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British Columbia B.C. law society project tackles retention and advancement of women lawyers

Andrea Hilland

Brian Dennehy Photography, courtesy the Law Society of B.C.

When Suzanne Paterson applied to Canada's prestigious Osgoode Hall Law School more than 40 years ago, the married mother of three knew she faced a significant hurdle: Back then, gender quotas meant that less than a tenth of spaces were allotted to women – and no married woman had been accepted up to that point.

"I thought, 'This is going to be a toughie,'" recalled Ms. Paterson, now 77. "When I applied, I filled in the forms but I 'forgot' to fill in that I was female and married. I 'forgot' my three kids. I 'forgot' the whole thing."

She was accepted. But in the letter from the school informing her of that fact, Ms. Paterson – who went on to have a storied, decades-long career as a criminal lawyer in B.C. before retiring in 2013 – was addressed as "Mr."

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"The assumption that I would be a man was so strong that the name 'Suzanne' did not deter them at all," she said with a laugh.

Much has changed since Ms. Paterson's entry into the legal profession, but a gender disparity remains. In B.C., women make up only about one-third of all practising lawyers – a gap that research suggests may not close for decades to come.

To counter this, the Law Society of British Columbia has adopted new model policies aimed at facilitating the retention and advancement of women in the profession. Dubbed Justicia, the initiative – first launched by the Law Society of Upper Canada in late 2008 – updates and clarifies old policies around parental leave and flexible work arrangements and includes tools to track gender demographics and develop pathways to partnership for women.

The Law Society of B.C. developed the new, voluntary model policies in collaboration with partners at 17 large B.C. firms – all of which have agreed to adopt them. The law society's board of governors, known as benchers, endorsed the policies last month; this month, the law society will begin actively encouraging other firms to follow suit.

Andrea Hilland, the lawyer co-ordinating the initiative, said the new policies focus on practical steps. Template letters requesting a flexible work arrangement, for example, help women navigate the process and serve as an assurance that such a request is acceptable.

"It's not innate, it's not necessarily obvious what should happen," she said. "There was a lot of attention paid to the practical realities of how things work in the law firm. "And, I think a lot of times, people are afraid to ask for things if they're not written down in policy."

Justicia also emphasizes the business case for retaining talented women: Female entrepreneurs are one of the fastest growing segments of the Canadian economy, and firms that can't offer experienced female counsel, or demonstrate an interest in diversity, run the risk of losing clients to other firms.

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The new policies are adaptable to law firms of different sizes. Notably, the 17 law firms that have already signed on have agreed to share details of their policies, for the first time giving other firms a chance to compare the amount of parental leave and pay being offered, for example.

According to a 2009 report by the law society's Retention of Women in Law Task Force, women enter the legal profession in numbers equal to or greater than men but leave the profession in disproportionate numbers. Of all women called to the bar in 2003, only 66 per cent retained practising status five years later, compared to 80 per cent of men, the report said.

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