Women Are Leaving Criminal Law In Worrying Numbers

Justice Law

Reports from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA) have shown that women are quitting criminal law practice at a much higher rate than men. The report was released last weekend at a CLA conference in London, Ontario, under the title “The Retention of Women in the Private Practice of Criminal Law.” The lack of financial support during maternity leave, being treated differently by their male colleagues, and low pay were cited amongst the reasons for so many women leaving the practice.

Vice-president of the CLA, has suggested that the new report merely confirms things which have been suspected for a long time. She said her association “allways had impressions” about the growing rate of women quitting their practice, but they “never had any numbers” to confirm or deny the worrying trend. The study was penned by Natasha Madon, a respected postdoctoral research fellow for Griffith University, and Anthony Doob, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto. It looked at statistics gathered from Legal Aid Ontario among other impartial legal bodies. Additionally, 225 female lawyers were surveyed, and a few independent focus groups were established. The results showed that a lot of women would completely withdraw from criminal law after a mere five years of practice. After this period, even more would drop out. A tiny proportion were still in the profession after 10 years of practice. Davies said “Most shocking to me was, of the women who started doing criminal law in 1996, there were 47 of them. Eight years later, by 2004, only 13 of them were still doing a substantial amount of criminal law. That is an enormous attrition rate.”

Many female attorneys who were surveyed reported that they had thought of leaving because of long hours, low pay, and various challenges surrounding the Legal Aid system. This is a major source of funding for your average criminal defense attorney. Another prominent reason is the huge financial burden that comes with maintaining a practice while on maternity leave. In a lot of professions, maternity leave comes with financial and logistical challenges. For criminal attorneys though, this is combined with erratic, unpredictable work hours. Furthermore, when an attorney comes back from leave, there’s a lot of work necessary to get their practice operating again soon. Female criminal lawyers may only take a few months as maternity leave. However, in that time, their client will need to deal with their affairs, and probably move onto another lawyer. Many women in the profession have reported a distinct lack of respect from their male colleagues. Some included in the report said they were chastised by judges for needing time to pick up their children, and that their male colleagues received no such treatment.

The report concludes with a number of suggestions for improvement. Mentorship programs involving senior female lawyers are expected to spring up. We’re also expected to see sensitivity training for judges, and a number of female judges. There seems to be a long way ahead, but the issue is constantly becoming more public.

Beth Jones is a valued contributor to various blogs.

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