The Ontario Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Forum hosted yet another excellent program in their “Pathways to Power” series. The previous presentations included: Women in Politics, Women on Boards, Women on the Bench and In-house Counsel.
This latest program focused on female founding partners and lawyers “who have emerged as successful entrepreneurs and leaders in the legal profession”. The panelists were Mary Eberts (Law Office of Mary Eberts), Fareen Jamal (Jamal Family Law Professional Corporation), Natalie C. MacDonald (Rudner MacDonald LLP) and Robin Parker (Paradigm Law Group LLP). The moderator for the panel was Gabriela Ramo and she was joined by Richa Sandill and Victoria Boucovalas as the program co-chairs.
Gabriela’s questions provoked candid and often personal answers dealing with everything from post-partum depression, to divorce, to what role feminism has in their firms. The panel was inspiring and extremely entertaining. Participants left the evening feeling encouraged both by the conversation during the formal part of the evening and also the informal networking that occurred at the post program cocktails.
Below are just a few pointers and some advice from the panel on being a female founder in law:
1. Start with Your Values
Robin’s first wonderful tidbit was that “you need to surround yourself with people who you inspire to be like”. Later in the program she spoke about surrounding yourself with people with similar values. Robin sat down with her partners when they opened their law firm and did a “core values checklist”. Now, if a crisis happens they can look to their core values and what is important to them as a firm.
2. Perception vs. Reality
When asked if the reality of being a female founder matched the perception, the panellists all basically said “yes & no”. Natalie found that the reality exceeded her expectations, but that the amount of work she had to do to get her firm to where it is was “absolutely insane”. Fareen thought she would have more time at home and warned future founders to not fool themselves into thinking that being your own boss means less time at work. “You have to figure out what works for you,” said Fareen. At the beginning she was spending seven nights a week at work. Now, Fareen will burn out after any more than two nights a week.
3. Building a Book of Business
Mary spoke about the importance of getting involved in the legal community in order to build your business. She and her partners at the time “threw themselves into the OBA” and went to a lot of meetings. “You can get so wrapped up in your cases that you forget that you are a member of the profession and you can get really isolated” warned Mary. Her main source of work is referrals. It is important to maintain a fellowship with other lawyers. Fareen emphasized the importance of publishing when building a book of business: “Every factum is an article”. Take advantage of the work you have already done and turn it into a marketing piece. Fareen also noted that when she first opened her practice in Oakville she struggled to get the clients she wanted. Everything changed once she became a Deputy Judge. Those two words made her “less female, less brown and less young”. She was able to break into the Oakville market and she now has a firm of seven lawyers.
4. Make Work Life Balance Be What You Want it to Be
Mary spoke about “four golden weeks” when she first started her practice where she had “work life balance”. Before her practice got too busy, her kids would stop by after school and hang out in the extra offices at her firm. Once she expanded and other partners joined her, there was no more room for her kids and she “went back to the old routine - but those four weeks were really great”. Natalie is still struggling with work life balance, but suggested surrounding yourself with capable associates as you grow your firm. She trusts them and knows they can do the work. Robin succinctly stated that “Work is life and life is work” and that she has come to truly despise the words “work life balance” (Hear! Hear!). She said, what are your values? You have to decide what you want in life. That is how you make work and life “balance”.
5. Put Fear in its Place
When asked what role “fear” had in their careers, Mary confessed that she delayed starting her own firm for a long time. Ultimately it was her clients who told her she had to leave her firm and start her own practice. She warned however that “there will still be days where you wonder where the next file will come from, but that is normal”. Robin concurred, and said everyone feels fear, it is a universal emotion. Women give fear a lot more credit that it is due. Ask yourself, “what am I afraid of, and what can I do about it?” Natalie said our fear should motivate us. Before a trial she can’t eat anything but we overcome our fears by believing in ourselves.
6. Being a Lawprenuer
“You need to want to do it” said Natalie if you are planning on starting your own firm. Sit down with yourself and have a “self-talk”. You need to be hardworking, dedicated, and have perseverance in the face of failure. Your personal life will take a backseat sometimes, at least in the early years, but Natalie absolutely loves it. Fareen said it is like having a baby; you have to really want it!
Powerful Women: What’s Next?
As Gabriela noted, we are graduating women lawyers in record numbers (and have been doing so for a while now) but there are still very low numbers of women in leadership positions within large firms. Perhaps we should stop focusing so much on these numbers and start focusing on all of the awesome and successful female founders who have built their own firms and who have decided to practice law their own way. If the traditional model law firms are not recognizing the business case (and the common sense case) of promoting intelligent and motivated women into management, these firms will only continue to lose these women as they set out to start their own successful (and competitive) businesses.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.