Where Are All the Women in the Future of Law?

Something has been bothering me lately about the discussions about the future of the legal profession. Maybe you’ve noticed it too? Where are the voices of women in this discussion?

There are a few of us paying attention to the issues but on the whole, I’d say women lawyers are not speaking up about what changes they’d like to see for the future of their profession.

Of course, we know that many women lawyers leave private practice early in their careers. I recently heard Allan Fineblit, CEO of The Law Society of Manitoba say that half of women lawyers are not in private practice in Manitoba after just 5 years at the Bar. The gender-breakdown statistics for Manitoba lawyers are set out in The Law Society of Manitoba’s 2013 Annual Report:

There were 1985 lawyers with active practising status in Manitoba as of December 31, 2012, of which 1280 or 64.5% were men and 705 or 35.5% were women. Of those women in active practice, 52% were engaged in private practice with the remaining 48% employed in corporate, government (including Legal Aid) and educational endeavours. Of the men in active practice, 74% were engaged in private practice and 26% in corporate, government and educational endeavours.

Of the women who currently represent just 35% of practising lawyers in Manitoba, 45% are within their first 10 years at the Bar and nearly 60% are within their first 15 years since call.

I’ve posted here previously about how the exodus of women from private practice might serve as an alert to the fact that something needs to change in the private practice model.

More recently, I’ve been wondering why it is that many of those who have left that model behind are not engaging in the current discussions about where the practice of law is headed. I suspect these women have strong opinions and good ideas about what needs to change. I’m also not hearing the voices of more recently called lawyers, although I appreciate that the pressures of the early years of practice may make it especially challenging to form an opinion, never mind to find time to weigh in.

But this is, it seems to me, the perfect moment to “lean in” and speak out about what it is that drives women out of legal practice, and even more importantly, what could be different so that more women will remain in the practice of law. At this time, when there is a growing understanding that change is not only inevitable but coming at an accelerating rate, when there is a call for innovative approaches that better meet the needs of both clients and their lawyers, there is also an incredible opportunity for women lawyers to step forward to drive and lead this process.

The choice is available to every lawyer, whether content or dissatisfied with the status quo in our profession – we can react and respond to the waves of change swelling around us or we can jump aboard and influence the direction the wave takes. I remain hopeful that more of my “sisters-in-law” will hop aboard.



  1. Your comment legitimately has nothing to do with this story.

  2. It does! Both are women’s rights issues. You and others can disagree.

    I think we need some one like Oprah in this country.

  3. I wonder if it’s because women lawyers have provided their input over the past 20 years on this issue and still nothing has changed. It could be that the changes required are so fundamental and require such massive cultural upheaval that women don’t see the point in participating if the solutions that get implemented continue to be superficial. It could be survey fatigue. I think we already know what needs to change and what drives women out.

  4. I think there are plenty of women speaking up, they’re just not being recognized by the powers that be. When the usual suspects throw conferences on the “future of law,” and 90%+ of the speakers are male, that’s inexcusable.

    After just such an experience at a Stanford Law conference, I formed a group with another female participant as an experiment, just to see if any tech-interested female lawyers actually existed (since the party line is that there just aren’t enough of them to invite to talk). We had 50+ people join in the first day, most of whom are also young lawyers, in addition to being female and interested in the future of the profession.

    So, while I appreciate your desire to hear more voices, I don’t think telling women that they just need to lean in is really the solution.

  5. I have left the profession. Personally, I don’t engage in the discussion because I am focused on caring for my family and growing my business, two things I could not do in a way that worked for me and my family while within the profession.

    This, I think, is the very reason that so many women are leaving and remaining silent.

  6. Maureen Fitzgerald

    As a seasoned recovering lawyer I am now writing a book called …Lean Out…how to change corporate policies so women can really rise to the top. In my opinion, the key reasons why women (and maen) lawyers are silent is because we are afraid of looking like complainers and we are afraid of losing our reputations and all our colleagues. We live in a small world of lawyes who all know each other. Even today, whenI speak up about obvious sexism or god forbid – feminism, my lawyer friends still distance themselves. It’s all too scary. Yet as a policy lawyer I know that unless we change systems, women will continue to struggle and blame themselves. I invite sisters-in -law to call me and create something amazing!

  7. I left the profession due to burn-out from the stress. Then I read the book “What Can You Do With a Law Degree? A Lawyer’s Guide to Career Alternatives Inside, Outside & Around the Law” by Deborah Arron. In 1983 that question was rarely asked. Now every bar association publishes something like this: http://www.cba.org/cba/practicelink/careerbuilders_advancement/alternatives.aspx

    In one chapter, she suggested some people should stay in law and make changes there. So I started volunteering with the CBA, BC, even though I was then a consultant. I can’t say I was warmly received but I got a lot of assignments.

    When the provincial body set a committee to look at the future, I was there at their meetings. The committee majority thought it most important to help lawyers make more money–literally.

    I helped with the formation of the Women Lawyers Forum and with the research for the BC task force on women and the law.

    There is no secret solution. There are easy things to do and radical things to do to change the profession and even the legal system. But they are not being done or taking too long.

    Individually and with like-minded colleagues, lawyers are changing the way they practice. For some of us, this came too late.

    I worked with Steve Keeva to create a workbook for his use in workshops on his book “Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life” (an ABA Journal Book).

    After 20 years of change effort, I decided to save my energy for people who really want to change. I worked with Rennaissance Lawyers in 2000 and support its descendant http://cuttingedgelaw.com/

    Whenever I hear the latest version of the crap about women not “leaning in”, I explode with, “Why would they?”.

    The fact we are not asked to speak at conferences is an effect, and a small one.

  8. Why don’t women join the conversation? The contributors above make many good points. In particular, I’d echo Ann’s point about the fatigue we feel at the lack of change. Here’s just one example.

    I was initially excited about the CBA Legal Futures initiative and clicked on an early version of the website. There was very little content at that point, but it did contain a drop-down list of the Steering Committee members. All seven names on the drop-down list were men. Through a different link on the site, I found another list of the committee members, which showed an additional individual –a woman – as the eighth and final member. All the men had professional photos with their bios; there was no photo for the woman.

    So why does this make me weary?

    First, it is appalling to me that a national committee struck to look at the future of the profession couldn’t find more than one knowledgeable female leader to help steer the ship (1/8 = 12.5%, much lower than any of the dismal percentages noted in the article.)

    Second, the way that the committee members’ information is presented on the site speaks volumes. Although the website has been changed and enlarged since I first viewed it, and the seven-member drop-down list is now gone, the current list of Steering Committee members is set out in the following order:
    – The Chair of the Committee (with photo);
    – The remaining male members in alphabetical order (each with photo);
    – The woman (still no photo).

    I am using my language deliberately. Although the female member appears to be an accomplished individual with a significant mandate, her information is presented almost as an afterthought, as (just) ‘the woman’ on the committee. No photo – so no opportunity for us to make a visual connection with her. No status – not even a place in an alphabetical listing.

    Some will say these are minor points. But the little things matter, because the little things create the bigger picture. A bigger picture that I also fear hasn’t changed much in 20 years.

    So perhaps it’s not about joining those conversations, but starting some of our own.

  9. Thank you all for joining this conversation. I must say that although I am not surprised by the comments made, I am a little disheartened and needed to take some time to respond.

    Yes, there are still barriers. Yes, women are not always heard, nor even asked to contribute. Yes, many women are busy with a multiplicity of other, more pressing responsibilities. I have experienced all those things and understand the frustrations expressed.

    Yet, the opportunity remains and the time is now.

    In my post on this topic for the CBA Futures website, I included a quote from a Manitoba heroine, Nellie McClung that rings true for me in this context. She said:

    The women who have achieved success in the various fields of labour have won the victory for us, but unless we all follow up and press onward the advantage will be lost. Yesterday’s successes will not do for today! Women must claim the place they have won

    . –

    We can remain silent. We can remain pessimistic about whether meaningful change is possible. We can walk away from our chosen profession.

    But we can also, collectively, take up the mantle of those women who started this battle and “press onward” toward a change that benefits not just those currently practising, but also our daughters and their friends and the generation to follow.

    I am an optimist and pursuer of change. I believe we can make this profession more accommodating to the needs of all who are underrepresented in our ranks, whether women or minorities or persons with disabilities. That can only happen if we work collectively and collaboratively.

    Will you join me?

  10. I wish you well, Karen. There has been much change already. It is just not enough.

    When I started law school, we were the largest cohort of women in the law school’s history–25 women out of a class of 225. There were 14 women in 2nd year and 7 in 3rd year. So, less than 50 women in a school of nearly 700.

    Law firms were hiring only token women: “We already have our woman lawyer.”

    Most claimed they couldn’t hire woman because women would have a high turn-over rate due to their leaving to have families. In articling interviews, you would actually be asked about your birth control and whether you intended to have a family.

    Then women students conducted a study and learned that women actually had a lower turn-over rate than the men who were just switching firms.

    This has all changed and the various task forces and the Women Lawyers Forum are helping women lawyers. But you are right that women currently in law must continue the fights. Along with the men who also want the culture of the profession changed.

  11. As someone who has been weighing in on this topic for years- as a large firm partner (and diversity chair) for 24 years and, now, as a consultant, coach and erratic blogger, I agree that women in practice and beyond need to express themselves as loudly as career survival permits. However, Lesley and Alison make crucial points with which I whole-heartedly agree. Every future-law organization committed to change loses credibility, and should forfeit our support, if it fails to assure a full and equal voice to women in the profession.