An overhaul of the legal business paradigm coupled with more women attaining positions of power and greater transparency over remuneration are key towards helping women achieve more parity and to stem their exodus from the legal profession, urges a report and legal pundits.
“We are all aware that there have been advances in recent years, but we cannot be satisfied with the current situation,” remarked Suzie Lanthier of Gowling WLG International Limited and head of the Forum of Women Lawyers at the Canadian Bar Association, Quebec Division. “Just because it’s better than before doesn’t mean we should do nothing to improve it.”
The building blocks are partly in place. The chief justices of four of Quebec’s courts are women as are the deans of three French-language law schools and the head of the Quebec legal society, most of whom participated in a roundtable discussing the challenges facing women in the legal profession, which partly served as fodder for a joint report by the Barreau du Québec and the Canadian Bar Association, Quebec division.
“If we’re not the ones to take up the baton to make everyone aware of the importance of improving women’s working conditions and the importance of keeping them in the profession, who is?,” asked rhetorically Catherine Claveau, the head of the Quebec Bar. “We must take advantage to help improve the situation.”
The time is ripe to use their growing sway to engage in discussions with the heads of law firms to address the numerous barriers women in the legal profession face, with the main culprit being by and large the law firm’s business model, buttressed by a remuneration system based on billable hours and a culture that values dedication to the profession and clients at almost all costs, according to the report and legal experts.
At present, women represent 55 per cent of all Quebec Bar members and over 70 per cent of students in Quebec law schools, unveils the report. But women earn less and leave the profession earlier than men. About 46 per cent of female lawyers report an annual income of less than $90,000, compared to 33 per cent of men, and only 26 per cent of women charge an hourly rate of more than $201 as opposed to 51 per cent of men, according to the most recent data from the Quebec law society. Tellingly, only 35 per cent of women lawyers are in private practice, compared to 52 per cent of men, added the report.
As disquieting, women lawyers leave the profession on average at 53 years old compared to 63 for men, and that’s aside from the women who leave during the early years of practice when lawyers work most intensively to prove themselves because it often runs in conflict with aspirations to begin a family or raising a young family, said Anne-Marie Laflamme, dean of the Faculty of Law at the Université Laval. “It’s a shame to see young women who get discouraged after five, seven years,” said Laflamme, who has acted as a consultant with some law firms to tackle some of the issues women face in the profession. “There is no reason why we cannot be inspired by what is done elsewhere to build new models. We have to reimagine the business model, both for billing and for the organization of work.”
The Quebec Bar has in the past, through a four-year project entitled the Justicia Project, exchanged with 25 law firms to develop and implement best practices, policies and programs that led to the publication of ten practice management guides to encourage the equality and advancement of women lawyers in law firms.
New business model
But much more has to be done, said legal experts. With the onset of new technologies, and law firms facing manpower shortages and actively recruiting in university campuses for the first time since the pandemic, now is a good time to engage with the managing partners to discuss ways to refashion both the basic business model and the profession’s culture, said Laflamme, co-author of a 2020 study entitled “Inequality in the progression of women lawyers in Quebec law firms: Towards a change process.”
Law firms should consider amending the remuneration system to a competency-based approach, espouse pay transparency, implement work flexible working hours, tackle work-life balance issues through the adoption of flexible arrangements, adopt clear maternity policies that do not penalize women and embrace teamwork to meet the needs of clients, suggested Laflamme. “We need to work more in teams because if young women need to have a bit more flexibility in their working hours, they need to be able to be replaced,” explained Laflamme, who was a member of the roundtable. “You have to present the client to the team instead of a single lawyer. You have to show clients that having a team instead of a single lawyer will not increase their bill, but on the contrary, it will improve the quality. And perhaps we also need to look at the way we invoice. Practices must have collective targets, they must encourage the transfer and sharing of clients and not the appropriation of clients.”
Flexible work arrangements, particularly for working mothers, are vital, said Patricia Fourcand of Fourcand, Tremblay, Kissel, Plante LLP, a firm newly established Montreal firm. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, remote and hybrid working arrangements have become widespread in the legal world, notes the report. There’s no doubt that working remotely comes with advantages such as welcome flexibility, autonomy, and savings, said the report. In fact, several U.S. studiesfound that remote and hybrid employees were happier than workers in an onsite office environment, were more focused and more productive. It also led to better work-life balance. “It’s about respecting people and giving them all the flexibility,” said Fourcand. “The more flexibility you give people, they’ll own up to those obligations and the work will be done, even better, than if you treat them like some employees like you can’t trust them and that they have to be at the office at 8.” But the joint report also highlights that remote or hybrid working arrangements does come with drawbacks. Remote working can hinder networking and client development, and can make mentoring and team building more difficult to achieve or maintain, according to the report.
Positions of power
But the status quo will persevere if more women do not accede to the upper echelons of power, said Lanthier. The more women that are on boards or in positions of power, the more it will “encourage other women to continue in this line and the more we hope that more our considerations will be taken into account in decision making,” said Lanthier. But there’s a long way to go. As it stands, women represent only 32 per cent of partners in firms of all sizes, said the report. “When you’re just one or two women around the table, it doesn’t make a difference,” asserted Fourcand. “We either get ignored or our comments are ridiculed or discredited. So you need to have a critical mass at the decision-making table to make a difference.” Or as the report puts it, the lack of female partners or firm managers contributes to the lack of female role models. But thanks to the tight labour market in Quebec, law firms may have not have a choice to “do things differently” if they want to be competitive and attract talent, said Fourcand.
Women however who have attained positions of power under the traditional law firm model too should consider changing their ways, said the report. “Female leadership models in the profession need to be reinvented, as women lawyers no longer want the “profit and burn” model,” plainly states the report. It is well time “in 2023” to opt out of the old model of the ambitious female lawyer who compares herself to her male colleagues, who puts in the same hours, goes to cocktails to network and then “unfortunately perpetuates” that model to younger lawyers, said Claveau. “Female partners should instead say to the younger generation that was how it used to work in the older days, and I would never have been made partner if I hadn’t adopted the same model as my male colleagues,” said Claveau. “But it’s time to deconstruct those patterns.”
It’s also time to make a dent in the discrimination and harassment women face in the legal profession, said the report, pointing to a 2018 study conducted by researchers at the Université Laval. Sexual harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion are far too commonplace in legal workplaces, notes the report. Besides amending the Code of ethics of advocates to include a provision specifically prohibiting all forms of harassment, the Quebec Bar launched in February a new program to help lawyers and articling students who experienced or have witnessed discrimination or harassment by colleagues. The service will be provided by a specialized and independent external resource free of charge.
This story was originally published in Law360 Canada.