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Leading the way

Q & A with Lisa Borsook

Lisa Borsook
Lisa Borsook was one of the first women to be named managing partner of a large Canadian law firm.

Lisa Borsook has made her mark in the male-dominated legal industry.  Managing partner at WeirFoulds LLP from 2007 to 2012, she has been recognized as a leading practitioner by Lexpert; was named one of the best lawyers in Canada in her practice area in Best Lawyers in Canada; and has been honoured as a Leading Practioner in the 2012 & 2013 Lexpert/American Lawyer 500.

Executive partner at WeirFoulds, Borsook is a lawyer, wife, and mother who earned her way to the top of law firm hierarchies, and has spent much of her career advocating for change and helping women in the legal profession follow in her footsteps.

In December she was recipient of the Women’s Executive Network’s 2013 Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 Awards in the KPMG Professionals Category.

National: What has winning the Women’s Executive Network award meant to you?

Lisa Borsook: It was a great honour, and I am very grateful.  It made me reflect on how I got to where I am today.  Spending time at the gala with all the other amazing women recognized was inspirational, and humbling.  I hope to leverage this special recognition to continue helping women get to where they should be.

N: What has been your experience as a woman in the legal profession?

LB: I’ve been in the legal profession for a long time, and things were really different then. I guess it’s fair to say that my experience has been terrific, but I’m very sensitive to the challenges that women have faced over the years. As an institution, the firm that I’ve been at, WeirFoulds, has been terrifically supportive and has had a very liberal approach to advancement of women, and I’ve been the beneficiary of that. But I think all of us would say that there’s the institution and then of course there’s always individuals that you bump up against who are not as open-minded. They can be clients; they can be sometimes other lawyers; they can be colleagues in the profession. I think we’ve all encountered that during the course of our careers.

N: What are the obstacles that still face women in the legal industry?

LB: Well, the billable hour isn’t a terrific thing, is it? Because as long as our value is measured in the context of the number of hours we actually sit at our desks, or stand on our feet, it’s always going to be, I think, a little tougher. It’s just a tougher way to evaluate women because historically - and I think it remains true today - we’re keeping a lot of different balls in the air.  But I would also say this, and it’s particularly true in Toronto, but I’m sure true across the country: each lawyer’s contribution is still measured by reference to their profitability. And women have historically not been the great rainmakers that men have been.

And that has been a more challenging obstacle to their attaining influence. So women have always graduated at the top of the law school classes, and in terms of the fundamentals of understanding law and practising law, we can’t be beat. We’re just as qualified as men. But in the arena of rainmaking, and correspondingly profitability or exercising influence, in those arenas we haven’t been as successful.

N: Why is that?

LB: That’s a very complex question. And there are a lot of different answers to it. I can give you a lot of different answers, and of course, it very much depends on what area you practise law in.

For instance, a lot of people talk about the old boys’ network, right? They all go out golfing together. And that inhibits your ability to connect with clients or prospective clients and become a rainmaker, because historically women haven’t been great golfers. Or they just don’t have that kind of time.  Golfing can take take eight hours of your time.  I never have eight hours. If golfing were an hour and a half I could get my head around it, but eight hours is impossible for me and for a lot of women.

N: At a time when women are still grossly underrepresented as managing partners in law firms you made managing partner.  What made the difference for you?

LB: I think mentors are important. When I first started to work at the firm (Weirfoulds LLP), my mentor, the lawyer with whom I worked - that’s invariably your first mentor - not only taught me how to be a good lawyer and basic, essential, fundamental skills that made me into a better lawyer, he was also the managing partner of our firm. So I watched how he juggled both of those job responsibilities within that.

But the other thing that facilitated my becoming the managing partner was, first of all, the firm at which I worked (WeirFoulds). They never hesitated to put me on the important committees and that gave me a better understanding of how the firm was administered.  And I guess on top of that I was a profitable partner. I think that it’s virtually inconceivable that someone would be made managing partner who didn’t have the respect of their colleagues from a business perspective. I think that’s very important; that they think that you’re a credible lawyer as well as a good administrator.

And finally, I happen to be someone who doesn’t just work hard, but I’m very good at compartmentalizing and prioritizing. These are inherent, practical qualities that I think are fundamental to being a good managing partner, because during the course of my tenure, the six years that I was a managing partner, I also practised law.

N: Are we ever going to get to a point where it’s about the leader and not about the sex of the leader?

LB: Well, that is the most complex and the most challenging issue. I don’t know. You know, Hillary Clinton talks about how she gave this brilliant speech and everybody comments on what colour pants suit she was wearing. And they would never do that if it were a man.

N: As a role model and woman of leadership and influence, what is your advice for women following in your footsteps?

LB: I think the first place you start is to figure out what’s important to you. Well, no, the first place you start is to accept that you are going to be working for the rest of your life, and that that is a good thing! And then the second thing is that once you understand that, then you have to figure out what you’re about and what’s important to you, and build that into your career. So if you want to have a partner and if you want to have children, you’re going to have to figure out a way to get there. And for me, there are a lot of different components. I talk about physical fitness because your health is very important. And I have always been a great advocate for finding time every single day to go to the gym, or whatever it is you do, for your physical health.

And then the third thing is, find a mentor or a sponsor or somebody to keep you positive and moving forward.