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Shara Roy (left) and Sana Halwani, partners at litigation law firm Lenczner Slaght, are photographed in Toronto on Oct. 22, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Toronto lawyer Sana Halwani noticed a pattern last year when she was asked to recommend lawyers at other law firms when her own firm had a conflict of interest and couldn’t take on a new client. She realized the first names that came to mind were always men, and usually older white men.

“I really got frustrated with myself and with my inability to recall all the wonderful women who are in my bar [practice area] and other bars that I know,” she recently recounted.

That frustration led Ms. Halwani to join forces with Shara Roy, another partner at litigation law firm Lenczner Slaght, and the pair came up with the idea of a female-focused referral list.

They launched ReferToHer in June, 2019, offering a directory intended to drive more business to experienced women in law. Last week, more than 130 of Canada’s top female litigators and corporate lawyers, all members of the list, joined a Zoom call for the first “in person” ReferToHer event.

The initiative began with 10 lists of experienced practitioners in different fields of litigation, ranging from intellectual property to insurance to estates law. Earlier this year, full-service business law firm McCarthy Tétrault joined in to launch additional lists focused on corporate law, including practices such as private equity, mergers and acquisitions, and securities.

While 44 per cent of lawyers in Ontario are women, according to 2019 data from the Law Society of Ontario, just 26 per cent of law-firm partners in the province are female.

The scarcity of women at senior levels can be a self-perpetuating problem as men at the top tend to refer work to each other. Male practitioners also dominate the top tiers of legal rankings produced by well-recognized outlets such as Chambers and Lexpert, which can be a go-to resource for lawyers who work in-house at corporations when they are looking to hire external counsel.

This matters because most law firms give “origination credits” to the lawyer who brings in new business and while the specifics vary by organization, this usually equates to financial rewards and a boost in profile.

“When a client e-mails or calls a particular lawyer and says ‘I have this new piece of work,’ that single event, the 1.5-minute call, has a huge trickle-down effect,” Ms. Halwani said in a later interview, noting that building a strong book of business is crucial to advancing in the profession. “The holy grail in law firms is origination.”

Ms. Roy added that referral networks – that see lawyers refer work to other firms when their own firm has a conflict of interest – also tend to be male-dominated. When women “buck the trend” and instead refer work to other women, they can face the challenge of not having work referred back to them.

“In lots of ways law firms are so antiquated and this is part of it,” she said. “So, while we can’t change the system as a whole, we’re just trying to level the playing field within the system that exists currently.”

The ReferToHer list began with 177 names and has now expanded to more than 400 people. New candidates for the list must be partners, senior counsel or sole practitioners and must be nominated by someone already on the list.

Sean Bawden, an in-house lawyer who handles litigation and employment law at Canopy Growth Corp., has used ReferToHer to bring in external commercial litigators on at least two occasions.

“The list is convenient to navigate and you know it’s vetted," he said. "But more than that, Canopy – and myself included – are looking to diversify how we do things, rather than relying on the usual network of people you went to law school with or people you’ve had files with.”

During last week’s Zoom event, attendees broke into small groups to discuss possible solutions to several key challenges to women’s advancement in law. One focus was raising awareness to get more in-house lawyers such as Mr. Bawden to think outside of their usual referral boxes.

Attendees also discussed how to mentor junior lawyers and recognized that the ReferToHer list itself is dominated by white women. Some suggested that it could expand to include more Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) by making connections with smaller firms that may have been founded by BIPOC women.

“A criticism of many of these gender initiatives is that they tend to focus on white women, and we believe that is a valid criticism” Ms. Roy said, adding that the team behind ReferToHer is trying to address that issue and plans to partner with other groups that work to advance BIPOC women in law.

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