Most of Bay Street's biggest law firms are still predominantly managed by men, for men. And you can tell, says Toronto lawyer and mother of two Jacqueline King, by the way lengthy meetings are often scheduled to start at 5 p.m.
"That's the biggest problem that I hear the female partners and female associates say – 'They set the meeting up for five o'clock' … Someone's got to pick [the kids]up," said Ms. King, a litigator who left national giant Miller Thomson LLP last year to join mid-sized Shibley Righton LLP, seeking a better work-life balance.
Many female lawyers have been leaving big law firms to seek jobs with mid-size firms, in-house legal departments or government agencies, seeking less punishing hours and more flexible workplaces. Others have been leaving the practice of law all together. It's a problem the profession has been struggling with for years.
Recent attempts by law firms to find ways to retain women have raised the issue's profile. But it's unclear whether the situation is getting better.
According to Law Society of Upper Canada statistics, women are much more likely to leave their law firms than men. Most leave after spending about five to seven years as a lawyer, before they make partner. The disparity is stark: Despite now making up 39 per cent of the profession in Ontario, and 31 per cent of lawyers in private practice, women account for only 21 per cent of law firm partners. These statistics are mirrored across North America.
Three years ago, the Law Society of Upper Canada created the Justicia Project, which signed up 56 Ontario firms and aimed to develop model policies on flexible working hours, leaves and mentorships. The firms also agreed to track their progress on keeping women female lawyers in their firms.
The project, being copied now in Quebec and considered in B.C. and Manitoba, was just extended for two more years.
How much good the Justicia initiative has done, however, is difficult to quantify. Participating law firms are not required to make the statistics they're collecting public, said Josée Bouchard, equity adviser for the Ontario law society.
But she said participating law firms have brought in new policies and tweaked old ones since the program began.
Kirby Chown, who retired in 2008 as Ontario regional managing partner of McCarthy Tétrault LLP and is now involved with the Justicia project, acknowledges there is a long way to go. Law is a "very conservative" profession, she said, with most firms still dominated by men. And there remains an "unconscious bias" that works against women seeking to make partner, she said.
"Law firms have made some progress around maternity leave and flex-time work, for sure. Those things were not done when I started in the profession in the early 1980s," said Ms. Chown, who gave birth to twin boys shortly after starting at McCarthys in 1981, and took a four-month leave. "I think the harder questions remain to be solved."
(McCarthys has had its own very public battle over the issue of women in the profession, facing a $12-million lawsuit from a former female associate who alleges the firm discriminated against her. Ms. Chown would not comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in 2008 and is still before the courts.)
Until there are changes, many female lawyers will likely seek alternative career paths beyond Bay Street. But new business models, and new technology, may be making that easier. With the Internet, legal work can now be done far from a steel-and-glass office tower.
Christine Holmes, 37, left an in-house counsel job with Pepsi Bottling Group and now works from home for Cognition LLP, a small Internet-based law firm. She lives on a five-acre property on a lake in Muskoka, near Huntsville, Ont., sometimes reviewing legal documents for corporate clients on her dock.
She said she now has more time for her two children, 14 and 11, the younger of whom has Down syndrome.
"I would love to see, in five years, law firms and corporations move to this model where they [realize] 'If I have a happy and well-balanced employee, I am going to have a more productive employee,'" she said. "But I just don't see it in most of the organizations I deal with, legal or otherwise."