The Canadian and American bars have more than language in common. They share some of the same problems, such as how to keep women from fleeing firms.
In an effort to stop women from leaving private practice, a number of initiatives will be rolled out in Ontario as part of a program officials hope will serve as a model for other Canadian jurisdictions.
The Law Society of Upper Canada, which regulates Ontario’s legal profession, has issued a number of recommendations, including establishing a women’s institute, developing a project to promote and support the use of contract lawyers and funding parental leave programs.
“We think that these are probably very small steps in moving forward in terms of retaining women, but by taking these steps we are making people aware of the issues,” said Bonnie Warkentin, a partner in Kingston, Ontario’s Willoughby MacLeod Warkentin. She co-chaired the Law Society’s Retention of Women in Private Practice Working Group, which prepared the report.
“It will probably be somewhat of a grassroots implementation in the end because we are engaging every level of the profession,” she said.
Warkentin said she has already received some calls from the United States about the report and believes that, if successful in Ontario, the program could be duplicated in other places.
The working group was created in 2005 to identify best practices and implement strategies to keep women lawyers in private practice. As part of the report, focus groups with about 900 lawyers were held in 10 Ontario cities.
The law society has nearly 39,000 members in Ontario. Of that total, 24,500 are men, and 14,400 are women.
During the past five years, the percentage of male lawyers working in private practice in Ontario averaged 60 percent, compared with 42 percent for women, according to the report.
The report says that women are more likely than men to leave their firms and points out that the cost of turnover for a four-year associate is $315,000. Law Society data shows that, during the past 10 years, women have been leaving private practice at rates two to three times higher than men.
The report said demanding law careers conflict with family life, which is the most common reason for leaving the profession. The most immediate reason for women to leave appeared to be childbirth and parenting responsibilities, the report said.
Women are particularly affected by the availability of support as well as benefits such as part-time partnerships and employment, job sharing and flexibility in work hours, according to the report.
For firms with more than 25 lawyers and the two largest firms in each region, the report calls for establishment of a three-year pilot project. Firms that volunteer to participate will collect demographic information in order to help create benchmark information on women lawyers, develop maternal and parental leave programs as well as create networking and business development opportunities for women.
More than a dozen firms have already expressed interest in participating, said Laurie Pawlitza, a partner at Toronto’s Torkin Manes Cohen & Arbus and the working group’s other co-chair. A list of participating firms will likely be compiled in the fall, and their managing partners will need to commit to attending a summit twice a year, Pawlitza said.
“The premise behind this is: Change has to involve leadership,” she said.
The program’s costliest recommendation is a parental leave benefit program, which would run for three years starting next year.
Under the program, lawyers in solo practices and firms with five or fewer lawyers who do not have access to other maternity or parental leave benefits will be able to get $3,000 a month for three months to help cover expenses associated with maintaining the practice during the leave. The $540,000 annual cost for the program would be absorbed through additional fees for Law Society members. It is estimated about 60 lawyers would take advantage of the program each year.
The report also calls for a five-year pilot project to promote and support contract lawyers. This could help women and men who face challenges finding lawyers to maintain their practice during leave, according to the report.
Other recommendations include establishing the women’s leadership and professional development institute, creating an online women’s resource center and working with law schools to help prepare women to practice law.