Erin Durant of Durant Barristers recently posted the following on LinkedIn:
“A pain point for women who create firms is the narrative that they have quit rather than have built something. I did not quit my practice. I took my practice and built something better for my clients. I agree with a mentor who says that male founders do not face that assumption.”
I do not know Erin other than through her online persona, but everything that I have read suggests that Erin is a high-powered litigator who I would rather not have on the other side of a case from me if I were counsel, and would absolutely hate to have on the other side of me if I were the defendant.
Erin’s public persona also suggests that after working for a number of years at a large downtown firm, she struck out on her own to continue her high-level practice in a setting which better aligned with her values. It also suggests that she is a straight shooter when it comes to writing about the legal profession and her place in it.
Based on what I have read about Erin and on my own experience with the legal profession, I do not doubt for a minute Erin’s observation about the narrative that women leaving big law to build their own firms are “quitting”. I also do not doubt that the implication is that this somehow makes them lesser professionals.
Here is how I see it:
As reported by the Law Society of Ontario, in 2018, 74.5% of partners of Ontario law firms were male and 25.5% were female. I doubt that the situation has improved much since then.
Men, for the most part, have built the existing big law system which focuses on maximizing income at the cost of work-life balance, physical and mental health, and healthy relationships.
When a woman is smart enough to get out of that system to start her own firm, it is often because she wants to build something better and healthier.
The partners (again, mostly men) who are invested in the primary system as it is, are threatened by a different approach, and want to characterize the move as “quitting” or “wanting something easier or softer, ” instead of recognizing that the new firm might be a way to achieve a better and healthier way of life and a better way of serving clients. In order to maintain the status quo, these partners need to do this to continually send the message to the lawyers in the trenches who are slaving away, that anyone who does something differently is second rate.
If a man starts a new firm, these mostly male partners assume that the man will value the same things that the primary system values, and that the man will not be smart enough to try to create something better. So, they do not feel threatened by it, and do not have to call it “quitting.”
For whatever reason (misogyny, anyone?), women are an easy target.
However, I do not think that this phenomenon is actually unique to women. There is a parallel, I think, to how big law looks at lawyers, both male and female, who leave Bay Street to practice at smaller firms. These lawyers are often seen as looking for a less demanding practice, and again are seen as “quitting” and becoming lesser professionals. That they are looking for a healthier environment in which to practice is often true. That doing so makes them “quitters” or “lesser professionals” is, I suppose, all in the eyes of the beholder.
If looking to work in an environment that promotes your physical and mental health and the health of your personal relationships is “quitting”, I am all for quitting.
To the women who have the guts to get out and do it better, I salute you!