Transformative Women’s Leadership Forum 2018 in Canada: Designing & Discussing the Successful Strategies for Advancing Women in the Law

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2018 Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum

TORONTO — The theme of the second annual 2018 Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum was “Expanding Your Professional Horizon”, so it was only fitting that the event opened with Forum Co-Chairs Bindu Dhaliwal from BMO Financial Group, and Shanin Lott, Managing Director in Talent & Professional Services at Stikeman Elliott, providing context for why this conference was focused on successful strategies for advancing women.

During the one-day event, held last week in Toronto, attorneys from corporations, law firms, and governmental agencies participated in a multi-dimensional, experiential forum on a range of topics — organizational strategies and programs to advance women, mental health and wellness, and innovative sponsorship strategies devised through a design thinking workshop.

Some of the top highlights of the Forum are discussed below.

Committing to Women

In the first panel, Beth Wilson, CEO of Dentons Canada; Av Maharaj, VP of Corporate & Legal Affairs at Kraft Heinz Canada; and Deborah Marfurt, Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Co., discussed their organizations’ commitment to women. Marfurt presented research about how women are less likely to be promoted at every single level of the promotion track, with the bottleneck really occurring at the first level of promotion. At this level, women were 30% less likely to be promoted relative to men; while, at the middle management level, women were 60% less likely to be promoted.

Maharaj stressed that mentorship for women needs to happen at entry level — right when an individual walks in the door. In terms of sponsorship, he underscored the importance of everyone needing to be a champion and an advocate for women.

Data shows that women are less likely to be promoted at every single level of the promotion track, with the bottleneck really occurring at the first level of promotion. At this level, women were 30% less likely to be promoted relative to men; while, at the middle management level, women were 60% less likely to be promoted.

Wilson stated that Dentons Canada’s engagement on the advancement of women initiatives occurs at four levels:

  1.      Engaging with the legal community. Dentons Canada has signed on to support external targets with the “Catalyst Accord,” a formal pledge by Canadian companies to achieve that at least 30% representation of women on corporate boards and at executive levels (managing partners, practice leaders, management committee, etc.);
  2.      Working internally with the firm’s talent function to build the women’s leadership pipeline;
  3.      Creating affinity groups for women and opportunities for engagement with buyers of legal services, given that more and more women are in the top legal officer roles in corporations; and
  4.      Addressing bias in recruiting and performance evaluation. For Dentons, this means mandating unconscious bias training for the entire partnership and associates who are involved in recruiting. Currently, Dentons Canada is looking at performing evaluation on the language used to describe women’s performances relative to men’s. (For more on this subject, check out this blog post on the recent Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) roundtable dinner in New York City.

The conversation then shifted to structural barriers, and the billable hour was brought up as one of the main obstacles. When comparing law firms to the Big 4 accounting and consulting firms in professional services, Wilson — who was previously at KPMG — commented that the “talent processes are more sophisticated in consulting firms” thanks to two key differences — one, the Big 4 holding leaders accountable; and two, moving away from the billable hour as the sole measurement of value.

Finally, the panel took up the topic of feedback, and in particular, how implicit bias shows up in this regard. “Women are being disserviced because they are not receiving hard feedback,” said Wilson. “More investment is needed here because male leaders are afraid to give tough feedback.”


Pat Gillette

Design Thinking & Rainmaker Traits

The next session involved two leaders from Stikeman Elliott who facilitated a design thinking workshop on sponsorship. For 90 minutes, tables of women and men worked on different types of sponsorship challenges as seen through the lens of various personas: a managing partner who had stalled progress in getting women promoted at her law firm; a male in-house counsel leader wanting to promote women, but not knowing where to start; and an individual law firm associate wanting sponsorship and struggling to find it. A key theme emerging from the conversation was that women wanting to solve the problem needed to branch out across all levels of the organization and ask for help.

Patricia Gillette was the keynote speaker, and she presented data from her law firm rainmaker study identifying the differing personal characteristics between a rainmaker and a client service partner in a law firm:

  •        Engagement, or the ability to actively listen. “When talking to someone, the rain-maker is actively gathering information through listening. They are curious and genuinely interested in connecting with the client.”
  •        Dominance, or the rainmaker’s ability to persuade people to see the rainmaker as a trusted advisor. To become a trusted advisor, Gillette noted two factors present: i) there must be an understanding of the business with preference on actually visiting the client site, be it a manufacturing plant or center of banking operations; and ii) the client must be given strategic, innovative advice spoken in business terms with specificity. It’s important for the trusted advisor to not be the person always saying, “No, you cannot do that”, but instead, providing a range of options with a laser focus on the business goal.
  •        Motivation, or in other words, the rainmaker’s ability to motivate people by using empowerment and delegation from the team managed by the client service partner and the in-house lawyers working on the matter.
  •        Risk-taking was also cited as another important attribute of rainmakers. The key example, Gillette explained, is the rainmaker going out to get a client and putting the firm’s and his or her own reputation on the line.

Gillette ended with the suggestion that these specific indicators in lawyers’ backgrounds are important in successful rainmaking, underscoring the importance of resilience and hunger in their experience. More specifically, she pointed out that most rainmakers did not come from elite schools, were not on law review, had jobs in high school and college, and came from blue-collar family backgrounds.

Hadiya Roderique

Fireside Chat

Next, the audience was treated to a fireside chat with Forum Co-Chair Lott speaking with Hadiya Roderique, the author of the essay “Black on Bay Street: Hadiya Roderique had it all. But still could not fit in”, published in November 2017 in The Globe and Mail, one of Canada’s most widely read newspapers. In the article, Roderique questions her law firm’s assertion that it is a meritocracy and discusses the fact that she felt she had to prove herself over and over while seeing others being given the benefit of the doubt. She also talked about the mental energy that is required of people of color to fit into the law firm mold, and highlighted the subtleties of the small negative experiences that eroded her ambition and will to advance in the law over time:

  •        The questioning of her commitment to the firm when a law firm partner perceived her memo being late despite not initially being given a deadline;
  •        Being mistaken as the professional assistant and not as an associate; and
  •        “Joking” comments, like, “I thought black people don’t ski.”

In response to a question Roderique was asked during the chat — “What is one action [the mostly white women] in this audience could do to amplify the voices of women of color?”, Roderique suggested:

  •        Interrupting bias when confronting it on the side;
  •        Asking colleagues of color what support is needed, or would help them succeed; and
  •        Educating yourself by reading, So you Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo.

In the final panel, the discussion focused on wellness and well-being as speakers shared their personal stories of struggles with depression and attempted suicide. Then, the dialogue shifted to the culture of law firms working against well-being programs, noting that while law firms have many great policies and benefits in place, the culture of using such amenities as yoga rooms and mental health programs is viewed as a weakness.

At the end of this year’s Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum, the audience walked away with many tactics, trends and ideas that they could take back to their employers to support women’s advancement and also to position themselves for their own advancement opportunities.