Taking the lead

  • October 23, 2014
  • Jennifer Hatfield

Leadership can be practised at all levels of a firm, because cultural change comes from being open to initiatives at all levels. Here's a blueprint for negotiating the dilemmas and opportunities of women and leadership.

It was more than a century ago, in 1892, that women were first given permission to study law in Canada. Just five short years later, in 1897, Clara Brett Martin broke new ground as the first female barrister anywhere in the Commonwealth.

But that heady progress slowed immediately: between 1897 and 1970, less than five percent of Canadian law students were women. It's only been within the last 30 years that the number of women entering the legal profession has begun to increase significantly; indeed, by 1998, that figure had risen to 50 percent. And as the number of women has increased, so has the focus on gender issues.

It was another milestone event, almost 100 years after the profession opened its doors to women, that crystallized that focus. In 1993, the CBA released the Touchstones for Change report on women and the law, nicknamed the Wilson Report after its Chair, former Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson. Its recommendations, geared toward promoting gender equality, generated controversy and activity in equal portions.

Today, many people are taking stock of those recommendations and deciding what to do next. As statistics show women continuing to leave the private practice of law in greater numbers than men, it's clear that there are numerous unresolved issues, many of them having to do with the vision and accomplishment of female success in the practice of law.

After five years of intensive research with women in the legal profession, investigating how women talked about their success as lawyers and as leaders within the profession, I found a complex and sometimes contradictory set of dilemmas that women must negotiate as they make a space for themselves in the profession.

Here, then, is an analysis of four of those dilemmas, and a blueprint for women to negotiate the challenges and opportunities that they present to enable them to take leading roles in the 21st-century legal profession.

Leadership for women

Women bring a unique perspective and history, as well as a diverse set of priorities and interests, to the practice of leadership. They are subject to many of the same historical gender expectations; for example, they ought to pursue conciliatory types of leadership practice and not be too interested in particular types of power.

Women are expected to operate within a framework of care and concern, demonstrating so-called "female sensibilities" such as non-strident behavior. Women are also expected - although to a lesser degree than in the past - to preserve the values of family life and be instrumental in the raising of children: in our culture, it's more common for women to take parental leave.

These conventional gender expectations stand in sharp contrast to the traditional definitions of success and leadership within the profession, where position, power, assertiveness, financial success and ambition are considered the hallmarks of "making it." To deal with these inherent contradictions, successful women lawyers have sought to expand the definition of leadership, viewing it not just in terms of "position," but also in in terms of mentoring responsibilities or trailblazing.

"Women's leadership" was associated with contributing to new initiatives in the area of human rights legislation, spearheading law reform, taking a lead as an educator or doing volunteer work for local or national bar associations. Women's leadership practice was concerned more with being the most knowledgeable about a particular practice area and with facilitating others to develop professional skills.

It is important for all members of the profession to challenge the myths and gendered expectations of the past as well as the limiting definitions of "success" in the profession.

2. An historical controversy

There are as many opinions about the status of women in the profession as there are women lawyers. Different practice settings, firm organization and individual aspirations influence whether or not an individual woman has concerns about her situation or the status of women in the profession asa whole. Women from different generations can hold widely disparate views about this topic.

Newer, post-Wilson lawyers often think that any discussion of women's issues and the law is reminiscent of "feminist rhetoric" and should be avoided at all costs. This group of women wants no special treatment and no heightened visibility in relation to their male colleagues. Each woman sees herself as an individual and believes she is judged on her merits alone.

Women who have been at the bar longer have noticed this generational discrepancy, resulting perhaps from a kind of "gender issue fatigue." Both men and women came to feel that, despite the many positive benefits of bringing women's issues to the table, the interpretation by some that women were cast as victims and men as the homogeneous group responsible for inequality caused problems.

While embracing and deeply valuing the changes in the profession, more experienced women lawyers felt they needed to "play down" their gender in order to be perceived as a "lawyer first and a woman second." It was vital to their success that they never be seen to be asking for special treatment or viewed as someone who would play the gender card. Sadly, women who have legitimate concerns and who wish to initiate change are reluctant to do so because of this legacy.

3. Avoiding the "token" label

Women leaders in the study noted that their success often would be attributed to "wearing a skirt" rather than their abilities. In the '80s and '90s, qualified women were given judicial positions to enable the system to more accurately reflect the population it served. But some women faced charges that they were just "riding the wave" of tokenism, leading many to suggest it was unwise to "wear your femaleness on your sleeve." Women may still encounter the token label and must be ready to resist its implications and lack of respect.

4. The commitment issue

Creating an identity as a successful women lawyer means dealing with the notion that "nothing but total commitment to the profession is acceptable." Despite the fact that they felt they might no longer be viewed as "real lawyers," women felt compelled to move into work environments that were more consistent with their values, sensibilities and personal responsibilities. Although these choices provided more flexibility, some women lamented the fact that the profession did not hold these alternatives in high esteem. Both men and women need to challenge the view that there is only one definition of commitment and make a space for diverse forms of contribution.

Solutions for individuals

The dilemmas are clear. Challenging cultural norms and resisting definitions are important. However, in addition to these insights there are some practical suggestions for women who want to achieve leadership positions in the law and help bring about the needed changes. Here are suggestions garnered from those who are considered leaders in the profession.

Francine Swanson, Senior Counsel for BP Canada, urges women to seek out large firms for their early training and to stay as long as possible, contributing to and benefiting from the large firm environment.

She urges women to resist the temptation to make the change to corporate or smaller practices too soon, in the search for a more congenial work setting. Women who have aspirations for high positions need the very solid training and the established reputation provided by a well-known firm to compete for the kinds of jobs they want in the future.

2. Specialize and become an expert

Choose a specialty - it must be something you enjoy - and become the best you can be in the field. Get all the extra training you can and become known for that niche. It's very hard to change in mid-career, and companies tend to look for a long track record in a particular practice area in choosing individuals to fill positions.

3. Develop excellent interpersonal skills

Lawyers face an array of challenging personalities and power dynamics, so an ability to adapt your communication style to fit the person you're dealing with is vital. The higher your emotional and interpersonal intelligence, the more you'll be called upon to deal with challenging situations.

Being tough with skill is vital to success. Embrace the notion of being a leader, learn to communicate your achievements, do not distance from or fear exercising authority. Combining traditional "feminine" values with the strength and assertiveness required for leadership has been called being an "iron fist in a velvet glove." Use this metaphor to develop a flexible style that is responsive to a variety of situations. Get coaching and take classes on communication skills.

4. Develop a mentor network

In her book Be Your Own Mentor, Sheila Wellington of Catalyst suggests developing a group of mentors in your work setting. Some firms have formal mentoring programs, but if yours doesn't, create one yourself. Not all mentoring relationships have to be traditional, the guru and the protégé. Seek out mentors among your peers and even beyond your firm willing to take the time to give feedback and direction. And be a mentor to another woman as well - this raises another issue:

5. Support other women

Some women lawyers complain that it's the other women in the firm who pose a barrier to them; those who've "made it" are unsupportive to the younger women. These stories lend support to the stereotypes that the "Queen Bee" is the only role model available to younger women, and that running the gauntlet of adversity is the only way to triumph in the profession.

The greatest barrier to creating this support is the reluctance of some women to see themselves as a group who share common interests and concerns. Informal networks are critical to success, improving morale and collegial exchanges and breaking down the stereotypes that suggest women don't foster each other's success is essential.

6. Develop a community profile

Volunteer for local charities; offer legal information through your local colleges and community centres; work for the bar association and become a spokesperson on issues. The time will come when these kinds of activities are impossible when combined with other demands, so do them early in your career. You'll develop leadership skills, make many important contacts and contribute to your community.

Solutions for firms

Grassroots efforts by women lawyers are key to achieving leadership success, but the law firms have a part to play as well. They need to show a willingness to welcome and foster women leaders within their ranks. But there are built-in barriers here as well.

First, a firm has to decide whether it really believes that women are a liability or an asset. If the firm culture thinks women are useful as associates but not in the longer term - particularity if a woman lawyer is planning a family - or that there's no point accommodating women because "they're just going to leave anyway," the firm has a lot of work to do.

Such a firm should read the Catalyst Report Making a Case for Women, which shows that women would stay and continue contributing fully to a firm or corporate department if their career path could be creatively structured, and if the traditional definitions of "commitment" and "contribution" were expanded as discussed earlier.

Here are some other suggestions for firms that want to encourage women leaders..

1. Gather the data

Firms need to know what they're doing well and what needs to be improved. An external consultant or respected member of the firm can arrange interviews or hold discussion groups to generate positive solutions to improve the work culture, policies and procedures. These can be communicated to management for consideration.

Currently, this kind of dialogue is rarely an aspect of firm or corporate department life because it is not mandated as part of yearly reviews. Without a change in this cultural norm, job satisfaction will remain an issue for individuals to deal with alone.

2. Use performance reviews and exit interviews

One major Toronto law firm has hired an external consultant to conduct 360-degree reviews that gather data on an individual's performance from peers as well as subordinates and superiors. This confidential information is used to generate training and coaching opportunities to enhance the individual's management and leadership development.

If a women lawyer leaves the firm, it's very unlikely she'll come forward with her reasons, especially if tensions regarding gender bias have been experienced. Exit interviews conducted by an external resource can provide constructive feedback to management regarding potential changes the firm can make to retain valuable members.

By being proactive, firms and corporate departments can address the issue of long-term succession planning by supporting talented members of the firm before they become dissatisfied or isolated - and inevitably leave, costing the firm a lot of money.

Professional progress

Establishing a new form of dialogue regarding women in the legal profession requires a heightened awareness of the resistance to such dialogue and the reasons for this resistance. It takes courage to reopen dialogue because the changes of the past ten years have been difficult.

However, discussions that are grounded in human rights, job satisfaction and leadership development must be initiated if the profession is to encourage women to contribute fully at all levels and in all practice settings. This will enable the profession to evolve in a way that creates a supportive and respectful environment for all members.

There appears to be little appetite within the profession for the intense forms of advocacy that were needed ten years ago. But there is an appetite for creating a respectful and responsive work environment that is focused on assisting men and women to realize their aspirations in a way that benefits clients and the professional as a whole.

Dr. Jennifer Hatfield is a psychologist based in Calgary who works across Canada as a consultant to individuals, corporations and law firms to improve job satisfaction, retention and leadership development opportunities: www.hatfieldgroup.ca.