Canaries in a Coal Mine?

Much is made about women leaving the practice of law. For the most part, I find the concerns somewhat overstated, and the emphasis misplaced on gender issues when this is much more likely a signal that what firms are doing isn’t working for a significant proportion of the profession. (A notable exception is the excellent piece written by Jordan Furlong this past February on Law 21: Why women leave law firms, and when they’ll return.)

Women aren’t leaving legal practice; they are leaving, for the most part, private practice. Does that say something about women? I’m not sure. Does it say something how law is typically practiced in the modern law firm? Absolutely.

My own view of this is that women in legal practice may have intuited what is slowly becoming more and more obvious to the profession broadly – and that is that a billable hours based approach carrying with it expectations of thousands of hours billed each year (and therefore, even more spent at the office) just isn’t compatible with the life many of us imagined, or made for ourselves.

By way of example, I need not look any further than at my own close friends. We are a group of seven women who graduated from Robson Hall in 1992. After our Call to the Bar in 1993, all but one of us went to work in private practice in small, mid-sized and large Winnipeg firms. The seventh went to work with Legal Aid.

Ten years later, in 2003, only two remained in private practice. Two were working in government in policy/management positions; two were Crown Attorneys; and one was employed in a non-governmental organization. Four of the seven were mothers at this point.

Another ten years have passed and now only one of seven remains in a private practice environment. Two are now in senior government positions. The two Crowns are senior lawyers in their offices. One is a full-time appointee to an administrative tribunal and another is a freelance lawyer in non-traditional practice. All seven are raising children.

As a group, we haven’t left the law, for the most part. Each is using her training in one way or another within the legal and governmental sectors; but we’ve mostly left traditional private practice behind us. Why? Our reasons vary, but include:

  • Greater challenges and more variety in work;
  • Better pay;
  • Greater control over schedules; and
  • Ability to spend time with family.

Are we all still lawyers? Yes, even those without current practicing certificates. Once a lawyer, always a lawyer (until death or disbarment.) We didn’t leave the law, but we walked away from a way of working that didn’t work for us.

While this little group from Robson Hall do not reflect the experience of all women in law, nor do we exemplify the full range of reasons why women choose to leave private practice, our stories nonetheless illustrate the extent to which private practice is failing to meet the needs of many lawyers.

This isn’t new. It won’t soon go away. It’s not a crisis. But we do need to pay close attention to the reasons why women are leaving private practice and stop assuming that this is nothing more than a “gender thing.”


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