Starting your own legal practice, or business, can be overwhelming and terrifying. Some lawyers who branch out on their own are able to bring clients (or a full practice) with them from an old firm. Most of us are not that lucky. I started my own freelance lawyer practice, Cowling Legal Freelance, in 2013 from scratch. Through this I have learned several important lessons about building a legal practice and business. One of those lessons: Always say “Yes”...... until it is time to say “No”.
WHEN TO SAY YES
Unless you are independently wealthy, starting a legal practice with little or no clients means you have to say “yes” to files that show up, even if they may not excite you. Often people refer to this as practicing “Door Law” – your practice consists of whatever comes in the door. If you have a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed, saying "yes" is necessary. Obviously, you should only take on files that you are competent to handle, but use this as an opportunity to try new things and expand your skills. This is actually an exciting time! You may take on a file in an area that you never thought you would be interested in and discover you love it.
I learned lots by saying "yes" in the early years of my own practice. One firm asked if I would do a flat fee project. I had never done one before as a freelance lawyer, but I said "yes" anyway. I quickly learned that I had severely underestimated and undervalued my time - a mistake I never made again. But, I now know how to flat fee out projects better and have a new service to offer my clients. I never would have learned this if I said "no".
In the beginning I also said "yes" to things that took me well outside of my comfort zone or were a lot of hard work for little or no monetary reward. But, those opportunities turned into more opportunities and helped build my practice. For example, I answered "yes" when asked to write articles for legal publications and lawyer associations. Even though they didn't pay, and it takes a lot of time and hard work to write an article, it was a great way to get my name out there without having to pay advertising fees (low on clients, means low on cash). It was the same with volunteering for legal organizations. Saying "yes" to help organize a CLE event (not easy work), led to me being asked (and saying "yes") to speaking at a different legal event. A few lawyers saw me speak and sent work my way. Meeting the Dean of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law over Twitter (through tweeting some of those time-consuming articles I wrote) and saying "yes" to having coffee with him, eventually led to my part-time position as Regional Alumni Advisor. This are just some examples.
It can be scary stepping into new situations and trying new things – but just saying "yes" can open up so many opportunities and, in turn, build your practice. Saying "yes" meant I was trying new things, meeting new people and going to new places. It was so much fun saying "yes"....until it was time to.....
What is the downside to learning to say "yes" to everything? You get good at it. You get into a habit of automatically saying "yes".
You want to have a coffee to pick my brain and expect me to travel 40 minutes to you in the middle of the day? Volunteer hours of my time in an area of law I am not really interested in?
Write an article for a publication that has readers who would never use my services? Decrease my billable rate and put up with your abusive emails because you promise me lots of work?
It really sounds silly to say "yes" to these suggestions, but once you get used to saying "yes" to build your practice, it can be hard to shake the habit. It makes sense to say "yes" when you start out because you have more time (all you have is time, when you have no clients!) but that changes once your practice is up and running and time becomes a precious commodity. Sometimes, even though you now have a steady flow of work coming in the door, you have files that excite you, and you've built a solid brand, as a business owner you still can't help but worry that the files will stop coming. Or, the writing opportunities will dry up. Or, the speaking opportunities will disappear. So you keep saying "yes" to everything even though you should be saying "no" to some things.
Last December I felt the beginning of burnout creeping into my life. I had the constant feeling like I was holding my breath all day, waking up panicking at 3 a.m. convinced I missed a deadline, stress-eating (chips for breakfast? Why not?), I was irritable, cranky, tired…I knew something had to change. I was doing too much. So I decided 2019 was "My Year of Saying No”. Not with the intention of saying “no” to everything, but just to be more strategic with my use of "yes". The response to "My Year of Saying No" has been great. Most people have understood and respected my decision. Often it's not a straight out no (although sometimes it is, especially with difficult clients), but more of a "not right now". I ask that they check in again next year or I make a note to follow up when it is a better time for me to consider the opportunity. It hasn't been easy, but life is much more manageable.
For those of you who are like me, and find it hard to say "no", here are some things to consider:
Is that client questioning your hourly rate at the beginning of the relationship? Is she not respecting your time and calling you 15 times a day before she has even signed your retainer? These are red flags of a difficult client. It is okay to say “no” to clients like this.
If someone wants to have a coffee with you to "pick your brain", it's okay to ask them to come to you. It's okay to limit it to 15-30 minutes. It's okay to even say "Sorry, I am tied up for the next little while, can you check in with me in a month or two?"
You've been asked to write an article. Is it for a publication that your clients or referral sources read? Is it on a topic that interests you? Or, will it be a pain to write? Will you have time to write it during your workday? Or, will you spend your family time or "me-time" writing it? It's okay to say "no" if the publication is not a good fit, or suggest another topic, or ask if it can be published in the next issue if the timing does not work.
If you are asked to speak at a conference, is it paid? Who is the audience? Will it benefit your practice? Will they cover expenses (travel, etc.)? Do you have to write a lengthy paper? It can be flattering to be asked to speak, but if there are only a few "pros" and lots of "cons" it might just be a waste of your time and energy.
Building your practice, or keeping your practice busy, is an on-going endeavour and it can never stop. So, it is good to keep taking on clients, keep writing, keep speaking, keep networking, etc. BUT once your practice grows and your time shrinks, you must be more selective in what you say "yes" to...Otherwise burnout may be around the corner.
I’ve made a mistake. A mistake that I know I should not make, I never intended to make, and I swore I would never make, but I did: the summer is over, and I didn’t take nearly enough time off.
I know there are more serious mistakes for a lawyer to make (the Law Society isn’t knocking on my door, demanding the revocation of my licence to practice law), however, this seemingly small mistake is having repercussions – a rippling effect - on my job and life.
How I Messed Up
I had the best of intentions to unplug this summer. In the past, I would work extra long days on Monday to Thursday so I could take Fridays off in July and August and enjoy the warm weather. This year I found myself saying, “Sure I can schedule that call/meeting on Friday, no problem”. Or, thinking to myself, “I’ll just pop into the office Friday morning and take the afternoon off”, only to look up and see that it was 6pm.
No worries, I thought, there’s plenty of summer left.
In July we loaded our three kids into the car and drove to remote Maine for a relaxing seven-day long vacation (I know, I know, “relaxing vacation” and “three kids” don’t normally go together). On our arrival, I found it so peaceful…almost too peaceful. My phone was not making any noises. I wasn’t receiving any emails. I mean none. No OBA emails. No Law Society emails. No “Let me do an SEO audit on your website” emails. What was going on?!
I looked at the service bars on my phone…. ack…. No cell phone reception! This might sound ideal to some, but as a sole practitioner and sole owner of a business (Flex Legal), and usually the first point of client contact, I started to panic. I quickly logged on to the WiFi at the rental home and sure enough - “ding, ding, ding” - the emails started rolling in. And, of course, something was up with one of our clients. There was a miscommunication between the lawyer client and a freelance lawyer. Both were looking to me to assist. By the time the issue was resolved it was three days into my vacation. On the seventh day I was finally starting to unwind, and . . . it was time to go home.
But, no worries, there was still plenty of summer left, it was only August.
On my return to the office I did not feel relaxed. I did not feel rejuvenated. I felt lethargic. I would go to the office with a long to-do list and I would barely get through a few items. Normally I am energised to get to the office in the morning, but 8 hours would go by and I wondered, what did I do all day? Anything? Instead of recognizing that I needed a break, I pushed through, I stayed at my computer all day, everyday. I didn’t get anything done, I told myself, how could I justify taking a day, or days off, now?!
And then August was over.(*)
We are now well into September (almost October!) which happens to be my busiest time of year. There is always an uptick in business for Flex in the fall and I teach at the University of Toronto. My calendar is full of conferences, networking events, volunteer meetings. My window of opportunity to take a proper break is closing.
Take That Vacation, it will Make you a Better Lawyer!
I’m not giving you any earth-shattering information. We all know that taking a real vacation makes us less stressed, more focused, and in return, better lawyers, better employees, and better bosses. Even though I love my job, I still need a break from it. I need to unplug and unwind. I need to think about something other than the law. When I do, I return to my practice with more energy and commitment.
When I worked for someone else, I always took all my allotted vacation. I felt I was working hard and I rightly deserved the time off. Now that I have my own practice and business and can, in theory, take as much vacation time that I want, I take even less. I need to change that.
So, here is what I have learned, and what may help to ensure that you and I take our important vacations:
p.s. VACATION ALERT: I will be out of the office starting on July 6, 2020 and will return to the office on July 27, 2020. I will not be checking email during that time 😊.
(*) I did convince myself to sneak off to an afternoon ball game one day in August (photo below), which was quite lovely, but it was not an uninterrupted break. Next time I will leave my phone at home!
Photo by chen zo on Unsplash
The two questions I am asked on a regular basis are: “How do you do it?” and “How do you do it all?”
The first question is often from people who want advice from me on how to start their own “thing”, whether it’s their own law practice, freelance law practice, or side-hustle business.
The second question, “How do you do it all?”, is often followed by “Three kids, running a business, lawyering, teaching, blogging, when you do find the time?”
Both of these questions make me uncomfortable. The fact that people are asking me these questions makes me think I am projecting this fake Instagram image that I am succeeding at all of this and it is easy for me.
So, this blog post is dedicated to these two questions and dispelling some common myths that I hear.
HOW DO YOU DO IT?
A little over a year after I started my solo freelance lawyer business, I was having coffee with an acquaintance and she said to me, “Your business is going so well. You are so lucky! It is not normally that way. What luck you have!” (For some context, this individual had started a few different businesses that never really got off the ground.) I didn’t know how to respond, so I sort of just stared at her and muttered a non-committal answer. But inside my head I was thinking, “Luck? Really was that all this was? Luck?”
That night at 3 am, lying in bed wide awake (you know, when my brain decides it’s a good time to work through some problems), I thought about her comment and why it annoyed me. Sure, okay, I concluded, there was some luck involved. I cannot deny that I certainly have the inherent advantages associated with being born into the life of an able-bodied white woman (more context, my coffee companion was also an able-bodied white woman). But I also knew that it most certainly wasn’t all luck. I worked really hard to get my business to where it was. The comment annoyed me as it diminished my efforts and placed my success out of my control. It was something that just happened to me and not something I made happen.
And this is myth number one that I want to dispel: Successful businesses or law firms don’t “just happen”. You cannot hang up a shingle and “Voila!” you have a successful law practice. I meet with lawyers all the time who want advice on how to start a freelance or solo practice. When I follow up a few months or a year later to see how things are going, some are disappointed that their practice is not as successful as they thought it would be. I ask them what they have done to grow their business. Often, they tell me they put up a website, printed business cards, and had a few coffees. That’s it!?!
You need to hustle! I went to two or three networking events a week (still do). I emailed everyone I knew. I set up as many coffees and lunches as I could. I spent hours writing and re-writing blog posts and articles for legal publications. I built my social media presence. I volunteered hours of my time with different organizations to build my profile. This was not luck. This was hard work. A website and some business cards may be “hard work” to some. Not to me. I’ve been financially independent since I turned 18. I paid for undergrad and law school by working several different summer and part time jobs. I know what it is like to have to work hard or not reach my goals.
I guess my point is, you can have great ideas and a great passion for a new business or law practice but if you don’t put in the hours of work it will likely go nowhere. You may love the idea of freelancing or being your own boss (and it is pretty awesome!) but it is not all rainbows and sunshine. I fully agree with the saying that successful businesses are 1% idea and 99% execution. And sometimes even with all of that hard work a business will still fail. But with just an idea and no execution it will fail every time. Remember this when you see those “overnight success” companies or law firms. Likely “overnight” involved years of frustration, no money, hard work, and even failure.
So how do you do it? Yes, you need a little luck, but you also need a lot of hard work.
HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL?
“Three kids? Wow, how do you do it all?”
My response: “The same way my husband does it.”
But no one ever asks my husband (who runs his own firm, sits on a board, coaches baseball, etc.) “Wow, three kids, how do you do it all?”
I have this funny belief that both parents should parent their children. I don’t believe that children “need” their mothers more than their fathers or that somehow, just because our bodies birthed these kids that we are somehow better at parenting than men.
So, to dispel myth number two – I am not doing it all because I don’t believe I should be doing it all. I have a perfectly capable partner, we have neighbours, we have grandparents, we have paid help, we have friends. I am fortunate and privileged to have a “village” and I take advantage of that.
People always assume I started my own business so I can stay home with my kids and not because I might have had a great business idea and some entrepreneurial drive. How many people think this of men who start their own businesses? Do they automatically assume men become entrepreneurs so they can care for their kids?
I understand the nature of my practice (freelance lawyering) and my business (a freelance lawyer company, Flex Legal) might suggest to some that I only work part time in my pajamas from home, but I work full time or more and have had an office since my first year in business. Some weeks I work more hours than I did when I was on Bay Street. However, as an entrepreneur, I can choose when I work those full time hours and I purposefully chose an office close to my house so I can see my kids who come home from school for lunch several days a week. But I am not the one who walks the kids to school every morning (that’s my husband) and we have a caregiver who picks them up everyday.
So, I want to dispel the myth that I am parenting my kids full time and running a business full time and doing everything else full time. I am not. I don’t know how anyone could. I have time to do everything I am doing because I have a lot of help (and coffee, lots of coffee 😉). And even with all of this help, I still screw up sometimes.
Bottom line: It is not easy. I am not doing it all . . . . I am just doing my best.
This month in Ontario, lawyers and paralegals will vote for the next set of “Benchers” at the Law Society of Ontario (LSO). For those unfamiliar with the term, Benchers are the board of directors at the LSO, the regulatory body that governs lawyers and paralegals in Ontario. Bencher terms are for four years. Eligible voters can vote for up to 20 lawyers in the Toronto region and 20 lawyers outside of Toronto. There is a common misconception that Benchers represent lawyers, much like a member of parliament represents their constituents. Benchers actually represent the interests of the public and regulate the profession. Still confused? Precedent Magazine published a helpful article: What do Benchers at the Law Society of Ontario Actually Do?
For this election my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are filled with #BencherElection2019 posts, conversations, podcasts, endorsements, etc. Looking at this level of engagement, one might think that every lawyer in Ontario is super keen to vote and discuss the pressing issues facing our profession. Unfortunately, this is likely far from the truth. Social media platforms, and especially Twitter, can be massive echo chambers. While lawyers on social media appear to be engaged in the election, the historical data on voter turnout suggests that the majority of lawyers are really apathetic.
Large Firm Lawyers Vote (Sole Practitioners, Not So Much)
The LSO published a comprehensive report on voter turnout, covering election results from 1987 to 2015. Generally, turnout has decreased with every election. 10,287 of the 18,369 eligible voters (or 56%) voted in the 1987 election. Fast forward to 2015. Despite the technological advancement of online voting and a relatively robust #BencherElection engagement on Twitter, 2015 had the lowest percentage of voter turnout in the years documented. Of the 47,396 eligible voters (notice the significant increase in the number of lawyers in Ontario) only 16,040 (or 33.84%) voted.
Interestingly, in private practice, the voting-lawyers are from firms of between 76-100 lawyers (over 77% voted in the last election) and firms of over 100 lawyers (over 50% voted). Could this be due to the constant pressure from management to vote for the lawyers who are running from those firms? Hmm.
Sole practitioners, who make up the largest category of lawyers in private practice, had the lowest voter turnout for private practice lawyers with only 36.35%. In 2015, only 24.55% of the over 23,000 lawyers not in private practice (lawyers employed in government, corporations, academia) voted.
Also, consistently every year, a slightly higher percentage of lawyers who identify as male vote than lawyers who identify as female. In the last election 35.66% of all male lawyers voted, while only 31.23% of female lawyers voted.
Why You Should Vote (and Encourage Others to as Well)
These statistics tell me that most lawyers do not prioritize the Bencher election. Understandably, many lawyers would prefer to spend time on other aspects of their lives rather than taking the time to research the issues, research the candidates, sit down at a computer, and vote. The problem is that there are several important issues that the LSO (and the newly elected Benchers) will be grappling with, and these issues affect not only the legal profession as a whole, but you as an individual lawyer.
I will not discuss the issues in detail here but a few examples: improving access to justice, ensuring lawyers are competent to practice and providing remedial or disciplinary measure for those who are not, the licensing process, entity-based regulation, diversity & inclusion initiatives, the cost of legal education, alternative business structures, etc.
In the past, Benchers have made some important (and sometimes controversial) decisions: changing the name from Law Society of Upper Canada to Law Society of Ontario; introducing the Law Practice Program to assist with the articling crisis; deciding not to accredit Trinity Western University; implementing the Statement of Principles requirement; approving the recent public awareness campaign; etc. If you are interested, the minutes and transcripts from Convocation tell you how the incumbent Benchers who are running again voted on past issues (just click on the year on the left-hand side). As an example, these are the Minutes from December 1, 2017 which involved a vote on Mr. Groia’s “conscientious objector” motion regarding the Statement of Principles.
All lawyers and paralegals should care about who will be making the decisions about each of these issues.
Want to Vote and Don’t Have the Time to Research all those Lawyers?
“What do you mean there are 128 lawyers running? I don’t have the time to research all of them!” I know many of you are thinking this and it is a valid observation. I have a few suggestions for you:
First, several people and organizations want to make this easier for you and have compiled the information you need for the election in one place. For example, Colin Lachance has organized and published the website LSOBencher.com where the candidates can submit their profile and their positions on the current issues. The Ontario Bar Association has made a website profiling its members who are running. The Law Times also has a website listing the candidates. Sean Robichaud has a podcast featuring some of the candidates. Or you can follow #BencherElection2019 on Twitter. These are just some of the places you can go to get the information you need.
Does that still sound like a lot of work? Another option is to seek out a lawyer you trust (and who has the time and interest to do the research) and ask for their recommendations (thanks, Morgan Sim for this suggestion).
Or, there is my approach. I really dislike receiving emails and flyers from candidates. Not only do they fill my inbox and recycling container, I do not think it is fair to those candidates who cannot cover the expense for such advertising. Not all candidates can pay for the email list or can afford to have fliers printed and mailed out. For the last two Bencher elections I have made sure not to check off the box on our annual reports allowing Benchers to email me. Instead, I only look at one thing: The Voting Guide provided by the LSO. Each candidate gets one page and one page only to convince me why I should vote for them. I see it as a level playing field for all candidates. I’m not saying my approach is perfect, but as a rather busy person who wants to vote, this is the best use of my time. (Hint: the Voting Guide is searchable if there was a particular issue that interested you, for example, the Statement of Principles.)
No excuses this year. Get out and vote. Encourage other lawyers to do the same. You will receive an email from the LSO in the second week of April with a link and explanation on how to vote. Keep an eye out for it and vote by April 30, 2019. Whatever approach you take, I just ask that you take a few minutes to vote and tell all the lawyers in your network to vote as well!
I am happy to unveil a new series I have started for 2019 focused on improving equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the legal profession (I don't have a witty title for this series yet, so all suggestions welcomed!)
The idea for this series surfaced last year when I attended a women lawyers conference where the conversation quickly turned to criticizing and calling out law firms for not doing enough to make a positive change. The conversation went on for quite some time with example after example of all that is wrong with law firms. Unfortunately, no one talked about possible solutions. While I am not saying that this criticism was unwarranted, I do believe it is easier to sit back and critique than it is to be out there trying to make the changes that need to happen. . . And I know some firms are putting in some effort.
So with my new series, I wanted to reach out to law firms and find out what they are doing to advance EDI in their firms. Are they doing anything? What is working? What isn't? What is the end-goal? How do they measure "success"? The posts will include a set of five questions that each firm will answer. My simple goal is to start a conversation, find out what is happening in this area in law firms across Canada, and perhaps we can all learn from each other.
For my first post, I sat down with Lisa Munro, the Managing Partner of Lerners LLP to discuss the EDI initiatives at her firm:
1. ALMOST ALL LAW FIRMS HAVE AN EDI POLICY OR COMMITMENT ON THEIR WEBSITE. WHAT DOES EDI MEAN TO YOUR FIRM AND IS IMPROVING EDI A PRIORITY?
Improving equality, diversity, and inclusion is definitely a priority for Lerners.
A lot of firms, Lerners included, have historically been very lawyer-centric, the idea being that the lawyers are the economic drivers of the firm. While you can’t argue with this fact, focusing most efforts on the lawyers means that we are leaving behind the rest of the team. I think that one of the things that diversity and inclusion committees have done for law firms has been to put the focus on the culture of a firm and on all the people that play a part in serving our clients. We are now realizing that it can’t just be all about the lawyers and ensuring that the lawyers are happy and professionally fulfilled.
So at Lerners we place a lot of emphasis on the inclusion part of EDI which means, do people feel like they are a part of the firm? Do they feel like they are valued for their contributions? Do they feel like their voices are heard? Do they feel that if they have concerns or complaints there is a place for them to go to address them? Do they feel that their colleagues listen to them? Do they have opportunities for professional advancement? All of those things go far beyond the equality and diversity issues that many of us are now talking about.
I constituted our firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee in late 2017, and started with a survey. I think a lot of firms start there. As a result of the feedback we received from that survey, I placed as much emphasis on inclusion as I did on equality and diversity issues. We learned that some people felt isolated in the group. And so, our task was, what do we do to make people feel that they belong at this firm?
A lot of the initiatives that we have tackled as a Committee have tried to draw people in and get them to participate, get to know one another, and work together. That part is very important for us.
If we focus on equality and diversity, our history has been very much that Lerners is a place where women thrive and have voices and have opportunities for leadership. I am very proud of that. We’ve had that reputation for a very long time, mostly because of our two strong senior partners, one of whom is Janet Stewart, still with the firm. She was our managing partner in both offices for many years at a time when there were very few women managing firms. She was someone who had a practice and she was well respected. People listened to her. She had influence.
Janet was also supported by our senior partner in Toronto, Earl Cherniak. He and Janet were a formidable team. Because of the respect that Earl had for Janet and the respect that Earl had for women in the firm in the general, I know that I always took for granted the fact that women would have the same opportunities as men because that was my personal experience. When I started to hear what was going from friends at other firms, even during our articling year, it was a bit of a surprise to me. I now think that I and my colleagues at Lerners have been somewhat sheltered. We achieved gender parity within our partnership a few years ago; it does fluctuate, but I am pretty happy with that.
I do think that where we need to turn our focus now is on some of the other areas of diversity and inclusion, including on retaining and promoting racialized lawyers and staff members. I am happy with where we are in the junior lawyer ranks, which says to me that maybe we are doing well on the recruitment side. But the question is, can we retain a diverse group lawyers through to equity partnership? What could we be doing differently to achieve that objective? I know that there are a lot of firms looking at their recruitment and promotion processes. We are doing the same.
But among our junior lawyers in particular, I am pretty happy with where we are. What we have to do is make sure they stay fulfilled and challenged, and that they see opportunities for advancement. That is our next challenge as a firm.
2. WHAT STEPS (OR INITIATIVES) HAS YOUR FIRM TAKEN TO ADDRESS AND IMPROVE EDI?
When I started the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in September, 2017, I had never been on a committee like this. I said that I would Chair it. I don’t think I appreciated what a big bite I was taking. We started with my vision, because when you start something like that, you have to do some planning initially and then float the plan out there and see if you get traction. Luckily, I did and we had many enthusiastic contributors within a short period of time.
Initially, I sent a firm wide email, advising that I was starting the Committee, and asked: “Who wants to be involved?” There is always early trepidation because people are not sure what the time commitment will be, what it involves, etc. But I had an intrepid group of about eight people who agreed to work with me on this journey. I was really pleased that we had broad representation within the firm, among both lawyers and staff members. I brought an initial outline of a plan to the group and then we worked together to generate ideas, plan monthly initiatives, and carry them forward. It was exciting to see that we had many more ideas than we could use in a single year. I have since talked to people at other firms where the work of the committee is really a management-led process. That may very well be necessary in firms larger than ours, but we were able to get participation and leadership from everyone on the Committee. We sit around a table with legal assistants, law clerks, partners, our administrative team, human resources, and marketing discussing, “What do you think we should do?” Everybody was an equal contributor and I saw people taking on leadership opportunities that had not previously existed.
The Committee has generated so much enthusiasm that when I solicited interest a few months ago for people to sit on the Committee in 2019, I received over 30 positive responses. I was a bit overwhelmed by that; a 30-person committee can be unwieldy, but when I considered our inclusion mandate I knew I couldn’t say no to anybody. I am now in the process of trying to create something in which everybody feels engaged and interested. While that will be a challenge, the message I got was that people see value in the work of the Committee and wanted to be a part of it.
We decided in our first year that our theme was going to be very modest: “making Lerners a better place to work”. We always thought that Lerners was a good place to work, but there are always ways to improve. Every initiative that we took was in furtherance of that objective.
We came up with various monthly initiatives through internal focus groups without looking at what other firms were doing. Nothing we did was revolutionary, but we created what we thought would work for us.
We had, for example, an anti-harassment training session that was mandatory for everyone at the firm and received very positive feedback about it. I think most people expected the training to focus on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. We wanted our training to be broader than that – it also dealt with how to deal with differences that come up in the workplace, the more subtle things like treating everyone in the firm with respect and looking at things from the perspective of someone who might come from a different cultural or ethnic background. We had “case studies” that presented challenging sets of facts that we discussed as a group.
The idea of engendering a culture of respect also became our theme for a strategic planning process that we undertook at the same time. Respect is one of our firm core values and we rolled out the strategic plan on the basis that it was critical to achieving success. That idea really arose out of our diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Like many firms, we also organized unconscious bias training for all members of the firm. We were looked at the issue primarily from the perspective of our recruitment process and it has changed the way we talk about recruiting now. We used to hear people saying things like, “I really think this candidate would fit in well in the group”. And now because of the unconscious bias training, we are saying to ourselves and to each other, “Am I supporting recruitment of somebody because they are like me?”
We also created a Lerners Diversity Award, which was given out at our end-of-year party. I sent an email to everyone in the firm, asking for nominations of those who advanced the objectives of equality, diversity, and inclusion at Lerners in 2018. I received lots of responses and, interestingly enough, there were very clear winners. One person in each office stood out to our colleagues among everybody who did a lot of work.
Other initiatives that we undertook last year included working with a community charity group on International Women’s Day. Members of the firm were asked to bring in clothes suitable for work to support an organization that donates clothes to women who are looking for a jobs. We had a great response.
We also had a speaker come in and talk about Indigenous law and we had a great turnout for that.
I was blessed with having a committee whose members were very enthusiastic and rolled up their sleeves and were willing to put in a lot of time and effort to make these initiatives successful.
3. WHICH INITIATIVE HAS BEEN THE MOST SUCCESSFUL? AND WHY?
Interesting enough, our most successful event last year was the one that was the easiest one to organize and the least costly: it was a potluck. Last summer we had a “Celebrating Our Diversity Through Food” potluck. Anybody who wanted to participate contributed food for a buffet lunch. We had all contributions set up in a board room. The contributors put up little signs describing the food they had made and brought. The event really brought people together and overwhelmingly I heard from members of the firm that it was their favourite event. We learned that when you get creative, you can make a lot of headway without spending a lot of money.
4. WHICH INITIATIVE WAS THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL (WHAT’S NOT WORKING)? AND WHY?
The initiatives I found to be less successful were those in which we brought in speakers. And that is not because our speakers weren’t good; they were excellent. But people really enjoyed the months in which the initiative involved interaction and engagement with each other. People preferred the sessions in which we would have a case study or a problem to talk about, as opposed to having somebody come in and talk. I was surprised by that because we as lawyers tend to think that having a lecture is a great way to learn something. But really if your objective is to bring people together, having something interactive makes the most sense.
5. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE THROUGH YOUR EDI-FOCUSED ACTIONS? AND HOW DO YOU MEASURE PROGRESS?
I struggle with how to measure our progress. I know that in 2019, the Law Society of Ontario will be requiring firms to provide statistical data, which will be published and will allow firms some way to measure progress. I think that will be useful. And I do think we have to measure success. But I feel like a lot of what we are doing that works is more intangible than that because it is helping to create a sense of belonging. I want to really carry forward the idea of respect in the workplace into 2019. If I hear that something has gone on or a conversation that has taken place that shouldn’t have, my role as managing partner is to address that. And I think every partner and every lawyer needs to set an example.
Right now, I am measuring success by the fact that I am finding people getting together and enjoying one another’s company and contributing. I see clear leaders emerging from among the staff and more junior lawyers. Some volunteers on the Committee told me that they had never volunteered for a single firm committee before. Also because of our Committee and I our initiatives, I know more of our staff members. So those things are my way to measure success at the moment. Long term, that won’t be good enough. But right now, I am taking these little victories as they come.
Thank you Lisa for this interview and for participating in this series. Sign up to have these profiles sent directly to your email address and stay tuned for the next post soon!
The Women Leading in Law series will also return. Keep sending in suggestions for amazing women lawyers to be profiled.
The Feminist Who is Not A Feminist - A Review of "Claire L'Heureux-Dubé: A Life" by Constance Backhouse
“How can such a feminist, not be a feminist?”
This thought popped into my head more than once as I voraciously consumed Constance Backhouse’s biography of former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé called “Claire L’Heureux-Dubé: A Life”.
The book truly covers all of L’Heureux-Dubé's life, from her pre-birth family history to her post-retirement activities, including her complicated relationship with her father, the important role her mother played in her life, how she became known as the “Great Dissenter”, and the personal tragedies that befell her. Backhouse bookends the 545 paged biography (excluding 200 pages of endnotes) with L’Heureux-Dubé's reasons in the R. v. Ewanchuk decision and the public fallout and harsh personal criticism she endured as a result.
What stood out for me though, throughout reading this book, was a repeated refrain that L’Heureux-Dubé did not identify as a feminist. Professor Backhouse notes that L’Heureux-Dubé “was not someone who would ever claim membership in ‘women’s lib’” (p.228) and that “[t]he irony was that Claire L’Heureux-Dube rose to become a flag bearer for a movement to which she never belonged.”(p.229)
One excerpt is particularly revealing. When a group of women “invaded” a Quebec tavern that barred women (but made an exception for L’Heureux-Dubé when she lunched there with her colleagues when she was a practicing lawyer) and started “crying out loud that they had a right to sit in a tavern just as men did”, L’Heureux-Dubé observed:
They called themselves feminists in a place where men were drinking their pay while their wives were crying in our offices unable to pay their debts. To me, they were a bunch of crazy women, while we were fighting for justice where justice counted, in courts and before the legislature. The word feminist for me from thereon was associated with those crazy women and I never wanted to be part of it. (p.206)
This passage I think explains a lot. And I understand. While I have always identified with feminist ideals and causes, I have not always called myself a “feminist”. In my third year of undergrad, I enrolled in a feminist literary criticism course. One day when I was leaving the seminar room a fellow student started a conversation with me, saying: “I’m not sure if I like the word ‘feminist’ to be honest, I’m not sure if I would call myself that, perhaps there is a better word?” At the beginning of the next class another student stood up to explain to the whole class how she overheard “some students” (looking at me and my walking companion) say that they did not identify as feminists. She “could not believe that women in the year 2000 (!) thought this way” and she suggested that we had no place in that classroom or words to that effect. I felt embarrassed, I felt ashamed, I felt enraged, but most importantly I thought – if THIS is what it means to be a feminist and what feminism stood for, I want no part of it. I started calling myself an “equalist” for the next few years before I came to my senses and embraced being a feminist again. The point of this story though is I never stopped acting like a feminist or advocating on behalf of women’s rights, I simply stopped labelling myself a feminist. The label didn’t fit. It just didn’t feel right to me. And while I am comfortable with and fully embrace this label now, I do not judge other women or men who do not call themselves feminists. Do they support gender equality? Do they advocate for women’s rights? That’s all I care about.
It was the critics (and supporters) that labelled L’Heureux-Dubé a feminist and because of this she built a reputation as one. However, what is clear from this book is that it is not a label that fits or feels right to her. This does not diminish her advances in the fight for women’s equality or her steps in paving the way for other women to gain access to the bench.
Another observation: In commenting on her appointment to the bench and promotion up the judicial ladder, L’Heureux-Dubé and other female judges featured in the book often commented that they were “just in the right place at the right time”. I always bristle a little bit when distinguished, competent, and intelligent women say this. And I hear it a lot. I attended a session by the OBA’s Women Lawyers Forum called “Pathways to Power: Getting More Women on the Bench”. Every woman judge on the panel stated this as well, that she “was just in the right place at the right time”. While I know this is likely an act of humility and no harm is meant, I believe such a comment can do a disservice to women seeking out judicial positions and may discourage women from applying to the bench at all. This makes it sound like a judicial appointment is all luck or serendipity. It could discourage women from readying themselves appropriately (taking the steps to build a career and legal experience that would attract a judicial appointment) and downplays the significant work that these women accomplished before being appointed. Yes, luck or serendipity may play a role, but I do not believe it is simply a case of “being in the right place, at the right time”.
While Backhouse also concludes that L’Heureux-Dubé was in “the right place at the right time”, she suggests that the feminist movement deserves some credit too. L’Heureux-Dubé: “was unattached to the burgeoning new feminist organizations. But when the politicians went looking, she was in the right place at the right time. Simply by being the most senior woman in private practice in Quebec, she was the obvious woman for the job. . . Her opportunity emerged because the women’s movement insisted on change.”(pp.228-229)
Overall, this was a book I could not put down once I started and finished it in under a week. I would be working at my office and I would count down the hours until I could go home and pick it up again. Perhaps it is just the legal geek in me who loves anything to do with law, but I believe it had more to do with the excellent story telling on the part of Backhouse. She drew you in to the life of L’Heureux-Dubé , but left her own impression on you, the reader, as well. Backhouse’s views were provided, but in a subtle way. She was always there guiding the reader and reminding her of a different interpretation as to the events that occurred, an outside observer’s perspective on very personal inside accounts. Aside from the fascinating feminist analysis Backhouse brings to L’Heureux-Dubé’s life and career, this book offers so much more to lawyers, law students, or anyone interested in Canadian legal history.
Last week the Sunday Edition of CBC Radio One aired a documentary that put a spotlight on an important topic in the legal profession: mental health awareness and the need to end the stigma against mental illness. The documentary was about the real reason former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Gerald Le Dain left the bench. He was asked to resign after suffering from depression and denied a chance to take a leave. My blog post about the documentary and a link to it can be found here.
According to the producer, Bonnie Brown, after the documentary aired the CBC received a great deal of feedback in letters and comments on social media, including inquiries on the prospects of a formal apology, what happened to Justice Le Dain after he resigned, and why he was not given credit for significant judgments to which he had contributed.
As a result, the CBC will be doing follow-up coverage this weekend, where host Gillian Findlay and Bonnie Brown will read some of the mail and along with David Butt (who clerked with Justice Le Dain) discuss the epilogue to the documentary. The answer to "What happened next?" is not a happy one.
The follow-up coverage will air in hour two of the show on Sunday between 10:10 am and 11:00 am and will be posted online tonight around 6pm Eastern.
[UPDATE: Documentary now available online here.]
Lawyers should tune into The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio this weekend to listen to a documentary that Talin Vartanian , a produce of the Sunday Edition, stated will “reveal what happened to one of the greatest legal minds of the country.”
The documentary is called “One Judge Down” and is about former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Gerald Le Dain. Justice Le Dain is best known in the public for the 1973 Le Dain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs, which was far ahead of its time in recommending the decriminalization of marijuana. But, it is what the public doesn’t know about Justice Le Dain's legal career that is far more interesting and unfortunately distressing.
CBC’s synopsis of the documentary:
After serving for 9 years on the Federal Court of Appeal, Le Dain was nominated to the Supreme Court of Canada by Trudeau (Sr.) in 1984, where he served for just four years. Then, at age 63, he decided to resign...abruptly. At least, that's what people thought.
In fact, the Chief Justice at the time, Brian Dickson, demanded Le Dain's resignation.
It happened after Le Dain's wife, Cynthia, asked Dickson for some time off for her husband. He'd been struggling with his caseload, and had fallen into a depression. But instead of granting a leave, Dickson decided that Le Dain's days on the bench were over.
Many of those who knew about it at the time -- judges, lawyers, law professors and family members -- have kept quiet for almost thirty years. And many are highly critical of the way the Chief Justice treated Gerald Le Dain.
In our documentary, those closest to Le Dain are now speaking out on his behalf. They include Claire L'Heureux-Dubé, the last surviving Supreme Court justice from Le Dain's era; Harry Arthurs, former President of York University; Justice Melvyn Green of the Ontario Court of Justice; David Butt, now a top criminal lawyer in Toronto who served as a Supreme Court clerk; McGill law prof Richard Janda, also a court clerk under Le Dain; and Caroline Burgess, one of Gerald Le Dain's daughters.
The producer of this story is Bonnie Brown, who has been an award-winning documentary and news producer for the CBC for about twenty years. She also has a law degree from McGill.
This should make for an interesting listen and will hopefully address an important subject: mental health and wellness in the legal profession. While some strides have been made in recent years, there is still a need to confront the mental health stigma that exists.
"One Judge Down" will be published on CBC’s web site on the evening of January 12th and will air on The Sunday Edition January 14th.
On February 27, 2018 I attended a presentation by Justice Robert Sharpe discussing the life of Chief Justice Brian Dickson (Justice Sharpe, along with Kent Roach wrote a book about Dickson called "Brian Dickson: A Judge's Journey") at a program hosted by the Osgoode Society of Canadian Legal History.
During question period, after a 40 minute talk by Justice Sharpe, a member of the audience asked Justice Sharpe about the documentary "One Judge Down" noting that he thought perhaps the documentary was a bit one-sided and if Justice Sharpe had any comments to make regarding Dickson's actions.
Justice Sharpe stated that he had been contacted by the producer, Bonnie Brown, but that instead of participating in the documentary he referred her to his account of the resignation of Justice Le Dain in his book. He stood by what was in his book. Justice Sharpe was clear that it was just a sad, horrible situation, and that Dickson followed the law and did what he had to do. He explained that after Le Dain was "severely disabled" for three months, Le Dain would have been asked to resign as the Supreme Court just could not function with less than nine judges for a long period of time, according to the law (Justice Sharpe did not refer to which law). Dickson, however, went to the Minister of Justice and asked for an extension for Le Dain for another month. Then when Le Dain still could not sit as a judge, Dickson went back to the Minister of Justice for another extension. It was at this point that Le Dain resign.
Following this explanation, the next question came from Bonnie Brown herself who was in the audience (unbeknownst to I assume everyone, but clearly to Justice Sharpe). Bonnie questioned Justice Sharpe's account saying that his reference to the months and the extension request etc. were not in his book and that she would have liked to have heard about this for the documentary. She also questioned Justice Sharpe's dates and timing as the three months, plus one month, plus one month, did not match with the recollections of the Le Dain family. Justice Sharpe replied that this information was in his book and that not everyone is remembering it the same way and may not be recalling the time correctly.
Question period was then over.
As both of the key players are no longer alive and able to give their versions of the events, perhaps we will never truly know what occurred. All I know is that this story has brought a lot of attention to the struggles of mental illness and how it affects the legal profession. The take away from all of this is that we can all do a little bit better, and if we do not have the tools in place, or are unaware of how to help others with their illness, we can and must educate ourselves.
While it is easy to focus on what is wrong with the legal profession (including gender inequality, lack of diversity and inclusion, etc.) not everything is as bleak as it seems sometimes.
Starting in January 2018 I will be focusing on some of the "good" by profiling amazing women lawyers doing some amazing things in law. Each post in my series "Women Leading in Law" will include an interview with a lawyer, highlighting her practice or legal business, and her tips for women starting out in law.
Stay tuned. . . .
There is no shortage of articles, papers, blog posts, and even hashtags, asking the question “Why are women leaving law?”
We need to stop this.
We need to stop asking why are women leaving. Instead, we need to start asking why is the legal profession forcing women out?
You may see this as a distinction without a difference, but I disagree. Words matter. With the rise of sexual assault reports in the news, some have noted that we should stop talking about women being assaulted or women being harassed as this ignores the perpetrators entirely. We should be talking about men assaulting women or men harassing women. In the same vein, when asking “why are women leaving?”, we are putting the emphasis on the women’s actions, and the question ignores the actions or role that law firms or legal departments play in the gender inequality that plagues our profession.
Also, by saying that women are leaving implies that they have a choice in the matter. On the surface, it may appear that these women are “choosing” to leave. But how much of it is an actual choice and how much of it involves factors completely out of their control?
Women of all ages and stages are being forced out of law. It is not just women of child bearing years trying to “balance it all”. Women are being pushed out in their 40s and 50s too. We are trickling out “by a few percentage points per year of age”. We all know that women are graduating law school at equal or greater numbers than our male counterparts and have been for a number of years. Something is happening once we become lawyers. We get tired. Women get worn down, sick of having to play the game, putting up with the inequality, the discrimination . . . Slowly but surely it just becomes too much.
And sometimes the reason is much more overt. I know several women who have left firms, in-house legal departments, or the law entirely, and their “official” story is that they were making a choice that they felt was right for them or their families. But when I’ve spoken to these women in private, or more likely after a glass of wine or two, the whole truth emerges. They didn’t want to leave, they were told to. Or, they were advised that it was a good idea to explore their “options”. In other words, try and find a new job, you have no future here. There was no formal termination of their employment but the proverbial “writing was on the wall”.
I understand why firms or legal departments take this tactic. Management claims that it is in the best interests of the lawyer to give them the option to leave. They are giving the lawyer a better chance to find a new job, to ‘save face’, and not have to admit they were “let go”. You would have to be extremely naïve to believe that firms do this solely out of concern for the lawyer. How bad would it look if firms and legal departments were actively letting go women lawyers? I’ve had at least half a dozen women tell me this same story. I can only imagine the number out there who remain silent. No one wants that stigma attached to their legal careers.
Whether subtle or overt actions are pushing women out, the numbers are clear: there is still a major issue with the retention and promotion of women in law. By asking why are women leaving, we can dismiss it as a “women’s issue”; one that women must fix. Instead, we should be explicitly acknowledging the role that law firms and legal departments play. Let’s start asking why is the legal profession forcing women out? And when is it going to stop?
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.