Caroline Biron, Managing Partner and a fierce and effective litigator, at Montréal based litigation boutique Woods, speaks with Benchmark Managing Editor Michael Rafalowich about diversity across the Canadian litigation market, setting trends as a way to promote an inclusive culture, and fostering talent for future generations of lawyers.
It’s no secret that the US litigation market is in a serious game of catch-up regarding promoting female litigation talent, and some would argue it will still be a while before it does actually catch up at all. Have you noticed a similar dynamic in the Canadian litigation market?
The common understanding is that tackling diversity issues is no easy feat on either side of the border; it requires long-term efforts, not just from women, but from all participants in the industry, since everybody has a vested interest in improving the status quo. Despite numerous similarities between the United States and Canada, the two countries have different histories, economies and, most importantly in the context of gender diversity, legislation on maternity and parental leave. In Canada, successive provincials and federal governments have implemented different catalysts such as affordable education, affordable daycare, legally protected maternity and parental leaves and various benefits encouraging childcare. These measures have significantly contributed to the progression of women in society and in the workforce, including in the legal market.
From my admission to the Quebec bar in 1992 to my appointment as Managing Partner of Woods in 2019, there has been real progress in the composition of our judiciary, which has, in my view, positively impacted the situation in private litigation practice. The new millennium began with the appointment of the first female Chief Justice of Canada, the Hon. Beverley McLachlin. Nowadays, half of Canadian judges are women. This is also reflected in the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada, where four women sit on the bench: the Hon. Rosalie Silberman Abella, the Hon. Suzanne Côté, the Hon. Andromache Karakatsanis and the Hon. Sheilah L. Martin.
Provincial law societies in Canada have also taken a lead role in addressing the issue of female underrepresentation through various initiatives. In 2015, Woods participated in Justicia, a program intended to promote career advancement and the retention of women in private law firms, which was inspired by a similar initiative in Ontario. I was proud to see Marie-Louise Delisle, one of our partners, take an active role in this initiative, exchanging with other practitioners on how to develop and promote best practices, policies or programs such as parental leave, networking and business development, coaching and leadership, as well as the importance of tracking the demographics and progress within law firms. We have also been very involved with the Women Litigation Network, an initiative of Catherine McKenzie from IMK initially launched as a litigation referral network, which brings together women litigators from both Montreal and Toronto for informal events to exchange on our respective careers, experiences and reinforce solidarity between us. Besides, we participate in the litigation lists of ReferToHer™, an initiative of Lenczner Slaght, which aim to ensure that female lawyers are positioned as equal, available resources for those seeking legal advice, in an industry where referrals are an important part of success.
We are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still much to be done. While we see more women than ever in litigation practice, few of them rise to the level of partner. It is something with which many firms, including Woods, struggle. The critical moment to retain female talent is still between the 5 and 10-year marks. If more firms acknowledge the importance of keeping women beyond this critical point, the legal industry as a whole will thrive. As it has been demonstrated that improving diversity contributes to better results, we should see more and more women litigators getting opportunities to participate and lead high-stakes and cutting-edge litigation.
From an outsider’s perspective, Montréal seems to have done better than other Canadian markets in terms of firms being staffed with female star litigators, often taking the lead on big cases and promoting them to the bench. Have you found this to be the case, and, if so, do you view this as a product of culture or coincidence?
That is an interesting observation, but I cannot say that I have noticed such a distinction. At Woods, we work very closely with several Toronto firms and, on these occasions, have met many impressive female litigators handling high-end litigation. I would, however, say that each firm has its own set of values. It is the commitment to promote an inclusive culture and the deliberate choice to promote women, give them access to high-stakes files, and offer them opportunities to participate in client development, that truly makes a difference.
The prominence of female talent seems to be particularly pronounced at other litigation boutiques, which I’m sure is no accident. Do you feel that a lighter bureaucracy and higher sense of autonomy makes for a more inviting environment for women?
Litigation boutiques promote autonomy, flexibility, and potentially better opportunities for mentorship and partnership, not to mention a strong sense of camaraderie. Usually smaller in size, boutiques allow lawyers to immerse themselves in each file substantively, as opposed to only overseeing one or a few aspects of a dispute. Moreover, the leaner structure of boutiques often generates greater exposure to clients and opportunities to work alongside and learn from some of Canada’s most highly regarded litigators and jurists, such as, at Woods, James A. Woods and former Supreme Court Justice Clément Gascon. Everyone at our firm has the opportunity to sharpen their advocacy skills by getting as much experience as possible in the courtroom – acting for a diverse array of clients, which in turn leads to arguably more opportunities for promotion, all of which is appealing for women seeking to attain partnership. In my view, tight-knit boutiques are also more suitable for fostering dialogue between associates and partners, which is essential to the long-term success of any lawyer, male or female.
Woods has been consistently, indeed almost unanimously, recognized as Montreal’s premier litigation shop. Just a casual glance at Woods’ website reveals just how well the firm has done in terms of distribution of women among its bench. Would you care to comment on the firm’s culture regarding fostering female talent?
Woods’ success is clearly linked to our founder (James A. Woods)’s, belief in the importance of building a diverse team early on, and to the support and trust he put in the female members of the firm. Doing so, he paved the way for female litigators to develop themselves, build confidence and move on to become partners and have the legal career they aspired to. We remain committed to promoting and advancing equity, diversity and inclusion in our workplace and in the legal profession.
We recruit and support diverse candidates and are deeply committed to their retention and advancement. We know that a diverse team enables us to offer clients a variety of viewpoints when approaching complex legal problems.
Currently, 30% percent of our partnership is female, whereas the gender balance is equal between our associates. We are working hard to keep fostering an inclusive environment by supporting flexible working conditions (including working remotely a year before Covid-19), unconscious bias training, and encouraging participation in mentorship and leadership programs. Most important of all, however, in my view, is dialogue sessions. We do not assume that we know what our female associates want or aspire to: we ask them. One of my main goals as Managing Partner is to ensure that each of our lawyers is given equal opportunity to work on our high-profile cases.
Woods has been at the forefront of some of the most high-stakes and cutting-edge litigation in Quebec and indeed in Canada. Remarkably, several of these recent cases seem to have been spearheaded by partners of a younger vintage. Is the firm making an intentional move to get younger partners boots-on-the-ground courtroom training that they might not otherwise get?
This goes back to the essence of what it means to grow within a Boutique such as Woods. Our younger partners all had the opportunity to gain experience in a large number of complex, high -end cases as associates. The leaner structure of our team has also meant greater exposure to our clients, and to the courts, and has led to more opportunities for business development, promotion and growth. In fact, 70% percent of our partners were admitted to the bar in the 2000s. Despite their young age, their brilliance and the breath of their experience has put them on par with more senior colleagues from the bar.
For the second year, you’ve been nominated as one of Canada’s “Top Women in Canada.” Sarah Woods, another partner at Woods join the list this year. Did you want to take the opportunity to address any others of your vintage that you would recommend for such an accolade?
From our firm, my fellow partners, Sarah Woods and Marie-Louise Delisle, are both tough- minded commercial litigators who have honed expertise in specific practice areas. Their impressive track records demonstrate their solid judgment and in-depth understanding of their clients’ needs. Their accomplishments before all levels of Court in Quebec as well as administrative tribunals speak for themselves. Sarah’s career spans over all aspects of commercial litigation, including securities litigation, shareholder disputes and class actions. She is also involved in professional liability cases and C-suite employment matters. Marie-Louise possesses a vast experience in litigation and arbitration of complex commercial disputes. She has particular expertise in cases involving professional liability, construction litigation and class actions. With outstanding contributions thus far, our “senior” associates, Laurence Ste-Marie, Marie-Pier Cloutier and Erika Normand-Couture, are promising candidates for this honour in a few years.
Published August 2020