The State of Retention: Keeping Women in the Law

Vanessa Carment
JD Candidate, 2019

Women are consistently entering the legal profession at higher rates than men, but the retention of women in the profession remains far lower than that of their male counterparts.[1] Among factors like sexual harassment and an “old boy’s club” mentality, retention of women in law often comes down to a lack of workplace flexibility and work/life balance.[2] There are some efforts to address this issue, such as the founding of “The Justicia Project” by the Law Society of Upper Canada, which is an “initiative designed to support the retention and advancement of women lawyers in private practice.”[3] However, as a second year law student in the formal recruitment process, my questions to current students about a firm’s willingness to accommodate work/life balance are often met with hesitation; in one case, I was advised to avoid these questions altogether.

The number of female lawyers who remain in private practice after the associate stage is discouraging. According to a 2016 report, more women have been licensed than men from 2011 to 2015 (excluding 2012), but fewer make it to partner in private practice, with only 9.7% of women compared to 23.5% of men.[4] In some cases, women leave private practice for government work, in-house counsel, or non-profit organizations; other times, they leave the profession entirely.[5] These statistics are worrisome as a young female law student interested in private practice, and they should be worrisome for law firms. It is expensive and time-consuming to train a new associate, only to have the associate leave before making partner. Catalyst Consulting indicates that it costs a firm approximately $315,000 when an associate departs.[6]

Some firms are putting that money where their mouth is and providing associates with a work/life balance that allows women – and men – opportunities to practice while pursuing life outside of law. McInnes Cooper in Halifax, Nova Scotia arranges flexible schedules for some associates to keep them with the firm. In one case, the firm accommodated associate Jeannine Bakeef’s desire to pursue her love of acting without giving up law.[7] Bakeef was able to “work part-time, then take a leave, then work projects on contract, and then return full time at reduced hours.”[8] This situation allowed Bakeef to pursue her passion for acting, while the firm was able to retain a valuable legal asset.

Similar flexibility for parents would likely increase the retention of legal professionals. This was the case for McInnes Cooper lawyer Sarah Dykema, a senior associate with the firm. Dykema left private practice for a senior position at a major bank with the hope of maintaining a better work/life balance for her and her family.[9] However, Dykema ultimately found that working at a private practice firm that valued flexibility was the better choice because “[t]here’s work to be done but your time is your time.”[10] McInnes Cooper is one of the leading firms in Atlantic Canada with hundreds of lawyers.[11] Their commitment to work/life balance in these cases demonstrates that individualized flexibility is feasible and could lead to greater retention of legal professionals.

Associate work satisfaction would likely increase with the implementation of workplace flexibility across the legal profession. Similarly, workplace flexibility would likely encourage more women to remain in the profession, in turn allowing firms to retain valuable legal minds. However, there must be an open discussion about workplace flexibility and work/life balance from new law students to top partners if such a shift is to take hold. At the end of the day, it is in the legal profession’s best interest to retain talented female lawyers.

Disclaimer: The author worked at McInnes Cooper prior to attending law school.

[1] Percentage of women practicing for 0-5 years in 2014: British Columbia: 50.1%; Ontario: 52.0%; Quebec: 62.9%; New Brunswick: 51.2%; Nova Scotia: 52.3%; Newfoundland and Labrador: 52.5%; “Women in Law in Canada and the US” Catalyst (19 April 2017) at “Canada”, online: See also Virginia Galt, “Women Entering the Professions in Unprecedented Numbers” The Globe and Mail (22 Oct 2016), online:

[2] Ann Macaulay, “How to Retain Top Female Talent, and What Women Should Look for in a Law Firm” Canadian Bar Association (10 Oct 2014) at “Why Women Leave”, online:,-and-What-Women-Sh.

[3] “The Justicia Project” The Law Society of Upper Canada, online:

[4] Supra note 1 (Catalyst).

[5] James Rossiter, “True Flexibility: Work/Life Balance is Customizable for Each Lawyer” Canadian Bar Association, online:

[6] Supra note 1 (this number includes “the firm’s tangible and intangible investment in training, experience and client knowledge”). See also supra note 2.

[7] Supra note 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Willy Palov, “Lunch with Bruce Russell and Sarah Dykema: Balancing Act” CBA National Magazine (Spring 2016), online:

[10] Ibid.

[11]At the time of writing the firm had 200 lawyers across Atlantic Canada and is one of the top 20 business law firms in Canada:


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