2010 Precedent Setter Award Winner: Signe Leisk

Introducing Signe Leisk, a lawyer who stands out

Signe Leisk: the mentor
Partner, Municipal & Planning Law, Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP
Called to the bar 2002

  • Representing Ontario Realty Corporation in gaining approvals for redevelopment of the West Don Lands, including approvals for the Pan Am Games
  • Board member, YWCA
  • Founding volunteer, Women’s Satellite Legal Clinic
  • Co-author of two municipal law books
  • Black Belt in karate

Signe Leisk - 2010 Precedent Setter Award winner / Photo by Margaret Mulligan

Cassels Brock partner Signe Leisk exemplifies the adage that actions speak louder than words. A driving force behind her firm’s Women’s Professional Development Committee, Leisk follows up regularly with Jen, an articling student she’s been mentoring since August. “Signe is really great because she seeks me out,” says Jen. “I don’t have to worry about whether I’m bothering her if I want to get in touch.” Sometimes they email. Sometimes they have coffee. Today it is lunch at the Law Society restaurant. Their topic? How Jen, who has trouble saying no, can set boundaries on her time once she becomes an associate.

Leisk herself has clearly mastered time management. She had a one-year-old daughter when she began law school and two more followed as she worked her way up to co-chair her practice group. Along the way, she was instrumental in forming the WPDC, which replaced a less effective ad hoc group. As well as overseeing the mentoring program, the WPDC works on some groundbreaking initiatives. It hired an outside consultant to conduct a confidential survey to determine which issues the firm’s female lawyers feel are impeding their development. “We have a mandate to come up with policies that will actually help,” says Leisk, “rather than just being a feel-good group.”

Signe’s 5 Ways to Promote Women

1. Approach the discussion from a financial perspective. “Women are a large part of your workforce. Building a student to be an associate and then a partner is a big investment on a firm’s part and so it’s in their interest to make sure they don’t lose quality people they’ve invested their time in.”

2. Remind them that most issues that affect women usually affect male associates as well. “Policies that we are thinking of putting into place to fit young female associates are also issues that need to be addressed for the male associates. For example, our young male associates that become fathers — they want to be home with their kids, too. We’ve found that this is not just an issue for our female associates.”

3. Solidarity is powerful. “A lot of our clients are female, especially with respect to women who leave private practice and go in-house somewhere…and so supporting women and making that connection with the clients is very important.”

4. It’s not enough to just talk. You should strive to have concrete action items that result in improvements of the work environment and the success of women. Simply discussing problems gets old quickly.

5. Get the men involved. “I think what’s made our group successful is the fact that we are trying to interest the males here as well as the females. In our mentoring program at the firm, for example, we now have a senior male mentoring more junior female lawyers, instead of just women mentoring women.”