At the outset of her career, it never occurred to Sana Halwani, a partner at Lenczner Slaght and a self-described feminist, that she might be biased against other women in the legal profession. But over time, she came to an unsettling realization. Whenever a client asked for a referral in an area outside of her expertise, which is intellectual property, the first names that came to mind were the “usual suspects” — older white men at the top of their field. “That started to bother me,” she says. Having worked hard to build a book of business, she understood the value of referrals. And so she found herself wishing for a list of trusted female litigators to whom she could refer work.
Halwani talked it over with one of her partners, commercial litigator Shara Roy, who agreed that women are often overlooked when it comes to referrals. The problem is, in part, statistical: in Ontario, only 26 percent of private-practice partners are women, meaning there are simply more senior men to suggest to clients. Culture also plays a role. “Too often,” says Roy, “the assumption is that the warrior who can fight your battle on your behalf is a man.” And yet, there are plenty of powerhouse female litigators capable of doing the work.
Deploying the resources of Lenczner Slaght, Roy and Halwani began to develop an online referral site. In the summer of 2019, ReferToHer.com officially launched. The site featured a list of female litigators that the two women, other partners at the firm or female litigators in their broader network felt confident recommending. “This isn’t meant to derogate in any way from our male colleagues,” says Roy. “It’s really just trying to level the playing field by putting women in your mind as well as men. Then you can make a decision about who the best person is.”
By January, the list had attracted enough buzz that McCarthy Tétrault LLP asked if it could add a second list to the site, one that focused on corporate solicitors. “Women lifting up other women in the profession is not a new phenomenon,” says Sonia Struthers, a business-law partner at McCarthy Tétrault who proposed the expansion. “ReferToHer just puts some structure around this activity.”
ReferToHer.com now boasts a comprehensive index of litigators and corporate solicitors. A section on the site also allows women on the list to nominate additional lawyers. Nominees are added if they meet the following criteria: they’re an active partner at a law firm, a sole practitioner or counsel; they identify as female; they don’t work at the same firm as the nominator; and the nominator has referred or would refer work to them.
Sumeet Dhanju-Dhillon, a commercial litigator at Torkin Manes LLP, felt honoured when she was added to the ReferToHer roster this winter. She doesn’t know if her inclusion has garnered any referrals, but it is a point of pride that assists her when pitching for work. “It’s a great initiative,” she says. “It gives me credibility with clients.”
This is a story from our Summer 2020 Issue.
Illustration by Jenn Kitagawa