In This Together: Life in Law and a Community for Women Lawyers
Launched on International Women’s Day in March 2020, Life in Law (LiL) is the brainchild of two female partners at regional law firm Harper Grey LLP, Kimberly Jakeman, KC and Una Radoja. After attending a conference for women lawyers in San Francisco in 2019, Kimberly and Una began talking about how they could make a real difference in the retention and mentorship of women in this profession. While formal, structured mentorship programs for women lawyers already existed, they identified a gap in the availability of unstructured and informal mentorship programs that presented a more relaxed and open forum to discuss the unique challenges faced by women in law. Enter LiL, an informal and confidential platform, a “safe space” for women to connect, discuss, and share their experiences.
There is no question that in recent years, there has been an industry-wide push for the advancement of women in the law in Canada. In many ways, these efforts have paid dividends. Women and men are graduating from Canadian law schools at approximately equal rates. There are more women in law firm leadership positions. In 2020, 51% of in-house counsel positions in Canada were held by women.1 There is near gender parity among justices of the Supreme Court of Canada.
But, while progress undoubtedly has been made, we still have a long way to go. Statistics consistently show that, although more women are entering the profession in recent years, women are exiting the profession – and private practice in particular – in significantly greater numbers than their male counterparts, such that they are not represented at the more senior levels:
•Statistics released as part of the Law Society of Ontario’s 2020 annual report revealed that 73.5% of law firm partners were men, and 26.5% were women. The gap was much closer at the associate level: 51% of law firm associates were men, and 49% were women.2
•According to research conducted by McKinsey & Company in 2017 on women in law firms, only 19% of equity partners in North American law firms are women – despite that women represent 47% of the entry-level workforce – and women are 29% less likely to reach the first level of partnership than are men.3
•According to a 2016 study by the Criminal Lawyers Association, 60% of women who had started practicing in 1998 had left by 2014, compared with 47% of men.4
•According to the Mapping Her Path Data Collection and Analysis Report prepared in 2016 by The Justice Education Society of BC, 66% of women called to the Bar in 2003 were still practicing in 2008, compared to 80% of men.5
•According to research prepared by the Law Society of Alberta’s Retention and Reengagement Task Force in 2014, within five years of being called to the Bar, 57% of women will have left private practice, compared to 49% of men.6
The disproportionate attrition rate of women is a significant barrier to achieving gender parity in private practice. With relatively low numbers of women in senior leadership positions, there is a dearth of like-minded mentorship for women in more junior roles, making it more difficult for them to access those upper levels of leadership – and continuing the cycle. LiL was founded to combat this challenge. Today, LiL is a Canadian not-for-profit society that provides provide a safe and inclusive platform for women lawyers seeking help to balance life with a legal career, and support within a community of women in law. Going beyond traditional approaches aimed at lowering the attrition rate of women lawyers, the organization endeavours to reduce the exodus of women from the legal profession by providing them with opportunities to raise issues they face, in a confidential environment. LiL’s programs are free, and available nation-wide and industry-wide.
LiL offers a variety of programs to meet the varied needs of women lawyers:
•Phone Support: LiL offers a phone line, open weekdays, where a network of experienced advisors is on standby to listen to and support callers. Callers are able to ask questions, share experiences, and learn from the experiences of other women members of the profession, creating a source of judgment-free, confidential, external mentorship.
•Online Chat Support: LiL’s online chat support is available through the organization’s website. It offers all the same one-on-one support as the phone line, but through an online chat conversation – ideal for those who may be in an environment where they are not comfortable vocally expressing their questions or concerns, or who simply prefer or find it easier to describe their situation through text.
•LiL Roar Line: With all the stresses of work and other areas of life, sometimes you just need a good scream or cry or rant into the void. The LiL Roar Line is a phone number that immediately forwards to an answering machine where callers can let out their emotions in a safe space. No names are required or requested, and phone numbers are neither visible nor stored. Messages are not returned or publicized (although they are reviewed by LiL, to get a better sense of the types of issues faced by women in the profession).
•Blog: The “Dear LiL” blog offers blog posts on a variety of topics relevant to women in law, with bloggers sharing their experience and insights on a wide array of issues. Bloggers may write on topics of interest to them, issues they have faced, or more lighthearted topics that may be of interest to women lawyer readers. Blog posts also may address questions or issues submitted anonymously through a web form. Contributors include members of LiL’s partner firms, as well as outside contributors; posts may be submitted for consideration on the LiL website. Recent posts have covered such topics as:
•Reflections on being a first-generation lawyer;
•How to incorporate volunteer work and other community contributions into a legal practice;
•Gendered double standard in e-mail communication; o Commentary on the overturning of Roe v Wade;
•E-mail management while on vacation;
•How to ask for feedback; and
•Fiction featuring women lawyers as protagonists.
LiL’s reach has only expanded over time. The organization is supported by partner firms across Canada, who contribute their time, ideas, knowledge, and funding to promoting the purpose and vision of LiL. Most recently, Ontario’s Lerners LLP has become a LiL partner firm alongside British Columbia’s Harper Grey LLP, in recognition of LiL’s invaluable service to women in the legal community and demonstrating the firms’ commitment to supporting the advancement of women in the legal industry.
Interested in learning more? You can find more information about LiL, including how to access its programs, at www.lifelinlaw.ca.
1 The Counsel Network, “In-house counsel compensation & career report 2020”: https://www.inhousecounsel.com/
2 Law Society of Ontario 2020 Annual Report Membership Statistics: https://lawsocietyontario.azureedge.net/media/lso/media/annualreport/documents/statistics-membership-2020.pdf
3 McKinsey & Company Women in law firms report dated October 2017: https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/gender%20equality/women% 20in%20law%20firms/women-in-law-firms-final-103017.pdf
4 Criminal Lawyers’ Association, The Retention of Women in the Private Practice of Criminal Law: Research Report dated March 2016: https://criminallawyers.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/CLAWomens- Study-March-2016.pdf
5 The Justice Education Society of BC, Mapping Her Path Needs Assessment Report dated March 29, 2016: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55e64118e4b05853493ed331/t/59231eda29687f7da27974 55/1495473896153/Mapping+Her+Path+Needs+Assessment_Mar+29.pdf
6 Law Society of Alberta, Retention and Re-engagement Task Force Final Report dated October 2014: https://www.lawsocietylistens.ca/6200/documents/11763
About the Author
Rebecca Shoom is a partner at Lerners LLP in Toronto, in the Commercial Litigation, Arbitration and Appeals Practice Groups. She acts as counsel and arbitrator in a wide variety of commercial disputes. She regularly mentors articling students and associate lawyers, and in her off time, is an avid reader and dedicated trivia team member.