By Sheila Block
I have been working in the legal profession since 1972, when I began my first job on Bay Street as an articling student. Since that time, I have had three children, been gifted with four stepchildren and blessed with eight grandchildren. For women lawyers who are worried about balancing a career with a family here is my advice for you: Don’t quit before you really start.
First, stop listening to all the negative noise that says it can’t be done.
Consider me “Exhibit A”. I have had and continue to have a wonderfully fulfilling professional career, one in which I know that I have grown as both a lawyer and a person in ways I would have not if I had given it all up. Of course it takes effort.
Second, tailor your support network to meet your needs.
You will need support from colleagues, family members, nannies, daycare professionals, teachers, coaches, mentors and countless others to help you and your kids through life and help you through your life as a lawyer. No one can tell you exactly what combination will work for you. But, if you want a career and a family—a combination I highly endorse—you will figure it out.
There are many more women lawyers like me who wanted both a career and a family and did it. You can do it too. Through all the noise about the effort it takes to have a legal career and a personal life, we need more discussion of the immeasurable rewards of the efforts of balancing work and life. These rewards are rarely voiced.
Here are some of the benefits of being a lawyer:
- The Fulfillment Factor
A fulfilling career will keep you intellectually challenged, and allow you to help people solve their problems and, in many cases, provide a good living. Your children will look up to you and admire you. You won’t be at risk of being a fixture in their lives—you will be a role model, an advisor, an inspiration and a friend. There are, to be sure, other ways to achieve this that don’t require lawyering for a living. But you are in law school, so you should give a career in the legal profession a fair shot.
For all the young women lawyers and law school students, who worry that having a vibrant and challenging career means they can’t be good mothers, from my observations it is quite the contrary. I would have been a much less worthwhile mother if I had been unhappy and unfulfilled in my own aspirations and felt as though I had given up on my life’s path to stay home with even the kids I adored (and still adore). Not everyone is wired this way but a number of us are.
- Your Children Grow Up Fast, Then What?
Your kids will grow up fast and soon be gone. They will busily build their own lives. Yet, there is a lot potential productivity left in your career, post-childrearing and custodial care years.
When I started practising four decades ago, there weren’t many women role models. Back then, there were only two women appointed to the Ontario Superior Court bench — Madame Justice Mabel van Camp and Madam Justice Janet Boland. There were no prominent women counsel in Ontario, other than Margaret Hyndman who was from another era and so singular she couldn’t be emulated. There was no one out there in the profession to say “don’t quit, you’ve got a lot of life at the law left in your thirties and forties through to your sixties.” I and many others can say this now.
- What if, I had quit?
Since my kids left for university, I have had some of my most interesting and challenging cases and legal assignments. If I had packed it in when I was 29, when I first started having children, by the time I returned to practice, I would have lost even the most basic skills acquired during the first few years of practice.
I would have had no real legal contacts and, most depressingly, no confidence in my ability to offer anything to a practice. Yes, other women have navigated this period in their lives by taking a few years off and then stepping back into the legal world with ease. As I say, this is not a one size fits all solution. Why think there is only a one size fits all answer?
- Opt In and Watch Your Confidence Grow
Dropping or opting out of the profession to the point where you feel you can’t step back into it robs you of both your skills and your confidence. I have seen this scenario played out time and again. Women who would have been on a steep and wonderful learning curve had they stayed in practice during those child rearing years could be building up their skills, experience, wisdom and worth as lawyers while also building their wonderful families. By staying, they would be poised to both guide their growing children as they leave the nest (including these days, in many cases, helping them financially) and keeping their own intellect engaged for many more years of interesting work.
Women who opt in demonstrate to both their children and other young people in their firms that being a good lawyer is not a one-dimensional endeavor. It’s multi-dimensional. In fact, as Jim Tory Sr., our wonderful mentor at the firm used to say: “great people make great lawyers.”
- Take the Long View, Legal Careers Span Decades
Think about yourself at 45 or 55 and beyond. Project yourself into the future. Where do you want to be? What do you want to have accomplished or at least attempted to achieve? There are “easier” lives out there but, as one woman told me, after opting for such a life: “the hours are short but the days are long.”
Finally, if you want to be a senior solicitor or a senior barrister in your chosen field and you also want a family, I know it can be done. The more women who choose to balance work and family, the better the legal profession will become.
Sheila Block is recognized as one Canada’s top trial and appellate lawyers and one of Canada’s 50 most influential women. She is a partner at Torys LLP and is a senior trial and appellate counsel with a broad civil litigation practice, including corporate/commercial and securities litigation, intellectual property, defamation and administrative law cases. Sheila has appeared as counsel at all levels of court in Canada and before international arbitrations and other tribunals. Sheila is the chair of Torys’ litigation and dispute resolution practice and a former chair of Torys’ Executive Committee