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Women in the boardroom

How your firm can gain more female leaders.

woman in boardroom

While women make up the majority of law students, they are underrepresented in leadership roles at law firms. According to the National Association of Women Lawyers, only 15 per cent of equity partners are women even though they comprise 46 per cent of associates.

Here are a few tips for law firms seeking to bring more women into senior leadership:

Have a clear hiring and appointment process for leadership roles

Law firms need clear guidelines for choosing leaders. At Dentons, a nominating committee in each region oversees the selection process for senior leadership positions including managing partners, board members and advisory and compensation committees. The system allows a broader range of people to be recognized for their leadership ability.

“We use the nomination process because we want the best-qualified applicants,” says Lori Matheson, managing partner of the Dentons Vancouver office. “Without such a process, there may be management roles going to partners with economic power, but who may or may not be the best fit for management. We want all equity partners’ voices to be heard in finding the best leaders.”

Create and measure goals for female leadership

The key to success is creating tangible goals. In order to have more women in management, firms must incorporate diversity into their strategic objectives. This includes tracking and measuring success. The CBA released the guide Measuring Diversity in Law Firms in 2012 to address the need for more evaluation on diversity. Dentons began measuring diversity through firm-wide surveys in 2008 and is a member of the Legal Leaders of Diversity, an advocacy group that supports diversity through evaluation and incorporating diversity in employee advancement.

“We have tangible goals for diverse leadership,” says Matheson. “Firms need to recognize that leadership doesn’t just evolve. We have to work on this issue on an ongoing basis.”

Sponsor associates for major deals

The right kind of work can boost an associate’s career. Look for eager young lawyers not only to mentor but also to sponsor.

“Sponsors are individuals you have proven yourself to through good work,” says Nora Osbaldeston, National Chair of the Financial Services Group at Miller Thomson. “Sponsors, unlike mentors who may be appointed, are earned.  They are prepared to promote you and introduce you to opportunities because they know what you are capable of.  As you progress through your career towards partnership, I think a sponsor is essential; someone who is influential who is prepared to tell other influencers how good you are, someone who is prepared to introduce you to opportunities; someone who gets you involved in, or recommends you for, the big deal, or the big case.”  

Create flexible work arrangements

According to Catalyst Canada’s series of reports on flexibility in law firms, more than half of female lawyers believe that flexible work arrangements would limit their professional development and make them appear less committed to the firm.

“We have to pay attention to the demands put on women and the constructs of the legal profession,” says Osbaldeston. “People can say women choose to opt out, but if the law firm structure and the way we carry on business doesn’t allow for work-life balance, at least during the child-rearing years, the choice may be imposed on women and men. Then it’s not really a choice at all.”

Law firms must embrace flexible work arrangements by setting out clear written policies, which may require changing partnership agreements.

“If firms have strict timeframes where one is expected to make partner, like an up-and-out mentality, women who have had a maternity leave or alternate work arrangements may be prejudiced,” says Osbaldeston. “They may not be able to build their book of business within the same time frame. We need to ensure there is some flexibility in that regard, to ensure women don't fall behind.”

Create networking opportunities

Networking is a critical part of a lawyer’s career development. Law firms should create opportunities for associates to practice their networking skills.

“Introduce associates to an easy environment for them to get out there and network,” says Valerie Mann, Managing Partner of Lawson Lundell. “We reach out to our associates and invite them to events.”

Encourage your mentees to take risks

Mentorship programs are a must-have for law firms. Women are generally more risk-averse than their male counterparts, so mentorship is a great way for them to be encouraged to take more risks in pursuing leadership opportunities and business development. Mann developed her successful IT practice through the help of various mentors.

“I tried to find a niche at the firm,” says Mann. “There was no one in my firm doing IT so I dived right in. I mapped out the process and wrote a business plan. I joined the Canadian IT Law Association and chaired the conference. I gained tremendous experience. It was important to me to carve out my own world.”

Big risks can result in big pay-offs. Osbaldeston took the risk of losing the bid to become managing partner and became the youngest managing partner in Miller Thomson’s history.

“I put myself in a situation where I could possibly fail,” says Osbaldeston. “(Managing partner is) an elected position, which I had to run for and I did not know whether I would be elected or not.  I never had been in a situation where I did not know whether I would succeed. You have to put yourselves in that situation and not be afraid to fail.”