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How One Law Firm Achieved Gender Parity

Gender parity is a lofty goal for many law firms, but the cruel truth is that most don’t achieve it.

Not so for Canadian law firm Lerners LLP though. The Toronto litigation firm has 55 per cent women lawyers, of whom 45 per cent are partners. And that is double Canada’s national average.

But it wasn’t all easy, as the firm’s first lady lawyer, Janet Stewart, confirms. When she started she was largely ignored by the male lawyers who believed she wouldn’t last the distance.

Women generally, in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere, are struggling to achieve anything like gender equality, although certainly major steps are being taken by many firms.

In Canada, for instance, women are still two to three times more likely to leave private practice than their male counterparts, according to the Law Society of Upper Canada. But as other law firms continue to wring their hands over gender representation, this mid-sized litigation firm has managed to do it.

Around the Toronto office, where more than 50 lawyers work, rainmaker Earl Cherniak is known as the “honourary skirt.’’ As he accepted the Toronto Lawyers’ Association award of distinction last week, Mr. Cherniak  talked about how women were an “exotic rarity” in the profession when he was called to the bar in 1960.

Partner Lisa Munro Matthew Sherwood for NP

Matthew Sherwood for NPLisa Munro, partner and executive committee member at Lerners LLP

What an “incredible waste of talent there was in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, given the number of women in those days who did not see or were not permitted to see, the practice of law as a viable option,” he told the crowd.

“We didn’t set out to achieve gender parity,” Mr. Cherniak told the National Post. “We set out to hire the best people we could find.”

He remembers interviewing Ms. Stewart, who was called to the bar on a Friday and started at Lerners the following Monday.

Ms. Stewart was the first woman to make managing partner at the firm — a role barely any woman filled in the law world of the 70s. By the 1980s and 1990s, the firm received far more applications from women as more and more of them graduated from law school.

“Generally speaking,” he says, “the women that applied were just better than the men.”

Lisa Munro, who joined Lerners as an articling student in 1992, is now partner and member of the firm’s executive committee.

“[Ms. Stewart] was a very strong woman in a leadership position and in a firm for something like 30 years at a time when most firms did not have female managing partners,” she says. “I think that set the tone in our firm in terms of leadership roles for women.”

Though women outnumber men in law school, they account for only 35% of lawyers in private practice and only 20 percent of partners, according to the Law Society’s Justicia Project. Lerners was one of 57 “founding firms” in that project, which tracked gender and sought ways to retain more women. Lerners is the first participant to release its gender ratio.

Read more at the National Post

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