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Women dropping out of criminal defence law faster than men: report

File photo of a judge's gavel. GETTY IMAGES/Joe Raedle

A new study says women are dropping out of criminal defence law at a greater rate than men, citing lack of support for new mothers and unpredictable work hours as possible reasons.

The study by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association also found that women are leaving their criminal defence jobs to take government positions — which offer steady paycheques and paid maternity leave — 10 times more often than their male peers.

The report combines results from focus groups with women lawyers, a survey sent to association members and data compiled by the Law Society of Upper Canada and Legal Aid Ontario.

It involved tracking the careers of two cohorts of lawyers called to the bar in the mid- to late 1990s over close to two decades.

Of the 47 women who began practising criminal law in a private firm in 1996, only 13 were still in that field in 2014 — an attrition rate of 72 per cent. By comparison, 42 of the 87 men followed in that period were still criminal lawyers in 2014.

Fewer than half of the women who started in 2000 were still criminal lawyers in 2014, while more than two-thirds of the men were.

“While men were seen to leave private practice as well, the disproportionate rate of women dropping out of criminal law suggests that there may in fact be different reasons why men and women decide to leave criminal law,” the report said.

“With respect to where women are moving to, part of this story appears to confirm what many have suspected — that women are leaving defence practice to work for the Crown’s office.”

Most women who participated in the survey (61 per cent) said they had considered leaving the practice of criminal law, and mentioned low pay, long hours and the challenges of dealing with Legal Aid as reasons.

Fewer than a quarter of the participants said they believed women and men were treated equally in the courtroom by judges, Crown counsel and other court staff.

When asked whether they thought the difficulty of balancing a criminal law career and a family could motivate women to opt out, an overwhelming majority (88 per cent) said they believed it was a factor, though respondents were split as to whether it was a problem they faced themselves.

Kathryn Wells, a Toronto-area defence lawyer who has handled several high-profile cases, said she waited “a long time” to have a child because it seemed impossible to do it while launching a career.

“I didn’t know how you could do it, take this chunk of time off,” she said.

Taking time off when running your own practice often means closing up shop, getting behind on files and losing clients, she said.

Wells didn’t have to shut down her practice when she went on maternity leave 11 weeks ago, instead leaving it in the hands of her associate. But not everyone can do that, she said, and she still does some work from home every day.

Having fixed court hours would help women make child care arrangements, which would help alleviate some of the stress, Wells said.

That’s one of the recommendations laid out in the report, which also suggests greater support for maternity leave and ongoing education to address differential treatment women lawyers often experience.