work best as a self-employed professional, with a team of paralegals to assist me. I seek collegiality at the bar through friendships and professional memberships. What values do you have that are key to successful work environment for you?
3. Play to Your Strengths
It may be trite to say this given that so much has been now written on this topic, but it took me a fair amount of time to learn that it was much easier to play to my strengths than try to shore up my weaknesses. An example is that business owners generally have to wear three hats – the visionary hat, the technical hat and the manager hat. The visionary role is setting the direction and the course of the business, the technical role is doing the actual work (for us, legal services) and the manager role is keeping all the people working well together and rowing in the right direction. I am comfortable in the vision and technical hats but not the manager hat. Rather than try to improve my management skills, I have hired and retained self-starter, self-motivated people who don’t need or want a lot of management. I have no plan to grow Heritage Law beyond its current size so this model is sustainable. As Heritage Trust grows, we will hire a trained and able manager as required.
Similarly, I am not naturally the pessimistic, perfectionist personality type that many lawyers are, as noted above. A true entrepreneur, I am more inclined to see potential opportunities and more comfortable with potential risks, within reason. Thus I am as much an entrepreneur/business person as I am a lawyer. For someone else, the best fit for their particular strengths may be as a research lawyer, in house, in a traditional firm etc.
What would you rank as your top three strengths? What three strengths have others acknowledged in you? How are you able to use your strengths in your current work environment?
4. Keep Your Eye on the Road Ahead – Not the Wall
With a nod to our fellow pessimistic perfectionists, try to think like a race car driver and focus on the road ahead, not the wall, to avoid driving right into it. This is probably the most important thing I have learned as a lawyer that has kept me in private practice. Yes we are risk managers and must think about all the things that could go wrong to help our clients avoid it. Think carefully, do your research and due diligence, manage risk, act prudently, obtain advice from practice advisors or senior lawyers as required, and then be done with it.
There are many things that can go wrong in law and sometimes do. Let’s face it – limitation periods can be missed, drafting errors can impact estates, business deals or tax treatment, sometimes things like property transfer taxes are accidentally triggered, clients can unreasonably complain, professional judgement errors can happen, particularly when lawyers are overstressed, overworked or out of their depth. Similar to the systemic barriers issue, it’s best to first accept reality and then come up with a plan to deal with it. Practising law can be wonderful but it is also a serious responsibility with sometimes real repercussions. Keep your eye on the road ahead – success for your client and yourself long term as a professional. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.
If you are conscientious, hardworking, know your limits and do your best, most of the time everything turns out just fine. Even if something does go wrong, almost everything is fixable – something you learn from a long career. You won’t be useful to your clients or the public if you burn out from stress and worry and leave the profession entirely. I have seen very talented, caring lawyers fall into this trap and the profession and public loses the benefit of all of their skills and abilities. Don’t let that be you.
5. Take Care of Yourself
On a related note, acknowledge the stresses of law and sharpen the saw as Stephen Covey liked to say. Cultivate some sort of mindfulness practice and regular exercise as all the research points to the long term benefits. Not that I am personally good at these self-care tasks myself. Most of the professional working mothers I know say that they ensure they find time in their time-starved schedules to regularly exercise otherwise they couldn’t manage the physical, mental and logistical demands they regularly face. Almost a third of the profession reports difficulties with depression, anxiety and problem drinking.
I like to read, bake and walk my dogs in the Capilano Canyon. Find time for what gives you joy. If you are having trouble managing the stress of practice or having mental health and/or substance abuse challenges, know that you have lots of company – about one in three lawyers. While shame and stigma still exist around mental health challenges, people are increasingly recognizing how prevalent these issues are and treating them like physical illnesses – with support, understanding and compassion. Don’t suffer alone and seek out help from colleagues, the Lawyers Assistance Program, LifeWorks or a trained professional. You’re worth it.
6. Cultivate Your Network
If you are participating in this session, you are a member of the CBA Women Lawyers’ Forum so you are on the right track. Studies show that women are more successful and happy when they have a group of strong female friends. Along with a colleague, I recently launched a professional womens’ support group called The MotherBoard. I would be happy to share what we learned so other chapters can possibly be launched elsewhere in BC.
7. Have a Written Plan
As Peter Drucker said, “the best way to predict your future is to create it.” It’s amazing how many smart, conscientious lawyers I know haven’t taken the time to intentionally map out their careers. Here is a link to a good personal business plan template you can customize for yourself: https://www.cordellblog.com/files/2011/10/2011-Business-Plan-Real-Example.pdf
8. Use Technology Judiciously to Make Practice More Efficient
As an early adopter, I used to be fairly well known for speaking about the use of technology in the practice of law. Here is a blog post which sets out some of our systems and software, many of which we continue to use today. I believe I was actually asked to present to discuss the use of technology to enable the retention of women in law. I guess I had a lot to say before I got to the point! Although I am a strong believer in the effective use of technology to facilitate the practice of law, it is no panacea. Nothing beats a commitment to exemplary client service, continuous learning, being organized and proactive in practice management and hiring and retaining the best people. With that said, here are some tips on what works for us at Heritage Law:
IT: We use iworx They are a BC-based cloud computing provider who provide best in class solutions in terms of Canadian geo-redundant backups, compliance and security and can support most legal software applications.
Phones: we use VOIP phones provided by https://www.iristel.com/
Software: We use Worldox, PC Law, and the Microsoft suite, Divoremate, Ecorp. I have used various practice management programs in the past but don’t any longer, other than for accounting.
Web: I am a big believer in online booking and online payment services. We use Acuity Scheduling and Moneris for these tasks.
I hope some of these thoughts have been helpful for those of you encountering the joys and challenges of the practice of law. And don’t forget that you are the entrepreneur of your career, even if you are employed by others.
About the Author
Nicole Garton is a lawyer and mediator and parenting coordinator of family law, wills and estates matters. She is the principal of a small boutique law firm, Heritage Law, and a second business, Heritage Trust, which is a BCFSA regulated non-deposit taking financial institution. She is also the author of BC Heritage Law Blog.