Women in Law – 25 Years On
During homecoming, in between the football game and the revelry, Queen’s Law hosted a special Queen’s Law Reports Panel of the women of Law ’91. The women and moderators are some of Canada’s most notably successful women, including Partners, C-Suite executives, government officials and political leaders.
The event asked these women to speak to their experiences post-law school, and in so doing to pass along any wisdom they had accrued in their careers to invited guests and the Queen’s Women and Law club.
What emerged right from the beginning was a collective sense of encouragement and positivity. None of the women had the exact same career or path, and they celebrated that. A common thread between the responses of the women was the importance of doing what is best for each individual.
They encouraged young students or lawyers to keep hold of the interests they develop, as it can be common to be swept away by an alternate current, when pursuing your real interests is what would make you happy. Similarly, many of the women expressed that it is okay for interests to change over time. A few of the women made the switch from law to business; one went from working at large firm to working for government.
Sacha Fraser shared that she ended up working for her current employer because they were a client of hers at her old firm, and that she was able to accept an offer that was right for her by keeping herself open to new opportunities.
On the flip side, there was Paula Locke, who left school, practiced criminal defence law at the same firm for the past twenty-five years, and was completely happy. The women were living examples of how there is no “right” answer for what job to take: it is an individual choice for every woman and person, and that is as it should be.
Many of the panellists stressed the importance of getting help. In speaking with Judy Goldring, Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer at AGF Management Limited, after the panel, she illustrated that this is far-reaching advice.
Getting help is applicable not just to work-related issues, but in the home, with child care, mental health, and even having someone who cooks better meals than you do, as Monique Smith, Ontario’s Representative in Washington, had shared earlier. Ms. Goldring advised to outsource as much as possible, get a cleaner, get a nanny, assemble a good team at work. And this kind of advice strikes at the heart of what many of the women on the panel acknowledged: the legal profession is set up with the assumption that in a household of two partners, one must have more availability for family care than the other. In other words, the lawyer in a partnership isn’t going to have the time to take care of the laundry, let alone pick up the kids from school.
However, while the public view that lawyers work long hours can be true, Anne Turley, Senior Counsel at the Department of Justice, mentioned that there can be more flexibility to the job than many believe. She explained that apart from her court dates, she can leave work in the afternoon to see her child’s recital, because she can pick up her work later on in the day. The advent of technology allows more wiggle room in the lawyer’s life, noted Samantha Horn, a partner at Stikeman Elliott LLP.
While this may lend an optimistic idea that work/life balance may be more achievable in the female lawyer’s career than we thought, Janice Wright, partner at Wright Temelini LLP, brought up the very relevant idea that sometimes she doesn’t want to be balanced. She said that when she gets a case that is so exciting to her, she wants to be spending all her time on it.
As a student, this was something very exciting to hear – when you’re passionate about something, then having a career that excites you is a gift. Trying to “balance” your career by tempering the amount of work we do even if we’re excited and want to do more could actually disempower your career, which was one of the interesting discussions sparked by this panel.
Of course, the shoe can, and should, go on the other foot as well: and the panel was clear that when we need a break, we should take it.
Near the end of the panel, Dean Flanagan asked the hot-button question of the day: why has the rate of women leaving the legal profession at around the 10-year mark remained high? It seemed like the panel, like everyone else in the legal field, struggled to answer this question.
A few acknowledged the issue and spoke to how their firms or companies had programs in place to investigate why this was occurring, and what they can do about it. But the most hard-and-fast answer that was given from the panel was that women are not being given the same opportunities as male lawyers, which creates dissatisfaction in their working life.
At first, I was relieved to hear it was not the run of the mill starting-a-family-I-cannot -balance-work-and-home answer we are all tired of hearing. But upon deeper reflection, the source of women’s dissatisfaction is more troubling than one might initially think. Women on the panel noted that some clients do not want to hire a team that includes a female lawyer, and some older partners do not value women’s work to the same degree they do as men’s. And it was more than a little disheartening to hear Ms. Turley, whose practice involves regular appearances at the Supreme Court of Canada, say that she plays a game with herself to see if the opposing lawyer’s team in court will include a woman. She said most of the time, there will not even be a woman as second or third chair.
It is clear that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in the legal profession. While these women were incredibly supportive of one another and positive about their careers and where they were, this type of conversation seems to be confined to events like this: events for women and aimed at women. It would be interesting to have this kind of conversation with the entirety of the class of 1991, men and women alike, and be able to see the contrast in stories.
While many of the struggles may be common, it would be an interesting exercise if having this conversation with both genders might reveal the actual differences in treatment that might lead to women leaving the profession at higher rates than men.
While the event definitely unmasked some issues in the legal profession, it was also incredibly inspiring to see these women talk about their impressive careers and the paths they took to get there.
What was clear was that there was no one path nor one destination. Women of QL can take heart – paths to success are varied!
Liz Guilbault (1L) is Staff Writer for Juris Diction.