On the Record: The job market on Bay Street is holding strong

Back in 2016, the job market on Bay Street looked bleak. The largest 15 law firms in Toronto had hired back 184 articling students as first-year associates. In the previous two years, that number sat at 197 and 196. The reason for the drop-off was clear: the largest firms were outsourcing an increasing amount of routine legal work, meaning they didn’t need to take on as many junior associates.

There was no cause for optimism at the time, but something surprising happened. In 2017, those same firms hired back 208 articling students. And at the conclusion of the 2017–18 articling term, they hired back 197, according to exclusive numbers that PrecedentJD collects each year on the Hireback Watch. The market had somehow regained its footing.

But how? To be sure, the strength of the overall economy has played a key role. But two new industries have also buoyed the job market: cannabis and blockchain.

new money alina skyson webThis October, weed will become legal across Canada. In anticipation of that moment, the country’s licensed cannabis producers — there are now 113 of them — have turned to Bay Street with an endless list of legal questions. “It’s generating a lot of regulatory work,” says Adam Lepofsky, president and founder of the legal recruiting firm RainMaker Group. “At first, the profession shied away from this industry. But in the past two years, almost every major firm has launched a cannabis team.”

In that same timespan, we’ve seen the rise of blockchain. The technology — which, in essence, is an ultra-secure ledger that tracks digital information — powers most of the world’s cryptocurrencies. But the technology has also spawned a raft of companies that hope to revolutionize other industries, from retail to medicine. And these companies need legal help with, well, everything. If they want to go public, they need to hire a capital-markets lawyer; as they build up a staff, they need employment counsel. On top of that, it’s not always clear how current technology legislation applies to blockchain. The end result: companies need a lot of advice from experienced lawyers. “The growth of blockchain will directly increase the need for legal advice,” says Usman Sheikh, the national head of Gowling WLG’s blockchain group. “Because of that, more and more lawyers will need to get themselves up to speed.”

The firm’s Toronto office has a team of about 20 lawyers — who work in a range of practice areas, from litigation to securities — that regularly advise clients in the blockchain sphere. In the past three months, the firm added two new associates to its capital-markets group to help meet the ever-increasing demand in blockchain, cannabis and other emerging markets.

Over at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, the blockchain revolution is also on full display. One year ago, several lawyers at the firm dedicated a small amount of their practice to blockchain-related files. “Today, more than 10 people spend a considerable amount of time on these issues,” says Blair Wiley, a partner in the corporate group, who leads the firm’s blockchain practice. “It’s an exciting time. For young lawyers who are ready to embrace the world of new technology, the sky is the limit.”

This story is from our Fall 2018 Issue.

Illustration by Alina Skyson

On the Record: Bay Street associates get their first pay raise in a decade

In 2016, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP embarked on its first firm-wide strategic review in a decade. “After that,” recalls Martin Denyes, the managing partner of the firm’s Ontario offices, “we sat down with our associates and asked for feedback.”

One complaint pervaded those conversations: it had been more than a decade since Fasken — or, for that matter, any large Bay Street firm — had made a large-scale adjustment to its associate salary grid. In other words, the associates wanted more money.

Throughout the post-recession era, firms easily parried such requests. “Since 2008, there have been more lawyers than there has been work,” says Denyes. So large firms never struggled to land and retain top talent.

But two years ago, that changed. At Fasken, the attrition rate among mid-level associates rose sharply. The strategic review uncovered the reason. Fat-walleted companies — in technology, engineering and accounting — were poaching a growing number of associates to fill non-legal roles, luring them away, in part, with higher salaries. “We learned that the pinch-point was third year,” says Denyes. “Once our people had that level of experience, there was a lot more competition in the business community for their services. This was new.”

In August 2017, Fasken revamped the salary grid at its Toronto office and the numbers soon leaked across Bay Street. The firm left compensation the same for first years (at $100,000) and sixth years (at $190,000). But it raised the salaries for second years (to $120,000), third years (to $150,000), fourth years (to $165,000) and fifth years (to $175,000).

“We figured the other large firms would match our numbers within a few days,” says Denyes. And, in the end, the Fasken pay bump set off a frenzy.

“I received a few calls that week,” recalls Frances Mahil, the director of associate and student programs at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. “My gut was that the Street would likely move to at least match Fasken at the third-year level.”

Davies, however, left its salary structure intact. “We’ve always been a little higher than the Street,” says Mahil, “so the bump at Fasken did not impact our levels as they were still below what we already paid.” (For example: first-year associates at Fasken earn $100,000, while the base salary for their counterparts at Davies is $130,000.)

When contacted by Precedent, most large firms declined to comment on associate compensation. But Eva Bellissimo, chair of the practice excellence committee at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, confirmed in an email that her firm had also increased its associate salaries. (She declined to provide exact numbers.) “We wanted to make sure,” she wrote, “we remained more than competitive in our markets.”

When Fasken announced its raise, last summer, associates were thrilled. “I think we caught them by surprise,” says Denyes. “It went over very well.”

Spring 2018 cover webThis story is from our Spring 2018 Issue.




Illustration by Alina Skyson

Dress Code: What not to wear this winter

Winter is the most awkward season for legal fashion. On one hand, you have to dress warm enough to survive the cold — and the icy winds that gust through the streets of the financial district. At the same time, the temperature indoors is often hard to predict. In the office, the heater might be blaring, while the air in the courtroom is much cooler. And, of course, you still want to look good.

I know, that’s a lot to think about. So to keep things simple, here’s my four-step manual — for both men and women — on how to look good and stay warm from now until spring.

1. Layer like you just don’t care. This advice is as true now as it was when you were a kid and your parents told you to “layer up.” The reason is pretty obvious: throughout the day, you can adapt your outfit to fit the temperature. One way to layer is, of course, to wear a suit. But here are some other suggestions. For women, add some cardigans and long-sleeve sweaters to your wardrobe. For men, sports coats (and, for that matter, cardigans and sweaters) look great over a dress shirt.

2. Ditch the big puffy coat. I’m sorry to break the bad news, but this is a cringe-worthy fashion faux pas. When buying a winter coat for work, the classic look of a tailored wool overcoat or peacoat is still an excellent choice. If you want something trendy, pick up a “puffer” jacket — a slimmed-down, casual version of the bulky winter coat.

3. Kick your boots up a notch. Once winter touches down, don’t let the elements ruin your Italian-leather pumps or dress shoes. Keep those under your desk at the office and invest in a nice pair of boots. If you need a pair that will actually look good with your best work clothes, my favourite brand is Blondo. The Canadian company makes stylish, waterproof, leather boots for men and women.

4. Don’t be boring. In a profession as traditional as ours, it’s always tempting to play it safe when it comes to fashion. And in the winter, it’s even more tempting: mute tones and blasé suits seem to complement the cold, grey landscape. Resist that urge. Make fashion choices that cut against the weather outside your window. Ditch the dark grey and build an outfit with bright colours and textured fabrics. This is one small way to have some fun during the brutal winter season.

Raquiya Austin runs her own entertainment-law practice. She writes about style on her blog, Strictly Legal Fashionista, and for both Precedent and PrecedentJD.




Precedent Magazine winter issue 2017 coverThis story is from our Winter 2017 Issue.




Illustration by Alina Skyson

Exhibit A: The legal job market shows signs of recovery

A whole lot has happened in the past decade. First, the 2008 financial crisis shook the Canadian legal industry hard. Money-making deals came to a screeching halt. Six years later, Heenan Blaikie LLP, one of the largest firms in Canada, imploded. “That really scared lawyers,” recalls Salima Alibhai, co-founder and partner at ALT Recruitment Partners. “They were worried that the market might head into a tailspin.”

Today, close to 10 years after the onset of the global recession, we’re finally seeing signs of a turnaround. The proof is in the numbers. This summer, the largest 16 law offices in Toronto hired back 218 articling students as first-year associates, according to exclusive data on PrecedentJD.com. That’s way up from 188 students hired last year, and the highest number since 2012.

What’s the main cause? Business is booming. “Bay Street is busy,” says Shannon Leo, director of the associate and student programs at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, adding that “the economy was definitely a factor” when the firm made its hiring decision for the year. And, indeed, Cassels had a fantastic year: the firm hired back all 12 of its articling students.

Alibhai, for her part, agrees that the legal market is thriving and “will continue to be busy.” But that’s not the only reason for the hiring spike. In the past year, Alibhai has seen firms add extra juniors because a growing number of associates are going in-house.

The rise of in-house departments is, in fact, another major story of the past decade. From 2008 to 2016, the number of in-house lawyers in Ontario has mushroomed from 3,635 to 5,006. “It used to be that large corporations only sought out senior lawyers,” says Alibhai. “But, in the past year and a half, they’ve started scooping up junior lawyers.” Many associates jump at the chance to leave, chasing the promise of better work-life balance. This has forced firms to up their recruitment numbers, as they anticipate that attrition. “They’re being proactive to make sure they have enough homegrown lawyers.”

Toronto’s recovering hireback numbers show the highest percentage of students hired back as first-year associates that we’ve ever seen:


Total Toronto articling students

Total Toronto hirebacks

Total Toronto opt-outs*

Overall Toronto hireback rate

2017 259 218 13 89%
2016 255 188 27 82%
2015 277 200 18 77%
2014 282 201 23 78%
2013 297 205 19 74%
2012 300 218 15 77%
2011 299 212 29 79%
2010 322 224 31 77%
2009 325 211 17 69%

* Opt-outs refer to students who chose not to be considered for hireback. Opt-outs were also subtracted from the total number of articling students before we calculated the hireback rate.

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



Photo: iStock

On the Record: Bay Street cuts more first-year associate jobs

The fact that the job market for junior lawyers on Bay Street took a dive this year is hardly a surprise. It’s been shrinking, on a regular basis, over the past seven years. Back in 2010, the 16 historically largest law offices in Toronto hired back 224 articling students as first-year associates. And this past year, those same firms hired back 188 students — a 16-percent drop.

These numbers prompt a delicate question: is the broader legal market in a tailspin? “I don’t think so,” says Carrie Heller, president of The Heller Group, a legal recruitment agency in Toronto. “There are still big deals happening in the corporate world and firms are busy. So the market is not weak. But it is changing.”

Take document review and due diligence: a mere 10 years ago, such tasks were mainstays of a rookie lawyer’s job description. No longer. More and more firms, says Heller, now outsource that work to contract lawyers who cost far less than associates. So firms may be just as busy as they were last year, but they can do the same amount of work with a shallower pool of juniors.

There’s another reason to be optimistic. Though first-year hiring on Bay Street has wilted, the number of job opportunities in some areas of law has grown. One of the best examples is the rise of in-house departments. Since 2005, the number of in-house lawyers in Ontario has mushroomed from about 3,400 to nearly 4,700. That’s an increase of 38 percent.

And that surely, says Heller, has offset some of the losses on Bay Street. “Companies are doing more and more routine work themselves. Some in-house departments now function as mini-law firms.”

Heller adds that the junior-associate job market at the largest firms is a poor proxy for the legal economy as a whole. “I wouldn’t look at these numbers and say, ‘Well, the legal market is deteriorating.’ I just don’t think that’s the case.”

For an in-depth look at the hireback numbers across Bay Street, visit our annual Hireback Watch.

Cover of the Fall Issue of Precedent Magazine

This story is from our Fall 2016 issue.

Cover Story: How to make partner in a weak market

1. Sell yourself

“It’s not enough to do good work,” says Sarah Armstrong, who became an equity partner at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in 2013, 10 years into her career — a breakneck ascent, considering she took two maternity leaves in that time. “You need people to know you do good work.”

Such advice has particular relevance for associates looking to advance at a big firm. After all, when partners have a big file, they bring top associates into the fold — or, more accurately, associates they think are the best. And getting on those files leads to billable hours and contact with clients, two prerequisites for partnership.

Luckily, self-promotion doesn’t have to be shameless. “I would speak at firm-wide events to market myself to the partners,” says Armstrong. “I once presented on arbitration clauses to corporate partners.” Sure enough, a partner asked her to draft one, which led to more work down the line. “It only happens when you put yourself out there.”

2. Quit the cocktail parties

Jill Daley didn’t just make partner quickly — she made partner early. In 2014, as a sixth-year lawyer, Daley became a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, one year before associates are supposed to become eligible for partnership. And yet, Daley, a leading pharmaceutical lawyer, never goes to networking events.

“I meet with clients all the time. But I take them to lunch and sit in their boardrooms.”— Jill Daley, Norton Rose Fulbright LLP

This shouldn’t be a surprise. A recent study on rainmaking, published by the U.S. consultancy firm Lawyer Metrics, found that most bona fide rainmakers don’t fish for clients at cocktail parties. In fact, many rainmakers are introverts who dislike attending them. “It surprises me how often people tell lawyers to go to parties,” says Monique Drake, who co-authored the study. “That’s not how most lawyers get clients.”

Meanwhile, rainmaking is more important than ever. “Ten years ago, there was so much work,” says Armstrong. “If associates survived long enough, they would make partner. That’s not really the case anymore.” In today’s weak economy and increasingly competitive market, they can only make partner if they have a knack for getting clients.

So, if not at cocktail parties, where do clients come from? “I don’t want to sound patronizing,” says Daley, “but most new business comes from doing good work for existing clients.” This helps in two ways. One, clients often move companies, where they hire the lawyer they liked the best. Two, clients send referrals to their favourite associates. Indeed, this is how Daley built a client roster.

But what, then, do rainmakers do to impress clients?

To start, they often learn the minutiae of each client’s world, says Drake. “They know what’s important to each client’s business and the internal politics each client faces.” And they learn this, simply, by listening. “Let’s say a rainmaker has to file a motion.

So she calls the client, but the client is upset about something else. Most lawyers try to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand. The rainmaker, though, will find out what’s going on.”

Deep client knowledge, in turn, tends to make lawyers more comfortable with risk — another hallmark of rainmakers. “Lawyers sometimes say to clients, ‘On one hand, we could file this motion, but we only have a 60 percent chance of winning. So what do you want to do?’” explains Drake. But rainmakers don’t waffle: they know how much risk a client can tolerate.

"Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you."— Anthony Spadaro, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

“Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you.”— Anthony Spadaro, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP

“By couching advice in all sorts of back and forth, you’re effectively leaving it to the client to decide,” says Jason Mangano, who made equity partner at Blaney McMurtry LLP last year, as a ninth-year lawyer, about as fast as was possible. “But remember: clients come to you for recommendations and those recommendations need to be clear.” That’s not to say junior lawyers should launch headlong into categorical advice. “This is for senior associates,” says Drake, “who’ve been plugged into a client’s world for years.”

Does this mean cocktail parties are a waste of time? Not necessarily. Having personal relationships with clients is important. So if a client will be at an event, it might make sense to attend. Mangano surely thinks so. “Going to parties over the years has really paid off,” he says. But Daley’s clients never go to networking events. Associates eyeing partnership, then, should look for ways to spend time with clients — at parties, or somewhere else entirely. “I meet with clients all the time,” says Daley. “But I take them to lunch and sit in their boardrooms. I visit them where they are.”

3. Stay calm

Bay Street lawyers face an unending stream of shitstorms: the deadlines are intense and clients often call with Friday-afternoon emergencies. But top associates always keep their cool.

“Clients won’t come back to you if, whenever they have a problem, they feel like they’ve inconvenienced you,” says Anthony Spadaro, a 2009-call at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP, who made non-equity partner in 2014, lockstep with the firm’s partnership track. “You have to roll with the punches.”

This story is part our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.

Cover Story: How to make partner as a racialized lawyer

1. Confront the pressure to “fit in”

Ritu Bhasin is used to having difficult conversations. As one of Toronto’s top diversity consultants, and a former lawyer, she spends a lot of time with racialized lawyers in the city, offering advice on how to advance — and how to make partner. That means helping them navigate a profession ruled by, as she puts it, “white, straight, able-bodied men from Christian backgrounds.” And it can get uncomfortable. “As it stands now, legal culture rewards conformity,” says Bhasin, who left Stikeman Elliott LLP five years ago, where she had spent seven years as the firm’s director of legal talent. “It’s going to take a long time for that culture to shift, so in the meantime, it requires some amount of strategic adaptation.”

Race and conformity — these are tricky subjects. But Bhasin, a first-generation Canadian whose South Asian parents immigrated to Canada 45 years ago, refuses to tiptoe around them. The reality is too stark. Though racialized people make up 23 percent of Ontario’s population, they account for just 17 percent of lawyers and 6.6 percent of partners.

"I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in.’" — Ritu Bhasin, ‎Bhasin Consulting Inc.

“I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in.’” — Ritu Bhasin, ‎Bhasin Consulting Inc.

Why can’t they get ahead? Perhaps the biggest reason is what social scientists call likeness bias. “We are hardwired to like people who are similar to us,” explains Bhasin. And so, when senior white partners decide which associates to mentor and which to assign major files (steering them closer to partnership) they often choose white associates who ‘fit in’ to mainstream legal culture.

This is more than a theory. A recent report from the Law Society of Upper Canada found that some racialized lawyers can feel alienated at work — for many, it’s because they don’t play golf or hockey, go cottaging or drink alcohol. And this has severe consequences: 26 percent of racialized lawyers said their inability to take part in social activities held them back. Only 12 percent of white lawyers made such a claim. “I know law firms say their lawyers can look diverse, but they still expect them to ‘fit in,’” says Bhasin. “And ‘fit in’ is code for: don’t act Asian, or black or Hispanic.”

"Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests."— Brendan Wong, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

“Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests.”— Brendan Wong, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

So what should racialized lawyers do? Bhasin says that, in light of this unfair reality, they need to take some interest in mainstream activities. Brendan Wong, a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, who is of Chinese descent, agrees. “If you’re going to a Leafs game with a client, read some headlines in the sports section,” he suggests. “If you know someone likes dogs, look something up about dogs. But never change your values. Never change who you are. I’m only talking about broadening your interests.” For his part, Wong got lucky: he grew up in Maple Ridge, a small town just outside Vancouver, where hockey and golf were popular. “I’ve had an advantage in my career, in that I grew up in the cultural norm that now dominates Bay Street.”

But isn’t this totally unfair? After all, white partners get to live their culture large. Why should racialized lawyers have to knuckle under to the forces of conformity?

Bhasin hears those questions all the time. And she agrees: to discriminate against associates from diverse backgrounds is flat-out wrong. “It is fair for a racialized lawyer to say, ‘I don’t want to conform by learning to play golf or to ski or to drink.’ And I’m the first to say, ‘Don’t do those things, then.’ However, if you’re not going to do those things, and you do nothing, then given current legal culture, you’re not going to get ahead.”

At the same time, Bhasin is not blaming racialized lawyers who fail to make partner for their inability to conform. The onus, she says, is on law firms to change. “This is a law-firm management problem.” And one day, Bhasin hopes she won’t have to give this advice. “I am hell-bent on getting legal culture to change,” she says. “Along the way, though, we need to equip diverse lawyers with tools for success.”

2. Play the diversity card

Discrimination is real. But in recent years, racial diversity has become an asset: some corporations now actively seek out racialized lawyers on their external legal teams. And lawyers can take advantage of this trend, says Michelle Henry, a partner at BLG who is black. “First, look for companies that care about diversity,” she says. A good place to start is the website for the group Legal Leaders for Diversity, whose members include nearly 100 businesses — such as Deloitte, Capital One and Sobeys — that want to hire diverse legal talent. The next step for racialized lawyers, says Henry, is to find out if any of these businesses are clients of their firm. “Try to connect with the partner responsible for that client and ask them for lunch.” The goal, then, is to get on that client’s legal team and, over the years, become a go-to contact.

Racialized lawyers can also tap into communities that Bay Street has typically ignored. “If you are an East Asian lawyer looking for clients, then look for an Asian business association,” says Wong, who’s a member of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers. “You have the cultural knowledge to make connections, so why wouldn’t you do that? Sell what you got.”

This story is part of our series on making partner, from our Spring 2016 issue.

Good News From Bay Street: How one COO slashed his firm’s overhead by 20 percent

When Roger Rosemin entered the office of Thornton Grout Finnigan LLP this past April, his eyes fell on the printers. They were miraculous, capable of spitting out enormous documents at light-speed and in gorgeous colour. “But it was ridiculous,” he chuckles. “It’s a law firm, not a print shop.”

Rosemin, a non-lawyer with an MBA from the Rotman School of Management, had just joined the firm as its chief operating officer after spending four years in the same role at Chaitons LLP. His mandate was, in large part, singular: save the firm money. He quickly sent the printers back to the vendor and leased cheaper equipment.

That was just the beginning. Next, Rosemin took the firm’s law-journal subscriptions paperless. Then he hired a small in-house tech-support team to replace some of the work that the firm previously outsourced to expensive third parties. Overhead, he boasts, is down by 20 percent.

By handling such tasks, Rosemin lets the lawyers focus on practising law. “Time is my inventory,” says Robert Thornton, a founding partner at the firm. “The time that I spend not billing is time away from the top line of the business.”

Rosemin’s story is part of a broader trend. In recent years, firms across Bay Street have hired non-lawyer COOs of their own. The reason is simple. “Clients want more for less,” says Rosemin. “It was once easy to be fat on the backside because revenues always covered it. Now firms want to get leaner.”

Cover of the Fall 2015 Issue of PrecedentThis story is part our series on how Bay Street firms are getting better, from our Fall 2015 issue.

Exhibit A: Bay Street’s hiring slump slows

In the immediate wake of the economic downturn, the slump was in clear view. Across Bay Street, law firms hired back fewer and fewer articling students as first-year associates. Yet, in recent years, the bleeding has stopped.

Let’s go back to 2010. In that year, according to hiring data Precedent tracks each year, the largest 16 law offices in Toronto hired back 224 students. And by 2013 that number had fallen to 204. But in the last two years, that number has barely moved, settling at 200 this year — a historical low, yet also a sign of stability.

“At this point, just not having a decline is a good thing,” says Gene Roberts, a director at the lawyer-staffing firm Robert Half Legal. “It shows firms are becoming more stable.” His optimism is further fuelled by a recent survey, published by Robert Half, which shows that nearly one-third of Canadian lawyers expect their firms to “slightly” increase entry-level hiring in the next year. “I think things will remain steady, or punch up a bit.”

For mid-level associates, meanwhile, the job market is particularly healthy, says Adam Lepofsky, president of the legal recruiting firm RainMaker Group. “No one’s going crazy, but we’ve seen more hiring in the past six months than we did the last five or six years.”

Still, experts agree that a first-year hiring boom — or a return to pre-recession numbers — is unlikely in the short term. For one thing, large firms still have less work than they did a decade ago, says Chris Williams, co-owner at Branion Williams Legal Recruiting. “There don’t seem to be as many deals happening. We’re still hurting from the recession,” he says. “There’s less work trickling down to associates. And obviously you’re not going to hire as many students if you don’t have the work to sustain them.”

The post-recession law firm is also a less reactionary machine, says Lepofsky. So even if business soars, he says, firms might not go on a hiring spree, knowing that the market could turn at any moment, forcing them to purge lawyers. “Firms realize they have to be prepared for the ups and the downs.”

Even if major growth is not on the horizon, three years of consistent hiring of new calls is impressive, says Lepofsky. “This is still a very dicey economy,” he explains. “It’s amazing to see firms, in this climate, continue to hire and train lawyers.” The establishment of a new hiring equilibrium, he adds, shows that firms have adapted to the new market. “Firms are smart. They evolve and fine-tune themselves so that, like other organizations, they’ll stay profitable.”

Exclusive Precedent research shows how the number of articling students hired back at Toronto’s largest law offices has changed in five years:


Total Hirebacks 2010


Osler 29 18
Blakes 26 20
McCarthys 18 15
BLG 17 17 =
Torys 15 20
Department of Justice 14 3
Stikemans 13 13 =
Faskens 13 12
Bennett Jones 12 11
Gowlings 12 9
Norton Rose (previously Ogilvy Renault) 11 12
Davies 10 11
Cassels 10 8
Goodmans 9 13
McMillan 8 7
Dentons (previously FMC) 7 11
Total 224 200

Cover of the Fall 2015 Issue of PrecedentThis story is from our Fall 2015 issue.

Good News From Bay Street: It’s never been better to be a woman in law

The appointments of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP’s plush Toronto office digs are familiar on Bay Street. There’s the collection of contemporary Canadian art and the lofty view that renders Toronto’s skyline in miniature. Yet it’s the appointments behind the top desks at this firm that differentiate it from its peers. You see, at Osler, women run the game.

When lawyer and business development director Jodi Kovitz counts off women at the top of her firm, she runs out of fingers. The chief executive. Managing partners in Calgary and Ottawa. The chief operating officer and the chief client officer. Heads of litigation, tax, real estate, research, and on and on: all women. “We are committed to women comprising 30 percent of our teams, and we meet that objective as often as possible,” she says. Having women in senior roles is so common, it’s hardly a novelty. As Dale Ponder, the chief executive and national managing partner of Osler puts it, “It really is part of our DNA.”

And while Osler holds itself to metrics and boasts for-women initiatives, really the most impressive thing — the true good news — is that its office culture supports and sponsors women. And elsewhere on Bay Street, this cultural shift is happening as well.

Private practice is not easy on female lawyers, which statistics underscore. Only 35 percent of lawyers in private practice are women. And at the partnership level, women comprise merely 20 percent. In their first five years in private practice, women are nearly 50 percent more likely to leave than their male counterparts.

Gender parity is elusive. Retention is a serious, costly issue. All it can take is a family crisis, a childcare implosion or an inflexible boss to catapult a career into the hinterlands. “Generally, law as a profession doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to the support of women,” says Ashleigh Frankel, a lawyer and co-founder of Click & Co., a consulting and career coaching company that, among other things, transitions female lawyers back to the workplace. “At most firms, you come to work and you are a lawyer. Anything you need to juggle your life is left outside of firm life,” she says. “But the landscape is starting to change.”

Women at the top

Optics count, and for women on Bay Street, just seeing other women at the top inspires. This was something heard from both established luminaries at Osler and rising stars like senior associate and Ironman triathlete Lauren Tomasich. “There’s this tradition here of women leaders who are confident, smart and charismatic,” she says. Joyce Bernasek, an “Oslerite” since 2002 and a partner, agrees. “Having women in leadership roles sends the message to me that the firm values women,” she says, working from home when we spoke, to attend her daughter’s school recital. Positive role models beget positive role models.

Dale Ponder

Osler managing partner Dale Ponder addresses an audience of female lawyers and clients at the firm’s annual Women’s Day event

Osler takes an active role in retaining its female associates, with initiatives like the maternity-leave buddy-program that matches partners (both male and female) with associates on leave.

Despite all the good news for women at the firm, Osler is not at gender parity — only 118 of the 288 lawyers at its Toronto office are women. But Bay Street firms are inching closer. As of 2014, Lerners LLP is one of the first major firms in Canada to reach a 50/50 split. “It happened organically,” says Lisa Munro, executive committee member and partner. “I attribute that to the leadership in our firm in the 1990s — it really set the tone,” Munroe recalls. “Janet Stewart was our managing partner. She had good soft management skills and also ran a profitable practice. She was what everyone wanted to be.”

Women have always aspired to leadership roles, but what’s improved about the situation today is that seeing women in leadership roles is not just an aspiration, says Munro. “It’s a law-firm and societal expectation.”

Sponsorship from men

Men make up the majority of warm bodies in private practice, so they need to sponsor women — a notion that is finally starting to suffuse through Bay Street’s corridors. Deborah Glatter, lawyer and professional development director at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, held a seminar last year titled, “Sponsorship: What Powerful Male Leaders Need to Know.”AlthoughCassels has upwards of 25 percent female equity partners,“we’d like that to be higher,” she says.

Her seminar ran top men (and women) at the firm through a Harvard quiz on implicit bias; a talk from Beatrix Dart, an associate dean at the Rotman School of Management; and a roundtable discussion. “One of the powerful men sitting at the table said, ‘Raise your hand if you were sponsored by a man,’ and all of them, including the powerful women, raised their hands,” says Glatter. Usually men have sponsored men, she adds, and that hasn’t helped retention. “Women are just as ambitious as men, but they’re not stupid. They see the male associate being brought along with the male partner and work starts flowing to the associate. Why would you work as hard when your path to success is not clear?”

Her message is getting through, and she proudly reports that recently a partner said he is going to “pound the table” to have his female sponsoree become partner. “The more women become partners here, the more clear it is to female associates they will become partner. They’re not going to stick around if those opportunities aren’t given to them.”

Indeed, at Osler, Ponder says men have been crucial to promoting women at the firm. “Our women have had strong male voices at our firm who have championed their abilities,” she says. “This truth is an important part of our culture and it was also true of my own personal experience.”

Fostering retention

Let’s be honest here: when the loaded diaper hits the fan on the homefront, women clean up. A family crisis, the strain that comes with having children, pressure to truncate maternity leave — all of these contribute to women dropping out of private practice. This was especially true in decades past. “In my experience, women used to quit after having a kid or two,” recalls Tracy Sandler, Osler’s energetic and polished partner who has been at the firm since 1991 and now sits on the executive committee. Sandler took eight-month maternity leaves back when six months was the standard, and made partner while on her second maternity leave. And moves like that set a mom-supportive cultural tone that others benefit from. Mary Paterson, a newly minted litigation partner at Osler with a calm yet commanding presence, took a year of maternity leave as an associate, a relative rarity on Bay Street. Consequently, she pays it forward. “I tell women to take the year. It was the best decision I made,” Paterson says.

Formally, some firms offer in-house support for lawyers with families. And consulting companies like Frankel’s Click & Co. offer seminars and coaching packages, such as “Mat-Leave-to-Meeting,” that help women navigate this transition. But at a macro level, “woman friendly” firms like Lerners or Osler aren’t doing anything gender-targeted so much as managing with humanity: you’re a person, not a lawyer-bot, you will weather shitstorms, and they will support you.

And yet, the reality is that Bay Street does not amply support working parents. Not like more progressive sectors such as tech — your Googles and Facebooks — where some employers offer on-site daycares or subsidies for caregivers. The rigours of the partnership track remain unchanged. Nannies that can accommodate early and late hours are a reality for working moms, as is a “supportive and forgiving family,” according to Sandler.

Lisa Munro

“They told me: ‘We need to see a woman in the corner office!’”
Lisa Munro
Partner at Lerners

This shrug-and-deal-with-it approach is, for now, the norm. No one really seems to have cracked the code for making law firm life much easier on parents, though lawyers aren’t without ideas. “Firms could improve a bit on flexibility and have a more set arrangement where you can work from home,” says Bernasek, in the financial services group at Osler. “Though the commercial reality is that you should be showing up to work on most days, that could improve. If we’re not in our office it doesn’t mean we’re not working.”

At Lerners, Munro remembers an excellent female lawyer who came in to resign when she hit a work-life impasse. “I asked her, ‘Do you like practising law here?’ She said yes. ‘Then I’m not going to let you resign.’” Munro asked her, “Have you thought of a leave of absence?” The lawyer took a leave and now she is back at work and has advanced in her career. “Years go by in a flash,” Munro says, “so when you’re making a long-term investment in people, we think, Let’s make it work.”

The next generation

One of the best pieces of news for women on Bay Street is that, as a new generation of both clients and lawyers rise through the ranks, they bring with them enlightened Millennial attitudes. The old boys’ club, with golf rounds and steakhouses, hasn’t totally gone the way of the Rolodex, but today’s young lawyers of both genders expect equality.

“Men of today’s generation grew up with women in leadership roles,” says Mary Abbott, a partner at Osler in the corporate group. “They think, Of course there will be women at the top.”

Women in law also assert themselves, unlike their cohort of a decade ago. “I was at my desk minding my own business,” says Munro, “and some younger female lawyers came into my office and said, ‘There’s a vacant corner office. You need to go into it.’ They told me: ‘We need to see a woman in the corner office!’” Looking back, the event was particularly meaningful. “It educated me too, in terms of what younger people want to see in the firm.”

There’s a new generation of female lawyers gunning for the top spots on Bay Street — women who are ready, to use Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s groundbreaking term, to lean in. And more than ever before, Bay Street is actually ready for them.

Change doesn’t just happen

Becoming a standard-bearer of the Bay Street women’s movement doesn’t happen overnight. Both Osler and Lerners have a long history of women ascending to the upper ranks of partnership. Here are three standout examples of women who helped pave the way.

Bertha WilsonJustice Bertha Wilson
At Osler from 1959–75

When she applied to law school at Dalhousie University in the mid-1950s, the dean of law replied: “Why don’t you just go home and take up crocheting?” Well, she didn’t take his counsel. Within two decades, Wilson had made partner at Osler (the first woman to do so in Big Law). Then, in 1982, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada — the first woman in Canadian history.

Janet StewartJanet Stewart
At Lerners from 1972–present

Back in the 1980s, Lerners was a small place. Based in London, Ont., the firm housed about 25 lawyers. Then Janet Stewart came along. During her reign as managing partner, from 1991 to 2007, the firm quadrupled in size, reaching more than 100 lawyers.

Jean FraserJean Fraser
At Osler from 1993–2015

Before there was Dale Ponder, the current top lawyer at Osler, there was Jean Fraser — who became the national managing partner at the firm in 1999, cementing Osler’s reputation for promoting women. In fact, she’s always been a trailblazer. In Fraser’s first year of practice at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, she convinced her firm to adopt its initial maternity leave policy.

Cover of the Fall 2015 Issue of PrecedentThis story is part our series on how Bay Street firms are getting better, from our Fall 2015 issue.




Concept photography by Chris Thomaidis.