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Illustration by Christy Lundy

When veteran lawyer Peter Lukasiewicz became CEO of Gowling WLG (Canada) in 2016, he pledged to bring more women into the national law firm’s partnership.

It’s the kind of thing law firm leaders have been promising for decades – at least since 1996, when women started filling up more than half the seats in law schools across the country. But despite years of women’s committees, mentorship programs and networking events, the needle on women’s representation among law firm partners has been slow to move.

So Gowlings looked outside for help, hiring Deloitte to examine the reasons women weren’t making it to partner in the same numbers as men, and to perform an audit of pay equity among male and female partners.

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Starting in 2018, the consulting firm reviewed the previous five years of partner compensation data and reported several instances where women made less than their male counterparts despite posting similar financial performance.

The firm adjusted compensation for several people based on the results and then put recommendations from Deloitte in place. The biggest change was to ensure gender parity on the management committees at each regional office, which make recommendations on pay to the national compensation committee.

Gowlings also has an open compensation model, where all partners see what the others make, and now provides annual written assessments to partners explaining decisions on pay.

Bringing in the consultants was helpful because it gave the firm an “objective analysis of compensation versus financial performance,” Mr. Lukasiewicz told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

Deloitte has looked at Gowlings’ numbers over the past two years and determined the pay gap between men and women is closing, he said, adding that shows “we’re doing a much better job of rooting out unconscious bias in our compensation system.”

The firm has also increased the number of women partners by about 14 per cent since working with Deloitte: As of Jan. 1, women made up 32 per cent of partners, up from 28 per cent three years earlier.

“I very much believe in the old adage ‘What gets measured is what gets done,’ ” Mr. Lukasiewicz says, reflecting on the fact that this methodical, data-based and transparent approach seems to be working for his firm.

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Taking a hard look at pay equity is not the norm among Canada’s biggest law firms, where compensation information is usually a well-kept secret.

For the past decade, a regular survey of in-house counsel has shown that women lawyers who work in corporate legal departments make less, on average, than their male counterparts (11 per cent less in 2020). But private firms, which still employ the majority of lawyers, have never participated in a similar survey, and provincial regulators have not compelled firms to make compensation information public.

At least one organization – the Women Lawyers Forum, a branch of the Canadian Bar Association – recently met a wall of resistance when it tried to gather data on pay equity.

The WLF received funding for a partner compensation survey in 2018 and planned to publish the results the following spring. Instead, they were quietly posted online this past October. The reasons for the delay are plain in the report, which explains that some firms declined to participate, while others “struggled to complete the full survey.”

“The majority of firms were reluctant to disclose actual compensation amounts, even if expressed as percentages of total income of all partners,” the report said. In the end, the WLF went ahead with a truncated survey that did not ask about individual compensation. Even still, just 27 unnamed firms participated, a 42-per-cent response rate.

With no public disclosure on gender representation or pay required, The Globe asked the Seven Sisters law firms – an informal grouping of Canada’s most prestigious firms for corporate law work – about the representation of women and non-binary lawyers in their partnership ranks. The firms (Blakes, Davies, Goodmans, McCarthy Tétrault, Osler, Stikeman Elliott and Torys) said women accounted for between 24 and 31 per cent of partners. They did not disclose specific information on the gender-based pay gap, if any, at their organizations, though several said they had taken steps to make compensation more fair.

Yola Ventresca is a partner at Lerners in London, Ont., who says both male and female mentors helped get her to where she is.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“Pay equity – compensation structures and whether women feel that they’re being fairly compensated – is something we have to look at in terms of why women leave private practice,” says Yola Ventresca, a litigator at Lerners in London, Ont.

She’s “someone who got through,” she says, meaning she made equity partner – buying an ownership stake in a firm and getting paid a share of its profits. “I just turned 40, I’m a woman of Middle Eastern background, and I have primary carriage over significant client files.”

Ms. Ventresca credits male and female mentors who helped her along the way and gave her the chance to work on important files. Yet, she speaks frankly about the reasons many of her friends and colleagues dropped out of private practice; they range from sexual harassment to the stress of fertility issues to balancing parenting with lawyering.

In more than two dozen interviews with The Globe and Mail, women lawyers from large national law firms and small boutique practices shared stories about the barriers that exclude most women from the highest ranks of power, lead them to opt out of private practice – or leave law entirely. Many spoke about their experiences on the record, while others asked to remain anonymous, concerned their careers would be damaged by complaining publicly about an insular legal community where they still aspire to make partner, advance to senior leadership or nurture important business relationships.

“A lot of women who are articling students or junior associates don’t want to speak out and compromise their career,” says Jennifer Gold, president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario and a partner at Brampton, Ont.-based family law firm Wood Gold LLP. “It’s an expensive journey to get here, and there’s all kinds of pressure not to speak out.”


PROPORTION OF LAWYERS WHO ARE WOMEN, BY PROVINCE AND TERRITORY (1998 vs. 2018)

1998 (all lawyers)

2018 (active practising lawyers)

20

30

40

50%

60

1

Que.

2

Que.

Canada

Ont.

N.L.*

Yukon

N.B.

N.S.

PEI*

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Man.

NWT

1. Chambre des Notaires du Québec.

2. Barreau du Quebéc.

*1998 data not available.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FEDERATION OF

LAW SOCIETIES OF CANADA

PROPORTION OF LAWYERS WHO ARE WOMEN, BY PROVINCE AND TERRITORY (1998 vs. 2018)

1998 (all lawyers)

2018 (active practising lawyers)

20

30

40

50%

60

1

Que.

2

Que.

Canada

Ont.

N.L.*

Yukon

N.B.

N.S.

PEI*

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Man.

NWT

1. Chambre des Notaires du Québec.

2. Barreau du Quebéc.

*1998 data not available.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FEDERATION OF LAW

SOCIETIES OF CANADA

PROPORTION OF LAWYERS WHO ARE WOMEN, BY PROVINCE AND TERRITORY (1998 vs. 2018)

1998 (all lawyers)

2018 (active practising lawyers)

20

30

40

50%

60

1

Que.

2

Que.

Canada

Ont.

N.L.*

Yukon

N.B.

N.S.

PEI*

B.C.

Alta.

Sask.

Man.

NWT

1. Chambre des Notaires du Québec.

2. Barreau du Quebéc.

*1998 data not available.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FEDERATION OF LAW SOCIETIES OF CANADA

IN-HOUSE COUNSEL COMPENSATION: HOW MUCH WOMEN MAKE FOR EVERY DOLLAR MEN MAKE (2020)

88¢

92¢

96¢

Equal

Average base

salary

General counsel

executive level

General counsel

director level

Assistant/associate

general counsel

Senior counsel

Legal counsel

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

THE COUNSEL NETWORK

IN-HOUSE COUNSEL COMPENSATION: HOW MUCH WOMEN MAKE FOR EVERY DOLLAR MEN MAKE (2020)

88¢

92¢

96¢

Equal

Average base salary

General counsel

executive level

General counsel

director level

Assistant/associate

general counsel

Senior counsel

Legal counsel

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: THE COUNSEL NETWORK

IN-HOUSE COUNSEL COMPENSATION: HOW MUCH WOMEN MAKE FOR EVERY DOLLAR MEN MAKE (2020)

88¢

92¢

96¢

Equal

Average base salary

General counsel executive level

General counsel director level

Assistant/associate general counsel

Senior counsel

Legal counsel

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: THE COUNSEL NETWORK


The pay structure inside law firms is opaque, but two things are clear: Women tend to make less because they make it to the top in fewer numbers, and because the factors that go into compensation decisions generally favour men.

It’s not enough to work 60 to 80 hours a week and hit sky-high targets for billable hours. To succeed at a private law firm, lawyers must build a strong book of business. But women told The Globe they often face obstacles to getting good work and face time with important clients. What’s more, as men progress to senior ranks both in law firms and in corporate legal departments – a major source of business for most corporate law firms – they usually refer work to each other.

Women have formed referral networks to try to disrupt that trend, but when it comes down to it, says Dal Bhathal, managing partner of Toronto-based legal recruiting firm the Counsel Network, “I’m still finding that for the referral of work, unconscious bias is playing into it.” To highlight the pay gap between men and women, Ms. Bhathal’s firm started publishing a survey on compensation trends for in-house lawyers in 2009. The results are stark: The higher up the ladder women go, the fewer women there are, she says. “We continue to see the majority of the highest-paid partners and GCs are men.”

Shaneka Shaw Taylor, a partner at Boghosian + Allen, a litigation law firm in Toronto, says compensation is neutral during a lawyer’s early years of practice, since it’s tied primarily to years of experience. Over time, however, factors such as a lawyer’s track record and book of business become more important. “That is all determined, to some degree, based on your exposure to those clients, to those files, to the decision makers.” Taking a parental leave can limit that exposure. It can also be hard for women to get good files back when they return to work, says Ms. Shaw Taylor.

Black women, Indigenous women and women of colour (referred to as BIPOC) face additional barriers, she adds. “Unless you can culturally relate to clients in positions of power – golfing, whiskey tasting or whatever activity it may be – that’s another layer that’s going to impact your ability to build that book of business and garner that higher compensation.”

At most large corporate firms, junior lawyers are paid a standard amount based on the year they were called to the bar, with salaries increasing annually in lockstep with their peers. But in many cases, discretionary bonuses are paid – a first point of divergence between men and women.

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A flag waves over the office buildings of Toronto's financial district.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Associates are often warned not to discuss how much they make, and partner compensation lists are highly guarded – sometimes password-protected or viewable only one time. Some firms operate under closed, or “black box,” compensation models, in which even the partners themselves don’t have access to the full breakdown of how profits are distributed. The Seven Sisters firms largely use open compensation models that allow partners to see what others make; only Torys told The Globe the firm was “not in a position to comment” on this point. Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG), Canada’s largest law firm, said it has a “closed compensation model, with broad input and oversight by both regional and national committees.”

Under any model, compensation remains largely opaque to non-partner lawyers. In a bid to combat the secrecy and arm themselves with information to better negotiate their own compensation, benefits or promotion, several women said groups of junior lawyers often circulate lists to get a sense of what their law school peers are making at the firm across the street. The Globe has also obtained copies of two other crowdsourced efforts at transparency. One group generated a list of maternity leave policies at major firms, including information on whether and how bonuses are paid out for partial years worked. Another group charted the new partners announced by large firms year over year, tracking the proportion of women versus men making partner.

It’s not just information about compensation that is closely guarded. Many sources The Globe spoke with lamented the fact that firms can boost the overall number of women partners in their ranks without admitting as many to the equity partnership, a tactic that could be helpful in promoting public efforts to reach at least 30 per cent representation of women in the partnership ranks. Senior associates are often promoted to income partnership, which is still based on a salary model. Unlike equity partnership, income partners don’t buy into the firm or receive a portion of its profits.

“The normal path is that an associate first becomes an income partner, and then when they have developed a sustainable equity partner’s practice, they move into the equity partnership,” says Tina Woodside-Shaw, firm managing partner at Gowlings.

Yet for some, income partnership becomes a sort of purgatory where they spend years on end without making equity partner. Firms that have both types of partners typically keep the number of income partners under wraps.

Among the Seven Sisters, Goodmans, Torys and Stikeman Elliott, which have only equity partners, told The Globe that women account for between 24 and 26 per cent of partners. The remaining four – Davies, Blakes, McCarthy Tétrault and Osler – reported that women accounted for between 29 and 31 per cent of partners, but would not break down the percentage of equity versus income partners.

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REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN AT SEVEN SISTERS LAW FIRMS

Firms where 50% or more lawyers/

partners are women

FIRMS WITHOUT INCOME PARTNERS

Stikeman

Elliott

Goodmans*

Torys

26

25%

24

PARTNERS

56%

50

48

ASSOCIATES

42

41

11%

COUNSEL

40

39

30%

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE/PARTNERSHIP BOARD

39

35%

N/A

LAWYERS OVERALL

FIRMS WITH INCOME AND EQUITY PARTNERS

McCarthy

Tetrault

Davies

Blakes

Osler

31

30

29

29

PARTNERS

56

56

51

46

ASSOCIATES

54

15

N/A

N/A

COUNSEL

40

39

36

33

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE/PARTNERSHIP BOARD

51*

36

N/A

N/A

LAWYERS OVERALL

*Includes students

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOODMANS; TORYS; STIKEMAN ELLIOT; DAVIES; MCCARTHY TETRAULT; BLAKES; OSLER

REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN AT SEVEN SISTERS LAW FIRMS

Firms where 50% or more lawyers/partners

are women

FIRMS WITHOUT INCOME PARTNERS

Stikeman

Elliott

Goodmans*

Torys

26

25%

24

PARTNERS

56%

50

48

ASSOCIATES

42

41

11%

COUNSEL

40

39

30%

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE/PARTNERSHIP BOARD

39

35%

N/A

LAWYERS OVERALL

FIRMS WITH INCOME AND EQUITY PARTNERS

McCarthy

Tetrault

Davies

Blakes

Osler

31

30

29

29

PARTNERS

56

56

51

46

ASSOCIATES

54

15

N/A

N/A

COUNSEL

40

39

36

33

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE/PARTNERSHIP BOARD

51*

36

N/A

N/A

LAWYERS OVERALL

*Includes students

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOODMANS; TORYS; STIKEMAN ELLIOT; DAVIES; MCCARTHY TETRAULT; BLAKES; OSLER

REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN AT SEVEN SISTERS LAW FIRMS

Firms where 50% or more lawyers/partners are women

Firms without income partners

Firms with income and equity partners

STIKEMAN

ELLIOTT

McCARTHY

TETRAULT

GOODMANS*

TORYS

DAVIES

BLAKES

OSLER

31

30

29

29

26

25%

24

PARTNERS

56%

56

56

51

50

48

46

ASSOCIATES

54

42

41

15

11%

N/A

N/A

COUNSEL

40

40

39

39

36

33

30%

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE/PARTNERSHIP BOARD

51*

39

36

35%

N/A

N/A

N/A

LAWYERS OVERALL

*Includes students

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOODMANS; TORYS; STIKEMAN ELLIOT;

DAVIES; MCCARTHY TETRAULT; BLAKES; OSLER

Gowlings said it does not track income versus equity partners, and includes both in its calculation of 32 per cent female partners.

At BLG, 31 per cent of all partners were women as of Jan. 1. That breaks down into 28 per cent of equity partners and 35 per cent of income partners, revealing how women are more heavily represented in income partnership. The firm has targets in place to increase women partners and promote more diversity among its leadership. “We are moving the needle, though we would wish to move it faster, of course,” says BLG’s chief talent officer, Leanne Cherry.

The Federation of Law Societies of Canada does not have country-wide numbers on partnership, but the Law Society of Ontario says women represented a total of 26 per cent of law firm partners across the province in 2019.

Firms have been trying to address the gender gap for years, with many aiming to get to about 30 per cent women in partnership. Large firms typically have formal diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs in place, including initiatives aimed at retaining and promoting women.

Among the Seven Sisters, several said they are trying to make compensation practices more equitable. For example, McCarthy Tétrault says any lawyer who takes up to one year of parental leave will not lose their place on the pay grid, keeping them compensated in line with colleagues who were called to the bar at the same time. And Blakes says it changed how it determines partner pay about a decade ago; on top of financial performance, it now considers metrics such as mentorship and non-billable contributions to the firm and broader community.

Back at Gowlings, in addition to pay equity, the firm also worked with Deloitte to identify key career moments where unconscious bias can play a role in delaying or blocking a woman’s path. The consultants told Gowlings to look at unequal access to opportunities and important projects, as well as the fact that junior lawyers often lack information on how the partnership admission process works. Deloitte also urged the firm to strip gendered language (i.e. “he’s a real team player”) from partner recommendation forms.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s still very much a merit-based assessment,” says Ms. Woodside-Shaw. “But numbers-wise, it has made a difference – the number of women admitted into the partnership has increased over the past three years.”

Yet, smaller and mid-size firms are often further behind on addressing issues of unconscious bias that affect pay or promotion, says the Counsel Network’s Ms. Bhathal. “They don’t have D&I officers. They don’t have people who are really focused on this.”


Watch: Globe and Mail journalists Robyn Doolittle and Chen Wang discuss some key findings from their Power Gap investigation into pay and promotions for women in the workplace. Their analysis of data from 244 public institutions showed that women were outnumbered, outranked and out-earned by almost every measure. The Globe and Mail

Explore The Globe’s data

Use the icons below to see what our database contains for your city or university and other public entities. Individual entity data is included on each of these pages.


There are numerous reasons women decide to set up their own shop, move in-house, take a government job or quit law altogether – and none of those reasons are secret. Yet, after decades of trying, law firms still can’t seem to stop women from leaving.

In Ontario, for example, women made up 58 per cent of lawyers under the age of 30 in 2019. But the numbers dropped off with seniority, to 40 per cent of lawyers between the ages of 50 and 65, and just 17 per cent of those above age 65. Women account for just 26 per cent of all law firm partners in the province. Legal regulators in other provinces reported similar numbers.

The legal world places great emphasis on equity and rights, and includes rules of professional conduct that obligate members not to discriminate. Yet, as with many industries, women often confront a culture of casual and systemic gender bias. On top of the challenges of getting good work and building a strong profile, women told The Globe that discrimination and harassment are still common.

They continue to receive comments about their appearance, voice and manner – comments that can often be conflicting. Some, for instance, are urged not to wear pink or dress “too sexy” for job interviews, while others are implored to wear skirts, high heels and pantyhose to court. Some have been told their voices are too loud, chastised for using profanity and encouraged to smile more. Others have been directed during career development or mentoring sessions to be more aggressive or confident if they want access to career-boosting files.

Business development events can also lead to uncomfortable situations for young women, with female associates, law clerks and paralegals “voluntold” to attend late-night dinners to entertain clients. At some firms, women warn each other about which partners to avoid at events that feature plenty of drinking and no spouses.

Being forced to skip these kinds of networking events can have a big impact on a woman’s career. While some firms are experimenting with formal systems for assigning work, most of those assignments still come through personal relationships. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, some women said certain senior male partners made it a policy to avoid one-on-one coffees or meals with young women, leading to more opportunities for junior male lawyers.

Almost no one launches legal claims against their law firm, however, and many female lawyers point to one well-known example from more than a decade ago as evidence of the risk that can come with making complaints public.

Diane LaCalamita filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against McCarthy Tétrault in 2008, claiming the firm did not live up to promises it made regarding compensation and making her a partner in the firm; she alleged discrimination on the basis of sex. The case later settled out of court on undisclosed terms (the firm said in a statement of defence that Ms. Calamita never performed well enough to become an equity partner), and she is now listed as “not practising” by the Law Society of Ontario. McCarthy Tétrault spokesperson Alley Adams says the firm can’t comment on the specific case for reasons of confidentiality but stands by its “commitment to transparency on these issues, and our concrete efforts to support and advance women lawyers.”

Other women simply can’t or don’t want to find a way to make the profession work for them. According to numbers from law societies across the country, women represent close to half of early-career lawyers, but typically account for fewer than 25 or 30 per cent of lawyers still practising after 25 years. In almost every province or territory, women also outnumber men among lawyers who are exempt from liability insurance, which includes those with in-house and government jobs.

Story continues below advertisement

PROPORTION OF WOMEN LAWYERS, INSURED VS. EXEMPT FROM INSURANCE (IN-HOUSE, ETC.)

Exempt from insurance

Insured

0

10

20

30

40

50%

60

70

Yukon

Que. (Bar)

PEI

B.C.

N.L.

Ont.

N.S.

Man.

N.B.

Alta.

Sask.

NWT

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

FEDERATION OF LAW SOCIETIES OF CANADA

PROPORTION OF WOMEN LAWYERS, INSURED VS. EXEMPT FROM INSURANCE (IN-HOUSE, ETC.)

Exempt from insurance

Insured

0

10

20

30

40

50%

60

70

Yukon

Que. (Bar)

PEI

B.C.

N.L.

Ont.

N.S.

Man.

N.B.

Alta.

Sask.

NWT

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

FEDERATION OF LAW SOCIETIES OF CANADA

PROPORTION OF WOMEN LAWYERS, INSURED VS. EXEMPT FROM INSURANCE (IN-HOUSE, ETC.)

Exempt from insurance

Insured

0

10

20

30

40

50%

60

70

Yukon

Que. (Bar)

PEI

B.C.

N.L.

Ont.

N.S.

Man.

N.B.

Alta.

Sask.

NWT

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: FEDERATION OF LAW SOCIETIES OF CANADA

Discrimination and harassment are particularly prevalent in the early years of practice. The Law Society of Alberta found 32 per cent of articling students faced discrimination or harassment based on gender or race.

The Discrimination and Harassment Counsel program at the Law Society of Ontario publishes regular reports that offer further insight into treatment that could prompt lawyers to leave their jobs. In its most recent report, covering the first half of 2020, the DHC said there were 16 complaints from lawyers and five complaints by articling or law students.

According to the report, employment-related complaints typically involved a power differential, and included discriminatory comments about pregnancy and maternity leave, as well as sexually explicit comments and physical harassment. “It is striking that all the complaints about sexual harassment in this reporting period were so severe that complainants either left their jobs or were terminated when they complained.”

People who turn to the DHC are often concerned that if they make a formal complaint – even if it’s just within their own firm – they could face reprisals or the stigma of speaking out, says Lai King Hum, an employment lawyer with her own practice, Hum Law Firm, who also works with the DHC. “It is a small profession,” she says.

Ms. Gold, of the Women’s Law Association, says the DHC reports also reveal the particular challenges faced by BIPOC women. “It’s still a profession where white men continue to enjoy both racial and gender privilege. Being a woman of colour myself, I can see from my own experience and from anecdotal information from other colleagues that it is very difficult once you’re in a law firm to move up.”

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