Reva Seth, LLB’01, forcing profession to deal with career-family disconnect
Reva Seth, LLB’01, tells the story of a successful young Bay Street lawyer she met during one of her career coaching sessions.
The woman had hidden her pregnancy from her Bay Street boss. Suffering from severe morning sickness, she was forced to routinely slip out during meetings. Her boss, concerned the frequent trips to the bathroom were due to a drug problem, got HR involved. When the young lawyer finally came clean about her pregnancy, her boss told her that it would have been easier if she’d been an addict, rather than simply pregnant.
Seth, the author of The MomShift: Women Share their Stories of Career Success After Having Children, says this type of experience is common in many firms.
Bay Street is behind the times when it comes to maximizing the potential of female lawyers. But Seth believes seismic shifts in the legal industry away from permanent jobs toward more alternative employment trajectories may have a silver lining for lawyers who want to combine a career with family life.
“(For new graduates), it’s going to be inherently different and it’s not just working moms who will be dealing with it,” Seth says. “As we see partnership get stretched out to tenth- and eleventh-year associates, people are going to have to be way more creative in terms of how they map out their careers.
It means experimenting with how your career works.”
In the course of researching her book, Seth interviewed more than 500 women, many of them lawyers who chose a diverse range of career paths. She outlines a common scenario of a woman who went from work in private practice, to work for a hospital, and then on to the Ontario public sector.
Seth says the traditional direct route up the career ladder – articling student to senior partner – may be an option that is less and less available to recent graduates, who, instead, will need to find more circuitous career pathways to be successful in the legal profession.
For many lawyers, even at larger firms, the professional world is now one of serial employment contracts. Seth says the legal profession needs to embrace this new reality of self-promotion and strategic partnerships. “It’s still a very old-school profession when you compare law firms with any start-up.” Seth herself has found success in an alternative career path.
She articled at Dentons LLP and chose to leave a guaranteed hire-back to pursue a job in municipal policy at the City of Toronto.
She then moved to the United Kingdom. Seth started 7 Step Communications, a virtual PR agency, before the birth of her first child. She returned to Canada and has written extensively. Her customized career path has allowed her to work from her downtown Toronto home, something she sees as a personal priority.
Her law degree from Western has helped her immeasurably.
“Having a law degree gives you a different level of credibility,” she says. “When it comes to running your own consultancy, it makes you far more commercially viable.”
Seth, who is also the author of First Comes Marriage: Modern Relationship Advice from the Wisdom of Arranged Marriages, says her legal education trained her to think critically about ideas, including alternative views on cultural issues.
While young lawyers need to embrace more flexible career paths, law firms themselves must also change if they want to retain their best and brightest female lawyers, she says. “The classic Bay Street system was designed by men, for men with stay-at-home spouses.” Many law firms are saying all the right things – they are signing on to Law Society initiatives to support female lawyers, she explains. But there is still a major disconnect for people looking to balance family and career.
“In the boardrooms, they are professing a view they want to progress on this issue. But then why the disconnect in the hallway?”
Seth believes this comes down to a failure to recognize the long-term value of women.
When she looks at the future for women in law, Seth is optimistic. She sees a young generation of lawyers focused on the quality of work and not just face-time at the office. Seth sees them redefining their careers and finding alternatives to make their job success align with their family success.
“Until we change the narrative that having children doesn’t mean you’re not committed to your career or that you’re less ambitious, women will have to struggle with the biases.”
Nicole Visschedyk is a freelance writer who finds investigating the lives of interesting people to be fascinating.
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