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Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Building the Business Case for Flexibility, New Catalyst Canada Study Spotlights the Legal Profession

In-depth research of Canadian law firms shows that work-life balance is now an issue for both male and female lawyers, and no longer a concern for women only

A new study released today by Catalyst Canada presents a strong business case for flexibility in law firms. The study, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Building the Business Case for Flexibility, demonstrates that losing legal talent because work-life balance issues in firms are not being addressed can cost millions of dollars a year. Based on a survey of more than 1,400 lawyers across the country, the study also reports on the challenges and perceptions of work-life balance within Canadian law firms. 

In the study, which was sponsored by 10 leading Canadian law firms, Catalyst analyzed the work-life balance perceptions and challenges faced by law firm associates and then calculated the financial impact of losing top legal talent using standard cost accounting methods. Among the report’s key findings:

  • Women and men report the same top factors as important in choosing to work at another firm: an environment more supportive of family and personal commitments and more control over work schedules.
  • 84 percent of women and 66 percent of men rated “an environment supportive of my family and personal commitments” as an important factor in choosing to work at another firm.
  • Despite the range of factors offered in the Catalyst survey—from increased compensation to pursuing more intellectually challenging work—more men and women associates, both junior and senior, cite work-life balance factors as important in choosing to work at another firm than other factors.
  • A majority of women (66 percent) and more than one-half of men associates (54 percent) indicate that the possibility of working fewer hours would be important in choosing to work at another firm.
  • Associates with positive perceptions of their firms’ work-life culture intend to stay with their firms for a longer period of time.

“Longer working hours and unpredictable work schedules can all add up to less flexibility, less personal or family time and ultimately more stress. Without a more supportive work environment those longer hours and lack of flexibility can also mean that both men and women are facing increasingly difficult choices about how to allocate work and personal time,” said Catalyst Canada President Susan Black, Ph.D.

The Catalyst Canada research shows that the average total cost to a firm of an associate’s departure is $315,000, which is approximately twice the average associate’s salary.    

“In addition to the high cost to individuals and families, there is also a significant business cost when work-life balance issues are not addressed,” said Dr. Black. “A firm invests a great deal of its capital in recruiting and developing associates. Calculating the impact of turnover is the first step in enabling law firms to grasp the business impact of the issue of work-life balance. A well-designed retention strategy can help a firm maximize its return on this investment in talented associates.”

The report noted that an environment more supportive of family and personal commitments and more control over work schedules are at odds with typical retention strategies used by law firms: competitive compensation and the opportunity for advancement. While these more traditional factors continue to be important and were cited by one-third of the associates, they are losing ground as competitive weapons in the war for talent.

In work environments in which pay and advancement opportunities vary marginally between one firm and another, firms that support associates’ personal commitments and offer more control over their work may be more likely to retain top talent.

“This study demonstrates the need for firms to find creative and imaginative ways to create a professional environment that does not force associate lawyers to choose between family and career. The failure to create such an environment is not only perverse in moral and social terms, but, as this study shows, in economic terms as well,” said University of Toronto Law School Dean Ron Daniels.

A Note on Methodology
More than 1,400 lawyers working in law firms completed the Catalyst survey across the country. In addition, working with the Toronto offices of four major law firms, Catalyst devised a model for costing turnover, which includes a “workbook” to be used by law firms to capture and track the cost of associate departures. The study’s 10 sponsoring firms are:


Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP
McCarthy Tétrault LLP
Borden Ladner Gervais LLP
McMillan Binch LLP
Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
Ogilvy Renault
Goodmans LLP
Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP
Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP
Torys LLP

About Catalyst
Catalyst is the leading research and advisory organization working to advance women in business, with offices in New York, San Jose, and Toronto. As an independent, not-for-profit membership organization, Catalyst uses a solutions-oriented approach that has earned the confidence of business leaders around the world. Catalyst conducts research on all aspects of women’s career advancement and provides strategic and web-based consulting services on a global basis to help companies and firms advance women and build inclusive work environments.