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Melissa Kennedy is the general counsel for Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan.MATTHEW SHERWOOD/The Globe and Mail

When Melissa Kennedy was in high school in rural Southwestern Ontario, she was told to abandon her ambition to study law. The profession was "too hard," a guidance counsellor said. Think of becoming a legal secretary instead.

Ms. Kennedy, 51 – who is now the head lawyer, or general counsel, for the massive, multibillion-dollar Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan – says the incident only intensified her drive to succeed in the legal profession. "I would say being underestimated has probably been one of my biggest weapons," she said.

Ms. Kennedy's story is included in Breaking Through: Tales from the Top Canadian Women General Counsel, a new book featuring profiles of female general counsel from across Canada, written by retired McCarthy Tétrault LLP partner Kirby Chown and Toronto-based executive search consultant Carrie Mandel.

In researching the book, the pair found that, of the Report on Business's list of top 500 public companies in Canada with a general counsel on staff, 27 per cent of them were women.

That compares to about 20 per cent of Bay Street partners in private practice – suggesting that companies are reaping a bumper crop of talented female lawyers who leave major firms. (The authors also note that there are more women in general counsel roles than in board seats or executive roles at companies.)

But in their interviews with 32 of the top female general counsel in the country, Ms. Chown and Ms. Mandel found that it wasn't just the notorious time demands in private practice that left female lawyers looking for somewhere else to work. The way law firms are organized also discourages some women.

"Law firms are very competitive, competing for money, for clients, competing with others in the firm," Ms. Chown said in an interview. "In house, we have one client, we have one team and we are all rowing the boat in the same direction. … Women seeking out a more collegial team environment found that in house."

Ms. Mandel agrees it is more than just concerns over who would pick up children from daycare that had women wandering away from private practice. "Women felt the environment of an in-house general counsel to be more sympatico with how they want to work, and their values," she said.

For example, in house, Ms. Mandel points out, there is no pressure to entertain clients after hours with drinks or at sports events. "One woman said she had to watch male partners and clients play squash, and be relegated to spectator and cheerleader."

The legal profession has been collectively wringing its hands for years about the exodus of women from private practice, and whether lawyers are able to reconcile the demands of work and family. Ms. Chown, who gave birth to twins in her first year of practice, and who finished her career in 2009 after seven years as her firm's Ontario managing partner, agrees the hours in-house are usually "more controllable." But there are still demands, she added, and that once in-house lawyers rise to the role of general counsel at a major company, there is little difference in terms of workload.

Lawyer Kathryn Hendrikx, who is president of the Women's Law Association of Ontario, says the major law firms are keenly aware of the issue. It will be hard, however, for firms to stem the tide of women leaving without revising their emphasis on billable hours. "I think that they risk losing their best and their brightest – you can't build a sustainable economic model on half the population," she said.

The role of general counsel has been expanding in recent years, with many taking on broader executive responsibilities and helping to make business decisions. In-house legal departments, while still fairly small at even large companies, have been growing as more legal work is brought in-house to avoid escalating hourly rates for external law firms.

Ms. Kennedy, who started as a litigator in private practice before moving to senior roles at the Ontario Securities Commission and CIBC, dismisses the idea that in-house work is less demanding as an "urban myth." She agrees it is a different work environment than private practice, but says it is one that also appeals to men.

"They want to be part of a team and they want to follow things through," Ms. Kennedy said. "I hear that song being sung by both men and women and people of all sorts of diverse backgrounds."