In recent times, commentators and academics alike have predicted the decline of the legal profession. Many have argued that in its current state, the legal profession is unsustainable.
Within the field of law change seems imminent. Discontent is rising as lawyers grapple with the demanding nature of the profession.
In August, Chief Justice Beverly Mclachlin addressed concerns of decline and stressed the need for change if the legal profession is to remain strong, relevant and independent in the 21st century. Her Honour pointed to several areas of internal frustration, which may hasten the winds of change.
“Discontent within the legal profession extends to the culture of law firms… This culture imposes a high professional price on lawyers with family responsibilities – typically women.”
Described as the “only job with an industry devoted to helping people quit” dissatisfaction within the field of law is widespread. Indeed an entire side industry has sprouted up with the sole purpose of helping lawyers find new jobs in non-legal sectors and female lawyers are among the first to leave.
The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) has suggested three main reasons why women leave the profession:
- Discrimination in the workplace – treatment and type of work women are assigned/offered
- Work-life balance – in the home, women still do the lion’s share of the work and are less likely than men to have a stay-at-home spouse
- Pursuit of other interests – women are less likely than men to identify themselves solely as a lawyer
In its current state, the legal profession is strongly influenced by male culture. Business networking happens more often at golf tournaments than spa days in the world of law. Hierarchy, style of practice, networking approach, client development and competitiveness can create a “conform-or-fail” environment for newcomers.
|50%||Lawyers who said they felt their firms were doing “poorly” or “very poorly” in their provision of flexible work arrangements|
|75%||Women associates who found it difficult to manage the demands of work and personal/family life|
|69%||Women partners who found it difficult to manage the demands of work and personal/family life|
Why is change important? The exodus of female lawyers is having a negative impact on the legal profession. In terms of hard numbers, one study reported that when an associate leaves, the average cost to a firm (training and development, separation costs, etc.) is $315,000. Gender equality promotes diversity, which brings different viewpoints and new problem solving approaches to the workplace. Some have argued that having women in leadership roles may equate to success or growth. A 2010 study showed a correlation between female directors and being in the top of the Fortune 500. In 2012, Harvard Business Review published an article titled “Are Women Leaders Better” which looked at a study of over 7,000 corporate leaders. When evaluated on sixteen core competencies, women continued to score higher on twelve out of sixteen of those competencies.
It is clear that keeping women in the law is of some importance. So how do we stop the exodus?
In her speech, Chief Justice Beverly Mclachlin suggested that a virtual revolution of the legal profession could be a potential game changer for women: “Electronic communication with clients and colleagues frees lawyers from the need to huddle together in the same physical space, permitting more flexible work places and raising the possibility of the virtual law office. Such arrangements may increase efficiency, allow lawyers to reach clients they might otherwise not reach, and provide flexibility to people who for family or other reasons find it difficult to check into a distant office each morning and stay there the entire day.”
Many have proclaimed the virtual law office to be the perfect solution for the exodus of women. In fact, Canada has seen a rise of women taking advantage of the virtual law office.
In 2009, Pam Jefcoat and two other partners founded Valkyrie Law, a virtual law firm made entirely up of women. Jefcoat says of her daughter “I do enjoy being more a part of her life than I was when I was working downtown. You’re not commuting, so you save so much time after work and before work. You can have breakfast together. You’re home for dinner. There’s that flexibility there and a sense of security when your child knows you’re home.” See more here.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it is essential to note that the virtual law office is not without its drawbacks. While one may save on real estate costs, office supplies, staffing and commuting costs, there are a host of new problems that go along with the virtual office. Running a virtual law office requires certain cloud services: document management, website hosting, portals etc. In most cases a third party provides these services. Because of this, issues arise concerning confidentiality, privilege, ownership and protection of intellectual property rights and data. The lines surrounding liability and indemnity can become blurred if something goes wrong. The problem can be compounded if the third party is based in a foreign jurisdiction. For larger files, outsourcing staff can threaten ethical integrity as managing, monitoring and evaluating people becomes difficult if not impossible. Perhaps less troubling, running a virtual law office often limits your access to the brotherhood of knowledge present in a conventional firm. Working virtually can be an isolating experience. If your virtual firm is home based, it may be difficult to establish work-life balance, ironically bringing the problem full circle.
The exodus of women is what you would call a wicked problem— as solutions come forth, an entirely new set of problems rises up. But this doesn’t mean that we should entirely avoid addressing the problem. Changing the culture of the legal profession and the way we do business will not happen overnight. The solution to the exodus of women must come incrementally, one step at a time. So while the virtual office comes with a lot of drawbacks, it represents a preliminary step towards increasing the number of practicing women and bettering the world of law as a whole.