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What “Having It All” Really Means for Women in Law

Insights from Women of Influence’s 4th Annual Advancement Summit: Women in Law
By Alison McLean, Associate, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP

What was most exciting for many of us in the room at Women of Influence’s Women in Law review, was to hear senior women lawyers discuss issues affecting us out loud, and in public, when often these things are discussed behind closed doors. A lot of the discussion was not new. We know that women lawyers need better and effective mentoring. We know that women have different models of business development than men. And we also know that the use of the billable hour (or what Connie Sugiyama called the “elephant in the room”) as a means of measuring success necessarily privileges lawyers who do not have child-rearing or other family obligations. But these are issues we still face, and it’s time we spoke up. Can women lawyers really have it all?

Like other women lawyers of my vintage, I have friends and former colleagues who have made the move from private practice to work as in-house counsel, or to government or the non-profit sector, or who have left legal careers altogether. For me, the balancing act between being a parent of three young children, and being a successful lawyer is not peripheral, but is central to my daily life. There are many reasons women leave the legal profession generally, and private practice in particular, but surely one of the biggest reasons is the difficulty in balancing the competing demands of children and a professional career.

Once you have children, your career becomes a family project, not an individual one. It is easy to say “I have a supportive spouse” but the truth is, to make it work, having a spouse who is willing and able to work his or her schedule and career around yours is essential.

Understand that after you have kids, you need different mentoring from different people. My former mentor, the Honourable Madame Justice Carolyn Horkins, once told me that the biggest part of succeeding as a woman lawyer was to “keep showing up.” If we want to discuss how to advance women in the legal profession, a starting point is a discussion of how women can arrange their personal and professional lives so that they do keep showing up.

Until the legal profession is able to reconcile its desire to retain successful women lawyers with its current methods of calculating success, “having it all” means making compromises. For my part, I am prepared to make compromises at this stage of my life at home and in my career so that I will keep showing up until my children and my legal practice have become a little more mature.

All of this compromise has also meant accepting that my salary will not be the equal to colleagues of the same vintage who have not taken leaves or a slower path to partnership. But I’m determined to “keep showing up,” so these are compromises I am willing to make.

I am fortunate that my employer, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, has made the conscious decision to let people like me, who have taken maternity leaves, continue to develop as lawyers at a different pace than our colleagues who have not. In order to retain and support the advancement of women lawyers with children, firms need to recognize that it takes time to rebuild and reboot after a maternity leave. To that end, Gowlings has committed to the Justicia Project, which actively supports mentoring and business development opportunities for women, and allows flexible work arrangements and salary structures.

The profession will be slow to change but it can happen, one firm and one lawyer at a time. Perhaps the question we should be asking next is “Can Women Have Enough?”


Alison McLean is an associate in Gowlings’ Toronto office, practicing in the area of advocacy. Alison’s practice focuses on civil litigation, primarily in the field of insurance and product liability, defending claims on behalf of insurers. Her practice also includes class action and commercial litigation matters. To read McLean’s 10 tips for women lawyers with young children who want to have “enough,” please visit: www.womenofinfluence.ca/havingenough.

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