voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Interview conducted by Margery Pazdor, Student at McGill Faculty of Law .

After working her way up in the airline industry and being told she couldn’t be promoted any further unless she had an education, Julia (not her real name) went back to school and obtained a law degree.  Twelve years into her career, I spoke to her about her experiences working in large, small, and medium-sized firms.  I asked her about her work, her experience with work-life balance, and the social situation in law firms.  We covered it all: from salary negotiations to sexual harassment at work.  Here are some of the highlights.

On the benefits and drawbacks of bigger and smaller firms:

Working at a large firm has great benefits.  You have their reputation, you don’t have to look for work because they’ve already got all the clients, there is a steady structure, and there is great access to resources such as assistant support or research resources.  On the other hand, I don’t think you get as interesting work, particularly as a junior lawyer, which means that the learning experience is not as interesting or diverse.

For me, I found the medium firm to be the ideal, and it was a very valuable learning experience for the first 5 years.  I was going to court several times a week during my articling year, running my own cases, meeting with clients.  There were also times that I was put into high-pressure situations that I didn’t feel that I was qualified or capable of, but you learn and you learn fast and that in and of itself brings a certain confidence.  It’s not what I would choose for the long term, though, in part because the firm politics tend to be pretty extreme.

Working in a small firm has been the most pleasant atmosphere to practice in for me.  Your relationships are close, you get very bonded to the people that you work with, and it tends to be positive relations for the more part.  There is good communication in a small firm and more immediate decision making, so those are all positives.  But, it can be a challenge from a resources perspective in terms of access to legal assistance, paralegal assistance, research resources.  It can also be more volatile and more susceptible to changes in the economy or workload.

How have you managed to maintain work-life balance?

That has probably been one of the biggest challenges of a legal career for me, and I think that is partly due to my personality and partly due to the reality of the practice of law.  There seems to be this hard-core culture in law where work is the centre of your universe and in order to be respected you have to demonstrate that you are a workaholic.  That was what I felt, and that’s what I gave into for many years.

I think I’ve come a long way in establishing balance in my life.  To be a successful lawyer and to have a successful life you need to be quite vigorous about being self-protective.  Protected from your partners, from your clients—generally setting up a healthy boundary of barriers around you to keep people from sucking you dry. I think if you’re good at what you do there is no end to the demand for what you have to offer, so if you don’t set up the boundaries, you can find yourself way out of balance.

It’s true that whenever you start in a new area you have to invest time and energy to get the skills, and so being a workaholic for the first 3-5 years might make sense, but after that point it becomes a pointless exercise and is a detriment to you, your family, and I think to the community as well because it promotes burnout. I think the workaholic culture is why there are lots of people who drop out of law, there is lots of drug and alcohol abuse, and [there are] lots of mental health issues.

On negotiating for salary:

Something I found interesting is that people were reluctant to talk about their salary.  I never had any hesitation—if someone asked me what I was being paid, I would tell them.  But that was really uncommon in law firms, and I’ve seen partners use the fact that people were not telling each other what they were making in order to set pay scales pretty randomly.

I recommend two things for negotiating salary.  First, find out what you’re worth, and second, ask for $10,000 more.

The first step is to know what you are worth—find out what the standard salary is. Talk to people at your own firm and at other firms of comparable size doing similar work (confidentially, of course).  You can also use the ZSA recruitment website to find out the average salary for lawyers in whatever part of the country you are looking for work in.

The second step is to ask for $10,000 more than what you think you are worth.  And this is really, really hard for women.  You know what everyone else is getting paid, and then you go in and ask for $10,000 more?  That is difficult.  But you have to do it.  When you are progressive and up-front about discussing your salary expectations, there is respect that comes with that.  If you duck the issue or let them undervalue you in negotiation, you lose the respect of the people hiring you, and you come to be seen as the weak link.

A lot of medium and large firms will have a pretty strict pay scale, and they don’t try to pay their associates outside of that scale.  But you should know what that scale is when you go in there so you know what to expect and what you are worth on that scale.

Of course, if you decide you are worth $100,000, you ask for $110,000, and they offer you $100,000, then you should take it.  There is no point in negotiating yourself out of a job.  But know what you are worth and stick to it.

On the social dynamic and alcohol: 

I found that the social environment outside of the actual practice was surprisingly interconnected with the practice.  You do have to fit in; you do have to do more than show up just 9-5.  People have to trust you, which means you have to do socializing, and a lot of it revolves around alcohol.  You can abstain and still participate, but you will be seen as the nerdy kid.  Socially, it can be a very tricky environment.

I’ve seen some ugly incidences.  When lawyers let off steam, there is excessive drinking, and a lot of things that go on that I don’t think is good for the culture as a whole, and that can be very destructive to families and to working relationships.

It’s a binge drinking culture.  Not unlike an extension of the university culture.  One beef I’ve always had is when spouses aren’t invited to Christmas parties.  You have people in this environment where there is alcohol being consumed, spouses are excluded, people get drunk, affairs happen, other things happen—I’ve been groped by partners, inappropriate things have been said—and then you’ve got to look at these people the next day and work with them.  To me, that’s an embarrassing side of the profession, particularly because I had naively had some idea that as a lawyer I would be privileged to work among a higher, more dignified class of people, and that was really dumb of me.  I think because of the lack of balance in lawyers’ lives, when you put a couple of drinks in their hands they act equally out of balance, and that leads to all kinds of problems.

My way of surviving is: I go to those functions, I arrive on time, and I leave promptly by 9:30.  You put in an appearance, everyone is having a nice time, and right when everyone is having that really nice time, that’s when it’s time to get out.

As a woman, you don’t want to be seen as anti-social, but you do want to avoid the debauchery. Sexual harassment is alive and well in the workplace and particularly comes out at those sorts of parties.

I had a career before law, and I have found law to be worse than other environments I have worked in.  I think it has to do with a lack of balance in lawyers’ lives. There is also a bit of social awkwardness amongst some lawyers, male lawyers in particular.  I don’t know if that’s a lack of social skills, or if it’s a product of the big egos involved, but there tends to be a bit of a caveman approach.  I think that attitude precedes sexual harassment, and all the alcohol does is allow people to do that more openly.  It all starts with the attitudes.

There also don’t seem to be any consequences for this behaviour to the partners that engage in it.  It seems to be brushed under the rug with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Women don’t complain very often, partly because it won’t get you anywhere, so you have to avoid the situation, or deal with it when you are in it, but it’s a tricky thing. When I say deal with it, I mean, take his hand off your ass, for example.  Or, if it’s a drunken lunge kiss, you can step out of the way and let him hit the wall.

In one instance I saw an individual, a “rainmaker,” who molested a secretary at a party in front of many other people.  She was fired and he was later promoted to partner.  The incident had no effect at all on his career; it was like it never happened.  The firm’s way of fixing the problem was to keep the rainmaker and make the secretary go away; essentially to cover it up.

As another example, at a barbeque that was after an office golf tournament where people had been drinking all day long, I saw a partner, this person I am supposed to respect, kissing his secretary.  It so happened that I knew his wife, so now do I have to be part of the lie? I do if I want to keep my job.  So those are the kinds of ugly situations that you can find yourself in that are very challenging ethically.

I once had a junior lawyer grab my breast while ripping a name tag off my lapel and screaming, “you’re such a fucking stuck-up bitch” in my face while I was talking to a potential articling student at a recruitment dinner.

Things like that would happen pretty consistently about a couple of times a year in all of the firms I have worked at except the small one I am at now.

The funny thing about the sexual harassment is that even as I am talking to you right now, I feel like I shouldn’t be saying it out loud. There is a code of silence around it that I think is very destructive.  As women, we have responsibilities, and I see mine as not being out drinking with the partners at midnight.  But at the same time I don’t feel like I should be the subject of that kind of behavior.  It was humiliating and embarrassing and degrading and infuriating and so many things and a constant irritant that you had to have that sort of armor up all the time because if a partner is being nice to you, you don’t know if it’s because he likes working with you, or because he wants to grab your ass.

As women lawyers, we need to talk about and raise these issues in the workplace.  As women generally we need to talk to our friends, and we just have to keep the issue present—that means breaking the code of silence.  I struggle with that myself.  I didn’t report any of the people who assaulted or harassed me.  I knew that if I had reported, I would have been the one gone and they would still be there.

I do think the culture is starting to change. For example, both men and women are starting to refuse to go to the Christmas party if their spouses aren’t invited.  I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the practice of law is full of these lechers—it’s not true.  They certainly are out there, but it’s not the majority, and I think that these incidences are on the decline because I think people are starting to get it.

It’s disappointing that the change is so slow.  Again, I would expect law to be one of the more progressive fields, but it’s not when it comes to women’s issues and sexual harassment.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

Powered by Squarespace