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Farris LLP: Vancouver's Law Firm

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15 December 2008

Keith Mitchell, Q.C., Appears in the Globe and Mail

What will it Take to Crack the Glass Ceiling? By Sandra Rubin, The Globe and Mail, December 16, 2008 It has been more than four decades since the first woman went into space, a woman has been at the helm of the Supreme Court of Canada for a decade and right this minute women are fighting on the front lines in Afghanistan. So what’s the problem at corporate law firms? Women are dropping out of private practice at two to three times the rate of their male counterparts, studies show. According to Catalyst Canada, which surveys its law firm members on workplace diversity, almost half of law firm associates are women – but they account for only 16 per cent of partners. “It’s certainly clear that in Canada and the United States women are not advancing into partnership at the rate you might expect to see,” says Deborah Giles, Catalyst’s executive director. In fact, Catalyst predicts that women will not achieve parity with men in law firm partnerships until 2088. Kirby Chown, a litigator at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto, is convinced that one of the key ways to bring about change is to drop the lockstep march to becoming a partner. For all the barrier-busting efforts of the past decade, there’s obviously a problem. And it’s not simply a women’s issue: This is a profitability issue. Every time a female associate walks out the door, anywhere from $250,000 to $600,000 the partnership has invested walks out with her. Losing partners is even more costly. When Kirby Chown, a litigator at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto, addressed a group of law firm managing partners this fall, she looked around the room and saw men. She talked to them about a culture of two solitudes that continues to exist inside corporate law firms. “Most people who run law firms are men, most partners are men, and statistics show the percentage of male partners in law firms with non-working spouses in about 60 per cent,” says Ms. Chown, who will retire at year’s end. “So the existing system works very well for them.” She points to a Catalyst study that found the biggest gap in perception is between senior male lawyers, who find their firms to be flexible and accommodating, and young female associates – who do not. Retaining women is “a serious and systemic problem,” says Keith Mitchell, managing partner of Farris, Vaughan, Wills & Murphy in Vancouver. “I can’t tell you the number of intelligent, talented young business law associates who have come into my office, shut the door and said: ‘Keith, I know you’ll understand this. I’m going to quit and go have kids ...’ You’re not in a position to say, ‘Don’t do that.’ You can’t argue,” Mr. Mitchell says. “It’s the most disappointing meeting of every managing partner in Canada. We talk about it all the time. The attrition rate is significant,” he says. Farris has a policy of flex time and parental leave but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. It’s a story playing out at law firms across the country. Ms. Chown is convinced that one of the biggest impediments is the rigid lockstep march to partnerhood. “In the good old days, you were an associate for six years and then you became a partner or you left, basically. We now recognize that time period is at a very dramatic intersection with most women’s childbearing years,” she says. When women return from parental leave, they may not “fit in the box any more,” she says. “I think law firms have been pretty slow to think about creatively altering the structure so they don’t lose talented women.” In theory, women today shouldn’t have to chose between the Mommy track and the partnership track. But at times, it seems like they’re still going in opposite directions. When Catalyst queried lawyers interested in flextime about what was holding them back, two-thirds said they were worried they would be seen as “less committed” and not a “fully contributing member of the firm.” Sixty per cent were afraid flextime would limit their opportunities for career advancement. At Sidley Austin LLP, when someone leaves, the firm wants to know why; and when it’s a young woman, the scrutiny is especially intense. “It better not be because the women felt like they didn’t have the opportunities or the support or the exposure necessary to make partner,” says Laurin Blumenthal Kleiman, the New York-based co-chair of Sidley’s women’s committee. “We don’t ever want them to leave because they felt they were behind the door.” Sidley, which has won multiple awards for its initiatives to advance women in the workplace, uses a model of “reduced hours.” It’s similar to flex time, but associates in the program remain on the partnership track even though they are working fewer hours. “If you want to stay on partnership track, you’re expected to meet all the same goals and benchmarks as anybody else who makes partner,” Ms. Kleiman says. About 18 per cent of the female partners at Sidley are on reduced hours. Most of their clients and many of their colleagues aren’t even aware of it, Ms. Kleiman says, because “it’s not about just working part time. It’s about having the high-profile cases, or having the high-profile deals – but just having fewer of them.” It takes a lot of effort to make Sidley’s system work, she says, but the firm is convinced it’s worth it. “The firm understands at least 50 per cent of the top talent is female, and it’s all about delivering the best legal services to our client.” At Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, one of the people thinking about how to make the situation work is Kate Broer. She has been on the front lines of wrestling with a policy to make the 1,500-person firm a friendlier place for young parents – women and men alike. “In many respects this is becoming more generational because many more of our men are saying the same thing now,” Ms. Broer says. “We want to be able to look at the individual, their practice area, and their life circumstances – maybe they have elder-care issues instead of child-care issues – and be able to offer a workable solution ...” Another side to the retention problem has to do with the way women sell themselves to clients, says Anne Ristic, assistant managing partner of the Toronto office of Stikeman Elliott LLP. She says firms ought to ask themselves some tough questions about “fundamental realities,” such as whether it’s harder for women to develop a client base because of client perceptions. Are they being hurt because they don’t enjoy hockey or golf, for example? Stikeman Elliott has found one of the most effective ways to tackle such hurdles is with one-on-one coaching, Ms. Ristic says. “Firms really do care about it. Your people are your best asset, your only asset. And you want to keep them.” But Julie Hannaford, for one, believes law firms will have to do much more than bring in flex-time programs. She was an equity partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP for 12 years before she left to form JK Hannaford Barristers in 2006. She says women like her are bailing out of law firms for reasons that have nothing to do with work-life balance and everything to do with gender imbalance. Ms. Hannaford believes the only way things will change is if law firms mandate, for example, that 35 per cent of partners in senior management be either women or members of a minority group. That means putting them on the admissions committee, the compensation committee, the management committee. Sharing the power, in short. Sandra Rubin is a contributor to Lexpert. 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