Opinion: Lawyers make mistakes. That’s not a bad thing

The practice of law can be chaos. We juggle too many files. We have to respond to surprise moves by opposing counsel. And since the law is always changing, we’re often doing things for the first time. It’s inevitable that mistakes will creep into our work.

Yet as a profession, we never talk about this fact. This, in turn, creates the illusion that we are all perfect.

This needs to change. It’s so important to speak honestly about failure. A 2016 study found that when high-school students learned that famous scientists — such as Albert Einstein and Marie Curie — suffered professional setbacks, their grades were more likely to improve. Such stories helped students “interpret their difficulties in science classes as normal occurrences rather than a reflection of their lack of intelligence.”Allow me to break the ice. I was once working on a closing and the clients were coming to sign the final papers at our offices. In the rush to finalize, a few pages of the deal were missing signatures — a mistake I noticed only after the clients had left. My immediate thought: I will never work on a closing again. I’m a negligent lawyer.

But in the end, it was a simple fix. I called them back, they signed the pages and my career went on. Since then, I’ve started to accept that I will never be perfect. I have found the following steps to be helpful in those moments of panic, when I realize that things haven’t gone as planned.

Be honest about what happened. When something goes wrong, it’s terrifying. But it will only get worse if you don’t admit your mistake and deal with it right away. To suffer on your own, in secret, can cloud your judgment. Remember that the earlier you address the problem, the easier it will be to find a solution.

Failing Up, Sandi Falconer

Take a break. After dealing with a stressful situation, remember that it’s okay to disengage and find validation outside of work. I find it helpful to engage in activities I enjoy, like preparing a good meal, finishing a book or indulging in my guiltiest pleasure (poring over mom blogs and the forums that analyze their personas).

Stay off social media. Though social media can be informative (and entertaining), it can trick you into thinking that your friends’ best moments are their everyday moments. I do this all the time. I’ll think, This lawyer always looks great and professional and seems to eat the best meals and go on the best vacations. In moments of vulnerability, it’s easy to slip further down the comparison spiral and think, I bet this person never makes mistakes. In reality, this is almost certainly not true. But the easiest way to keep your mind clear is to get off Instagram.

Lean on your support network. When I experience that sinking feeling in my gut after something goes wrong, I benefit tremendously from my friends and mentors. They are there to remind me that the feeling will go away and that I shouldn’t rest my self-esteem on that one file.

Reflect on what happened. After the panic settles, take time to really think about why the error took place. Were too many things happening at the time? Could you have planned better? Moving on should include a genuine reflection on why things unfolded the way they did, so the same sequence of events can be avoided in the future.

And if you’re wondering, yes: I always triple-check every page for signatures during a closing. But I also know that, if I miss one, that doesn’t mean I’m the worst lawyer.

Rosel KimRosel Kim is an associate at Goodmans LLP. She is a career and lifestyle writer for Precedent and PrecedentJD. Follow her on Twitter at @jroselkim.




This story is from our Fall 2018 Issue.

Illustration by Sandi Falconer

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.

Trial & Error: Email etiquette for lawyers

Every day, I send and receive at least a couple hundred emails. Yet we, as a profession, rarely step back and consider how we use email — and how we can use it better. And so, I’ve put together what I call “The Lawyer’s Code of Conduct for Email” — drawing on my working experiences and those of Bindu Cudjoe, the deputy general counsel and chief administrative officer at BMO Financial Group. What follows is the first half of my two-part guide, which offers three tips on how to maintain proper email decorum.

1. Use email for scheduling, not decision-making

There are basically three ways to communicate with someone: in-person, on the phone and via email. When I spoke to Bindu, she said email is best used as a scheduling tool — to set up meetings and longer calls — rather than for detailed discussions or making substantial decisions. You can use email to record those decisions and suggest next steps, but when you want to go in-depth, hop on the phone.

2. Respond to clients promptly, even if you can’t answer their questions

Clients demand timeliness. So when they email me, I respond in a couple of hours, or within 12 hours if they email outside of business hours. If I need more time to consider the request, my response might be as simple as “Will do” or “Will get back to you.” And if I know I’ll be away from my email, I always set up an out-of-office alert that tells the sender when to expect a response. The point is: clients should never be kept out of the loop, wondering when you will get back to them.

3. Stop sending emails at 4 a.m.

Okay, I’m as guilty as anyone of sending emails whenever the impulse strikes. But, when working late, unless the recipient needs the information right away, wait until the next day to hit “send.” In Microsoft Office, use the “delay send” feature so the email arrives at more appropriate time — say, 9 a.m. the next morning. I often schedule emails to arrive when I know the recipient starts his or her workday (that’s 7:30 a.m. for known early-risers). That way, my messages are less likely to sink to the bottom of their inboxes.

Atrisha Lewis is a second-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group. Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewisAnd also check out all of her past columns.

The Docket: There’s no escaping Douglas Coupland

By the time you read this it will be too late to catch Douglas Coupland’s Gumhead — aDouglas Coupland
gigantic sculpture of the preeminent artist’s own noggin that spent the last few months inside the Holt Renfrew at Bay and Bloor, inviting passersby to cover it with their chewing gum. And you’ve only got until late April to catch his retrospective Douglas Coupland: Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. (It’s worth seeing for the piece entitled Towers alone — 50 bright-coloured sky-scrapers, most six-feet tall, made from Lego.)

Douglas Coupland

But if you miss both of these and run the risk of being labelled a ‘philistine’ by your peers, you’re not out of options for staying in conversation — Coupland’s work is everywhere in this city. You probably pass a piece on your way to work.

There’s the giant silver and gold toy soldiers (Monument to the War of 1812) at Fleet and Bathurst, or the towering pencil-crayon- -inspired Four Seasons spires up at Sheppard and Don Mills. At Canoe Landing Park you can see three of Coupland’s signature nods to Canadiana: the giant red Tom Thomson’s Canoe, the bright fishing-lure Float Forms, and the Beaver Dam made from real beaver-chewed logs. Douglas Coupland

Or, the next time you’ve got a meeting at Davies or a lunch with your pals at Paliare Roland, just stop in the lobby of the RBC Centre and take in Coupland’s A History of the Fur Trade in Canada. It looks like a giant Scrabble board done in classic Coupland pop-bright colours and apparently it’s a reference to Canada’s founding fathers of technology studies.

Consider yourself primed for cocktail party conversation.





This story is from our Spring 2015 issue.

Making It Work: The Precedent guide to getting it all done

Precedent Spring Issue 2015 CoverLet’s face it: in order to a lawyer (and a damn good one at that), it means that you are making a commitment to a profession that demands a lot of time and energy. But that doesn’t mean you want to sacrifice the rest of your life.

So how does it all get done?

You’ve got to be resourceful. You’ve got to let some things go. And you’ve got to work hard to achieve balance.

Find out how some of Toronto’s most productive lawyers are killing it at the office and making time for their hobbies, vacations, families, fitness and even sleep. Don’t believe us? Check out the stories below:


Angela Chaisson

How Angela Chaisson finds time to go for lunch with her firm every day

Cornell Wright

How Cornell Wright finds a way to make it to soccer practice

Bindu Cudjoe

How Bindu Cudjoe makes time for friends, family and annual vacations








Unfiltered advice from lawyers with kids

Shelby Austin

Learn from Shelby Austin’s day planner

healthy lawyer

How to keep your job from killing you







Photography by Daniel Ehrenworth

Illustration by Naila Medjidova

The Docket: Six ideas for any party gift


Rose Gin 

Rose-filled glasses
If a rose is a symbol of love, then giving your host a bottle of rose gin is probably the most loving you can be this holiday. It’s less obvious than wine, but still a safe bet; this easy-sipping liqueur is delicious enough to convert even the staunchest gin-hater. $50. dillons.ca




Nadege MacaronsPeru and me
As if the adorable macarons from Nadège weren’t already irresistible, the beloved Toronto bakery has gone and made its best flavour yet. The Illanka collection is made from a rare Peruvian chocolate, to which Nadège has the exclusive rights in Canada. Save this gift for the host who brings out the good bottles. $30 for 12.




Jessie Ware 

Now hear this 
If you want to take a more hands-on approach to your party music than throwing on Songza for the night, we recommend you give Jessie Ware’s latest album a spin. The soulful U.K. crooner returns with a sophomore record that delivers sophisticated pop well suited to candlelight and red wine. If you’re into that sort of thing. $13 on iTunes. jessieware.com 



SECO Marble Plate

Plate to the party
Half the fun of hosting a holiday party is having a reason to bust out those beautiful serving dishes that otherwise collect dust in your top cupboard. Feel free to add the SECO marble board to your collection — the perfect piece for elevating your party cheeses (literally). $45. schoolhouseelectric.com 





New flame 
We have no idea what a goji berry looks like and we’ve never even heard of a tarocco orange before, but we can tell you this candle from Voluspa smells divine. And after an evening of back-to-back client parties, it’s those little touches that make all the difference. $24. iheartscout.com


 Bellwoods Brewery

Spreading holiday beer
If you like to reach for a cold one to unwind on the nights when you’re not required to socialize, check out the latest small batch from Bellwoods Brewery. Their special brews go fast, and for good reason — they’re damn tasty. Pick up the dark, hoppy Gotham if you can get there quick enough. Better take the Batmobile. $6.50 per bottle. bellwoodsbrewery.com

Trial & Error: Essential reading for the junior lawyer

Are you seeking inspiration, insights or talking points? Check out my list of essential reads for the junior lawyer —four that have profoundly impacted my practice: 

1. Chris Hadfield’s an Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

It’s not a book about law, but there are many takeaways that apply to any ambitious lawyer, such as the value of working hard and parking your ego. The biggest lesson I gleaned from this book was to plan for every contingency. I found myself reflecting on this advice earlier this year as I geared up for my first trial. I considered all possible permeations and equipped myself appropriately. I came prepared with materials that my team may need in the face of possible objections and while I did not think of everything, I was able to plan for most contingencies and add a great deal of value to the trial team. 

2. The Rules of Civil Procedure (or whatever legislation is most relevant to your practice)

Phil Moore, Senior Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of TD Bank Group, advised me as an articling student to read the Canadian Business Corporations Act cover to cover… in one sitting. He explained that in so doing, I would obtain insight into the contents and structure of the statute. Regardless of your area of practice, I firmly believe his advice holds true. I recently familiarized myself with the most relevant legislation to my practice, Rules of Civil Procedure, which has helped me immensely. With a thorough understanding of the Rules, I know exactly where to turn when I face new issues in my practice. 

3. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

This one is worth the buzz. The messaging in this book is essential for all junior lawyers. There are many useful nuggets in this book, and I’ve previously shared one in my article on how to properly take a vacation. Lean In is packed with so much practical wisdom that I could write an entire column about this book alone.

4. Daily news

You’ll hear it often in your career that reading the news is important. It took me a few road trips with colleagues and a handful of awkward elevator rides to truly understand the necessity of being current with the daily news. Being current not only provides you with a litany of talking points to fill elevator silences, but it also deepens your perspective of the world around you. 

Notable mentions:

While I haven’t yet carved the time out to read these books, they came highly recommended by my colleagues and sit on my current “to-read” list:

  • Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer by Grover Cleveland. This book was provided by Osler to all of its first year associates.
  • Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future by Richard Susskin. This one describes what the future of technology has in store for lawyers.

Got any other great must-reads? Let me know

Atrisha Lewis is a second-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group. Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewis

How to break free from the email chain

Emails can contain golden information: legal research, breaking updates on files and leads on potential clients. But email is inefficient — too often, key contacts are left out of the loop and the email chain multiplies into an incomprehensible spaghetti of messages. Those nuggets of info can get lost.

There is a solution. Law firms should scrap email altogether, says Guy Alvarez, a New York-based tech consultant who advises law firms. Instead, he says, lawyers should contact each other using social collaboration software designed for the workplace, such as Jive or Tibbr. In essence, it’s an internal Facebook. Lawyers can post on each other’s “walls,” bringing information once hidden in the shadows of individual inboxes to the desktop of every colleague. And, like on Facebook, lawyers don’t have to read everything: they can follow specific files, or scan their newsfeed for popular posts.

Social Collaboration SoftwareAlvarez says this is coming to law firms. Clients of tomorrow — who are the young, connected people of today — will demand access to internal social networks at firms they hire, so they can stay up-to-date on their case. Firms without that capability, says Alvarez, will lose business. “By the end of this decade, 70 percent of the global workforce will be a millennial. Your clients are going to be millennials,” he says. “And you bet your ass they’re going to be asking for this.” 

For more on how to make your firm more efficient, read our roundtable, where six big-name lawyers gave us their take on how to make law better.

Icons by Isabel Foo

Advice: The job-seeker’s guide to social media


“It’s the engine of the social internet,” says Lisa Stam, partner and founder of Toronto employment law firm Koldorf Stam LLP. On Twitter, news articles, cat videos and racy comments can go viral in a snap.

thumbs-upUse a casual but professional photo of yourself. Post a mix of ideas, stories, images and videos about your personal and professional interests.

thumbs-down“If you’re tweeting about every single subject under the sun 20 times a day, I don’t know who you are,” says Stam. Show some personality. Join conversations on topics you’re passionate about. But be careful with your words: everyone is watching. 



Your mother is on here! And so is your boss. The lines between private and public have blurred, so tread carefully. Adjust your privacy settings so that only people you’ve friended can see your activity. 

thumbs-upConsider making two profiles, suggests employment lawyer Sean Bawden. One for family and friends and the other for classmates and colleagues (your classmates will soon be your colleagues). 

thumbs-downDrunken party pics — not a great idea. Since you can’t control what your friends post and others might see, avoid having those pictures taken in the first place. 



Social media’s business networking site is great for making connections, getting your CV out there and browsing job postings. Don’t be surprised to see that your future employer viewed your profile before your interview. 

thumbs-upJoin groups in your practice area of interest and get in on the conversation. Stam suggests creating a group of your graduating class — a great source for future business. 

thumbs-downUpdating your profile just once and posting no picture (or an unprofessional one) will hurt more than it will help. Keep your profile up to date, linking it to any published papers or law-related club memberships. 

Read more about how to master the professional side of social media.

This story appears in our 2014 national Student Issue