Retaining Women in Private Practice: Lessons for Law Firms from the Solo Bar

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I struck out as a sole practitioner in April 2014 for simple economic reasons—practising solo would be more efficient and require less overhead than practising as a member of a law firm. This enabled me to offer my clients, mostly small or mid-sized businesses, quality legal services at reasonable rates. I did not leave law firm practice because of gender bias—although I was acutely aware of it.

Even now, as a sole practitioner, I am not insulated from the traditional law firm’s gender biases. As a woman running my own practice, I have experienced treatment ranging from contempt to unabashed bullying. Such tactics are ineffective and counter-productive when aimed at an opposing lawyer; however, I can imagine that a junior lawyer faced with similar treatment from a senior member of her firm would feel threatened and isolated.

The exit of women from private practice is well documented. Although women account for over 50 percent of law school graduates in Ontario, they account for less than 35 percent of lawyers in private practice and only about 20 percent of all partners in law firms¹. A 2014 study of law school graduates entering the profession between 1990 and 2009 found that although men and women entered private practice at approximately the same rate (87 percent of men, 83 percent of women), women left private practice at a higher rate than men².

In an effort to curb this trend, in November 2008, the Law Society of Upper Canada launched the Justicia Project to support the retention and advancement of women lawyers in private practice³. Law firms participating in the Justicia Project committed to the development and implementation of programs in four core areas: tracking demographics; parental leave programs and flexible work arrangements; networking and business development; and mentoring and leadership development skills for women4.

These programs, however, address the symptoms, not the root causes, of the problem. Specifically, they focus on the women—instituting maternity leave policies, creating women’s committees, increasing networking amongst female employees—but fail to address the underlying cultural and institutional biases inherent in the traditional law firm model. It is not the women who need to change; it is the institution.

The traditional law firm model could learn much from the solo practice community. Sole practitioners comprise a robust, supportive and collaborative community of legal professionals. Many of my solo practice colleagues are post-2000 call lawyers. We tend to be tech savvy, connected, and cooperative practitioners. We have learned to leverage cloud computing, social media, the internet, and other new technologies to streamline our administrative responsibilities, network, and reach new clients.

I, and many of the sole practitioners I collaborate with, came of age professionally during the 2008 recession. As a result, we are highly pragmatic. We share referrals, accounting advice, and legal knowledge to assist one another grow our practices; we do not horde information or connections.

We also seem to prioritize balance more than our colleagues at traditional law firms. Certainly, as a litigation lawyer, if I am in the midst of a trial, my workday starts at 7:30 a.m. or earlier and continues late into the evening. At other times, however, I can structure my schedule to ensure I have time for my hobbies and passions outside of law. For example, I sit on the board of a charity involved in music education. When the weather is above freezing, I cycle almost every day. We understand the importance of feeding our souls, not just our (or the firm’s) bank accounts.

Most importantly, these shared values amongst sole practitioners transcend gender. The gender bias endemic of law firm culture is absent from our interactions. It would be easy to say the difference in attitude is because we are, generally speaking, a younger cohort of lawyers5. I would disagree. I believe the root of the difference is our community mindset. If similar values guided law firms, I believe the current culture would give way to a more inclusive and equitable organizational structure. Being part of a community fosters loyalty, respect and collaboration.

In 1996, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton famously reminded us that it takes a village to raise a child. Perhaps it takes a “village” to build a law firm, too.

1 The Law Society of Upper Canada, “Justicia: Leading the Way,” http://www.lsuc.on.ca/uploadedFiles/Equity_and_Diversity/Justicia/Justicia14-factsheet-web-Eng-FINAL.pdf [accessed January 23, 2017].
2Fiona M. Kay et al., “The Diversification of Career Paths in Law”, Toronto: The Law Society of Upper Canada, 2014, http://www.lsuc.on.ca/uploadedFiles/Equity_and_Diversity/Members2/Fiona_Kay_Diversification_report_Jan_2015(1).pdf, p. 34 [accessed January 23, 2017].
3The Law Society of Upper Canada, “The Justicia Project,” http://www.lsuc.on.ca/justicia_project/ [accessed January 23, 2017].
4The Law Society of Upper Canada, “Justicia Think Tank – Law Firm Commitment” http://www.lsuc.on.ca/media/committment_pledge.pdf [accessed January 23, 2017].
5In 2007, the average age of a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada was 47: See Lawyers’ Professional Indemnity Company, “The Changing Face of the Legal Profession: Fact or Fiction,” LawPRO Magazine, Winter 2007, http://www.practicepro.ca/LAWPROMag/ChangingFace.pdf [accessed January 23, 2017].


KAREN DAWSON, JD, LL.M. (Bus.). Karen’s practice focuses on corporate and commercial litigation, bankruptcy and insolvency proceedings, and alternative dispute resolution. Over almost ten years in practice, she has represented individuals and companies in civil litigation before all levels of Ontario Courts, including the Court of Appeal.
Karen received her Master of Laws in Business Law from Osgoode Hall Law School in 2014.

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