Law school classrooms are filled with female students. At Université Laval, in fall 2018, female students made up nearly 70% of the new cohort admitted to the Bachelor of Laws program. In Quebec, more than 65% of graduates from the École du Barreau (Bar School) are women.
Yet, statistics show that women lawyers leave the profession much earlier than their male colleagues (at age 49 vs. 61, on average, according to Quebec Bar statistics). Many women leave the practice of law during the first 10 years, a period considered crucial for career advancement. Inevitably, they are less likely to become partners and occupy senior positions in law firms.
As early as 1993, the Wilson Report, prepared by a task force chaired by the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and released by the Canadian Bar Association, identified barriers to the advancement and retention of women lawyers. A compensation system based on billable hours, a “professional ethos” that values total dedication to the profession and clients, the difficulty of reconciling work and family, and the existence of gender bias are all factors that have long been documented in the literature. So why is the situation not changing?
A recent study on the advancement and retention of women in traditionally male occupations, in which I participated as a researcher, provides some answers. This study covered a range of occupations as diverse as physicians, pharmacists, engineers, financial directors, correctional officers, police officers, inspectors and lawyers. The study found that, in some occupations, organizational practices have contributed to the advancement and retention of women (for example, correctional officers and inspectors). In other cases, such as for lawyers, the situation is stagnating. Our analysis shows that the organizational culture in law firms does not encourage change because many firms consider the traditional formula to be working well! The client-service-profitability trio is not problematic in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, at least at first glance.
In law firms, the dominant discourse and several policies promote equality and inclusion. However, these great initiatives do not pass the test of reality. Do what I say and not what I do? The models that young women lawyers have before them are those of practitioners whose success is still based on long hours of work, complete devotion to the client and individual merit. Our study also shows that law firm managers are far from being convinced that modifying practices to foster the advancement and retention of women lawyers could, in the short or medium term, lead to higher profitability for the firm. It could even entail costs! And isn’t profitability the goal of any business organization?
To foster change, law firms have to believe in it. Believe that equality and diversity are paramount values in a forward-looking society. Anticipate that, in the coming years, clients will have expectations in this area that can’t be ignored. Be convinced that equally effective legal services can be delivered by adopting more supportive practices, such as teamwork, teleworking, and adopting a compensation system based on quality rather than just the number of billable hours. Recognize that deconstructing gender bias is an essential exercise in a society that promotes substantive equality.
In order to equip the lawyers of tomorrow to become agents of change, law schools have an important role to play. They must include teachings on feminist analysis in the university curricula, and sensitize students to the realities of the legal profession. They must set an example by implementing measures to counter discriminatory bias and by promoting teamwork. They must open the discussion to become incubators of new ideas for a more inclusive practice of law. They must do this for women, but also for the men who share these values and also aspire to a better balance between their work and personal lives.
– Anne-Marie Laflamme