How to truly support women in private practice // Opinion

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We must publish meaningful data on how individual law firms are faring on the retention of women

By May M. Cheng

On Thursday September 7th, 2017


Everyone knows there aren’t enough female partners in private practice. In Ontario, about 20 percent of partners are women — a statistic that has remained stagnant despite the fact that, over the past two decades, more than half of law-school graduates have been female. In 2008, the Law Society of Upper Canada launched the Justicia Project to address this problem. Women in private practice, like me, were excited. The project set out to encourage law firms to adopt better maternity-leave and diversity policies, and to gather data on the retention of women in private practice.

Laudibly, Justicia now boasts an array of progressive policies on the Law Society’s website. Better still, 57 firms have signed on to Justicia, vowing to make gender diversity a priority. The project, however, has failed in one big way: it has not published any meaningful data on how individual law firms are faring on retention.

Three years ago, the Justicia Project released the results of its survey of the participating firms. In an effort to answer the big question — “Do firms now have more women partners?” — the report suggests the answer is yes. But it offers no proof.

Forgive me if I don’t break out the champagne, but I’d have liked something more concrete, like the names of which firms now have more female partners. The report does quote one example, in which a large firm (with over 100 lawyers) voluntarily reported that 67 percent of its new equity partners in 2012 were women. That number rose to 80 percent in 2013 and fell to 44 percent in 2014. However, these percentages are meaningless without the numbers of partners the firm admitted. Why can’t we know this information? Further, are these percentages representative of many large firms? We have no idea.

As a Bay Street veteran, I can’t even guess which firm this could be. Knowing which firms are making strides would be invaluable to law students deciding where to article, not to mention corporate counsel looking to hire firms with greater diversity.

Other sections of the survey are equally frustrating. For instance, out of 13 large firms that responded, “all but 2 firms have women on their compensation committee.” This could mean that some firms have a token woman on their committees.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Considering that Justicia is voluntary and anonymous, what’s the harm in asking: “What is the proportion of men and women on the compensation committee?”

Meanwhile, a new Law Society report on the thornier problems faced by racialized licensees offers recommendations that go beyond mere data collection, including rating firms on their diversity initiatives and retention. Since Justicia plans to continue to collect data, why not take a page from this report and consider a new approach? And when will the Law Society start to collect data on LGBTQ lawyers in private practice? Surely, this is just as important.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. I have witnessed that some law firms genuinely recognize diversity as a core value. And I’ve heard positive stories. Recently, one friend, who is an Asian female partner in a large firm, was approached by senior management to ask how they might keep her happy. Clearly, they regard her as a valued asset.

Anecdotes can be heartwarming and firm attitudes more positive, but the Law Society can and should do more with Justicia so that it is more than a footnote on the path of broken promises.

May M. Cheng is a partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. Her first opinion piece for Precedent, also on the retention of women, ran in our Summer 2008 issue.


Fall 2017 CoverThis story is from our 10th anniversary issue, published in Fall 2017.




Illustration by Karsten Petrat