I am one of those women everyone’s been talking about lately — a woman who entered law school at a time when we outnumbered men, became a lawyer and then, just a few years in, left private practice. Indeed, I left law altogether.
Given my own experience, I feel I have some insight to share regarding this enigma that has been the subject of studies, articles, and task forces. Here’s the thing: you’ve got to do what you love. The more demanding that thing is, the more you’ve got to love it. If you don’t love it, you’ll come to resent it, especially when other demands are being made on your time. It’s that simple.
I don’t mean to gloss over the other reasons women leave law. The desire to have a family often exceeds the desire to put in the countless billable hours required to reach the highest levels of the Bay Street firms. Sexism and discrimination continue to pervade our profession, but it’s more subtle now — like the “there’s-no-future-for-you-here” talk, reserved for women in their early 30s when the firm doesn’t want a mat-leave on its hands (or its balance sheet). And women still wait longer to make partner than men. Whether they’re pushed out or pulled in new directions, women are leaving private practice because they don’t like it enough to stay.
That said, there are plenty of women out there who do love private practice. That’s why for this issue of Precedent, we wanted to turn the women-are-leaving-private-practice refrain on its head. It’s an old song. We thought it was time to start singing about the women who stay, instead.
In our cover story (“Firm Believers,” p.23) you’ll meet three amazing women who tried government and in-house work, and in the end landed firmly in private practice. When you hear them talk about their careers, you can tell that they love what they do. That’s why they stay. They are advancing in their chosen areas of expertise and thriving despite the tough balance they have to strike between work and the rest of their lives. Our profession is richer, not simply because these are women working in private practice, but because talented young lawyers are excited about their work and excelling at what they do.
This issue also highlights two Toronto lawyers (one female, one male) who have truly left the beaten path to do what they love (“Bearing Witness,” p.19). Having travelled to Rwanda to record the stories of survivors of the country’s genocide, Samer Muscati and Sandra Chu have gone just about as far away from private practice as you can get. Despite the atrocities they have come to know so intimately, they remain optimistic about their work and passionate about social justice. Are we a poorer profession because these two are not in private practice? Of course not.
Rather than bemoaning the loss of women in private practice, here’s what we should be hoping for: first, that firms offer women interesting work, wonderful colleagues, and challenging opportunities so that they have the chance to love what they do. Second, that we remember that the lines between private practice and the rest of the world are not so stark. Wherever they go, these women who leave will have ties to the places they worked and the people who gave them great opportunities early in their careers. Private practice benefits from having worked with these women, even if it was only for a little while.
Publisher & Editor