Law Society Initiative aims to retain women in law

 

If you take a look at the average law school class in any school in this country, you will notice at least half the students are women. This is a great improvement from decades past. However, when you take a look at your average private practice, you won’t typically see this kind of gender parity.

The attrition of women from the legal profession is an issue of great concern. This is especially the case in private practice, where the drop-off of women is the most significant. While women make up around 50% of law graduates, on average they make up only around 34% of lawyers in private practice.

Thankfully, this situation is not being ignored. In 2008 in Ontario, the Law Society of Upper Canada launched the Justicia Project, a project designed to examine and support the retention of women in law. It has been a success thus far, with 57 participating law firms and inspiring the creation of similar projects in other provinces.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Janet Minor, Treasurer of the LSUC, and Josée Bouchard, Director of Equity Initiatives of the LSUC about the beginnings of this project, what it has achieved thus far and where it is headed.

The Justicia Project (background can be found here) was launched to address the problem of women leaving the legal profession in numbers that were widely disproportionate to men. While lawyers leave law practice all the time for a variety of reasons, it was clear there was a cause behind the high numbers of women bowing out from law.

Initially, the Project commenced focus groups and consultations to explore and determine the reasons behind the attrition women from law. The studies found that responsibilities and pressures that come with balancing law and family were a big reason why women left law. While all working parents struggle to find balance, the demanding and time-intensive nature of law can make it especially challenging.

The Project wanted to address this cause through engaging law firms across Ontario and providing them with resources to help them retain and empower women. These resources include manuals, policies and guidebooks, which you can check out on the Law Society of Upper Canada’s website here.   The resources cover a variety of useful topics, like a Guide to assist lawyers and firms in developing flexible work arrangements and a Guide for helping forms prepare for the parental and maternal leave of lawyers.

As a new parent myself, I am particularly interested in the toolkit for new parents and information about how to set your practice up while you are on leave and what to do when you return. What to do with demanding clients and files while on maternity leave is a top question of mind for many lawyers planning to start a family.

One of the goals of the Project was to encourage firms to develop standard policies and practices surrounding maternity and parental leave, rather than the ad-hoc policies many firms adhere to. For example, many female lawyers simply negotiate their own personal maternity leave arrangement with their firm, so the practices become ad-hoc instead of standardized. With these resources, many firms now have the tools to integrate policies into their firms.

The Project also facilitates workshops, conducts research and hosts events focussed on equality issues designed to equip women with key professional skills to help them succeed. The next event will be on October 29thdetails can be found here.

It is a little too early to see what the overall impact the Justicia Project has had on the legal profession, but so far the numbers look promising. Since 2000, there has been a 10% increase in the number of women in law.

There is still plenty of work to be done to retain women in law, but progress is being made, no small thanks to projects like Justicia.

By: Kathryn Marshall

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