Women lawyers leaving in droves
She spends her days serving sweet-potato fries and baked beans, but Melissa Fox-Revett used to charge by the hour to find corporate tax breaks.
The decision to turn her back on a lucrative Bay St. tax law practice to open a Roncesvalles restaurant wasn’t an easy one to make. But the long hours of a busy office and the three children in her life were incompatible, she says.
“You can make great money. In my experience what often happens on Bay St. is that problems are resolved with money.
“That’s not what I signed up for. I was coming in at 7 a.m. so I could leave at 6 p.m. and see my family. I didn’t go to the gym, didn’t go for lunch or pal around with other lawyers. And I’d still get ‘the look’ when I left.”
“A part of me will always wonder what might have been. I do feel like I lost something. It does hurt me.”
The exodus of women lawyers from Ontario firms has so alarmed the Law Society of Upper Canada that it has instituted a raft of programs to staunch the flow (see sidebar).
Why are they leaving and where do they go, these high-achieving, super-bright women who fought to get into law school and spent thousands of dollars in tuition, only to walk away from the prestigious Bay St. firms when they became mothers?
Then there are those who take a complete left turn, pursuing clothing design and fashion, for example, and leaving law far behind.
They don’t do this without some soul-searching or regret. Muneeza Sheikh, 29, took a month-long religious pilgrimage to Mecca to figure out what she should do with her future after she had a baby daughter.
She enjoyed litigating grievances in-house for the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, but the travel requirements were onerous. On her maternity leave, she continued to do contract work for the union, but worried about returning full-time. In the end, Sheikh decided to become a sole practitioner and opened her Toronto office in January, 2010. She works four days a week and plays with her baby on her days off.
Although she graduated recently — in 2007 from Osgoode Hall Law School (with $45,000 in student debt) — Sheikh is already planning to move out of law altogether. She’s on the brink of starting a children’s clothing line and, if it’s successful, Sheikh will say goodbye to law. Fashion has always been a strong interest of hers — she worked for six years as a MAC Cosmetics makeup artist while she was a student.
“I do love being a lawyer, although I don’t like the paperwork. I do feel an adrenalin rush when I stand in front of a judge,” she says, adding, “I think the prestige of law and novelty wear off. In a perfect world someone would hand me the file and I would go argue in court.
“But here there’s just me. I do it all.”
She’s watching with interest as two other Toronto women lawyers establish a children’s clothing company, Matooka, which had the good fortune to have little Suri Cruise wear one of their dresses in a recent photograph. (Paparazzi fortuitously caught the daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes on the way to her mother’s birthday party.)
Yona Elishis and Daniella Kuhl, both 31, turned to children’s fashions as a way of managing their busy family lives.
Elishis, who specialized in mediation and dispute resolution, is the eldest of six girls who’ve all achieved academic success, including a doctor, an MBA and another lawyer.
Her parents were “thrilled” when she became a lawyer and she “loved law.” In 2007, when she became pregnant with twins — a high-risk pregnancy — she left McCarthy Tétrault where she worked. Then, before the birth of her third child, she got into the fashion business.
“Whenever people find out we’ve been lawyers, they take us a lot more seriously,” says Elishis, of negotiating contracts and making deals for the business.
There was some negative reaction about her initial decision, she says. “People were surprised. You go to school for so long. But my view is that it isn’t a waste. The fact that I’m a lawyer has opened doors for me and I know I can always go back.”
Kuhl, originally from Florida before marrying a Canadian and coming to Toronto to finish law school, says her heart-surgeon father was a little disappointed when she announced the foray into fashion. “He said, ‘Are you sure about this?’”
A trip to a New York trade show, where Matooka was displaying their Toronto-manufactured clothing line, helped bring him around, Kuhl says.
Their clothes are sold online, as well as in five Canadian stores, 65 boutiques in the U.S., and in Saudi Arabia, Russia and Lebanon.
Kuhl, who has always studied fine arts and was in pre-med studies before coming to Canada, had her first two babies while still in law school. She articled for a sole practitioner who had a civil and criminal litigation practice, but packed it in when she had twins two years ago. “I needed to be at home for my children. It is important to have work-life balance.”
Leaving law doesn’t mean leaving all your skills behind, says Cara Clairman, vice-president of sustainable development at Ontario Power Generation. She practiced environmental law at Torys before accepting a position to work in-house at OPG in 1999 when she had a toddler at home.
While family duties weren’t the main reason she jumped to the utility, she said it did help that she had more control of her time. She ultimately oversaw a 22-member law team before moving into the VP job.
Her current job doesn’t require a law degree — her predecessor didn’t have one — but her knowledge of environmental regulations is a great help in her post, she says. There are other transportable skills as well.
“The prime skill a lawyer has is being able to speak well. You can be persuasive when you have a point to make. It’s important in a large bureaucracy like the one I’m in.”
Although she doesn’t plan on returning to law, she does keep her Law Society membership up to date and attends continuing education classes. “It’s something I can always fall back on, although I don’t think I would.”
Had she stayed in private practice, Clairman says she would be making a lot more money, although she adds, “I am happy with my current compensation.”
But those golden handcuffs are hard to shake off, admits Sheena MacAskill, 50, who says it took her two years to get up the nerve to quit McCarthy and McCarthy, where she was associate and partner in litigation.
During the 13 years she worked there, she had three children. Her husband is also a lawyer, and MacAskill says, “There are a lot of years I don’t remember much.”
In the end, she wanted to try something new. “I learned a lot and McCarthys was a great place to work. But I didn’t have anything left to prove to anybody, so I could give it up.”
Her firm soon asked her back to coach the associates and mentor young lawyers. Ultimately, however, she struck out on her own and founded Sheena MacAskill Career Development Strategies for Lawyers.
Although she’s happy with her decision to become a consultant, it wasn’t without a struggle. “It’s silly, but (being a partner) was so tied up with my identity. I thought, ‘I’m a partner in a Bay St. law firm. I must be crazy to leave.’ It was hard to let go of that.”
What’s being done?
After its 2008 study “Retention of Women in Private Practice” documented the flight of women from law, the Law Society of Upper Canada instituted a number of initiatives.
It created a three-year pilot program, the Judicia Project, aimed directly at retaining women, with 56 of the province’s largest law firms participating. Flexible schedules, family-friendly practices and mentoring programs are being created.
But the society also turned its attention to smaller firms and sole practitioners by creating a $3,000-a-month maternity allowance (for three months) for lawyers who don’t qualify for Employment Insurance. In the first year, 27 men and 75 women used this fund.
It has also built a roster of contract lawyers who will handle a practice while someone is away. The scheme looked to medicine, which uses visiting doctors, or locums, to fill positions, as a model.
“Work-life balance” was one of the main reasons women left private-practice jobs in 2009, reports Josée Bouchard, equity adviser for the society, adding that most had children under the age of 6.
“For more than 10 years, women have been more than 50 per cent of the graduates from law school,” says Bouchard, adding that they represent a valuable talent pool that should be retained. “We want to make sure we have the best and the brightest.”
Bouchard says it is fine if lawyers leave to pursue other dreams, but adds that “we need to make sure they don’t leave because of gender-related issues.
WHERE DO THEY GO?
A 2009 “change of status survey” completed by 1,257 Ontario lawyers who’d changed jobs (out of a total of 5,263), shows a substantial number of women are changing jobs or leaving law altogether.
The Law Society of Upper Canada found:
Of the women who left a job in private practice, 29 per cent went into non-private practice (such as in-house counsel) and 27 per cent went out of law.
Of the women who left a job in non-private practice, the majority stayed working in the non-private sector, but 25 per cent are no longer practicing law.
Women comprise 38 per cent of lawyers, but represent 60 per cent of those changing jobs.
The biggest reasons both genders gave for changing jobs were the end of a contract, restructuring, downsizing, or a personal decision such as retirement. One quarter said the new job was more appealing. Better remuneration was cited in just 10 per cent of cases.
Women were more than twice as likely as men (21 per cent vs. 9 per cent) to cite work-life balance as the reason for the change in status.