In Canada, about 20 percent of equity partners at law firms are women. But the percentage of women is higher – about 27 percent – for general counsel in Canada among the country’s top public companies. Why is there such a disparity? And what does this mean for gender diversity amongst lawyers in The True North Strong and Free? A new book, “Breaking Through: Tales from the Top Canadian Women General Counsel,” by Kirby Chown and Carrie Mandel, looks to explore these questions and more.

Chown, a former managing partner at top tier national Canadian law firm McCarthy Tétrault, , and Mandel, a consultant with Spencer Stuart, a global executive search firm, set out to explore the changing face of general counsel in Canada. To do so, the team conducted dozens of interviews, discussing the nature of leadership, the role of mentoring, and what women in the legal field are doing to share the power with each other.

Sharing the Power

Mandel says that the women she and Chown interviewed reveal several challenges presented by private practice. These include onerous work hours (especially for new mothers), a narrow value proposition and the competitive nature of the business. As general counsel, though, women found a better trajectory. They enjoyed being part of a team, were able to offer more than just legal advice, and appreciated the environment, which was typically more collaborative and strategic and not as hours-based and competitive as with a law firm.

General counsel can, according to Mandel and Chown, help female attorneys in several ways. They can assist women in their legal departments by providing support, constructive feedback and sharing the limelight. They can also encourage others on their team to express their point of view free of ridicule, or assist women in developing the skills they need to advance.  Mandel cited the example of Robyn Collver, GC at Canadian Tire, who shared that she once struggled with public speaking. Now Collver makes everyone – male and female – speak up in meetings, not to put them on the spot, but to empower them. 

The other way that female general counsel can help share the power is to empower outside counsel. Mandel and Chown referenced the organization Legal Leaders for Diversity, (LLD) a group made up of GCs in major Canadian companies that is committed to promoting diversity – of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, cultural background, religion and age – in their own organizations and their law firm providers. Since Melissa Kennedy, general counsel of the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and one of the women features in “Breaking Through,” joined the executive committee of LLD, she has worked to give female lawyers opportunities to be in front of clients.


On the topic of mentoring, Mandel and Chown see two distinct types of mentoring as important: formal and informal. Often, they said, when a mentoring relationship is thrust upon someone, it does not take root, but when allowed to happen organically, it can have more power. Women in law can help mentor other women, helping them to navigate work/life issues and explaining how to achieve career advancement and success. These are the types of stories that women GCs recount in “Breaking Through.” Mandel said that many of the successful women that she interviewed for the book expressed that they wished they’d had access to those kinds of stories when they were coming up the ranks.  

On the topic of formal mentoring, Mandel and Chown pointed out that senior partners in firms or senior executives in companies (often male) have a role to play in guiding younger women along their career path, helping them navigate the political aspects of an organization or acting as a sounding board, both of which are especially important for women.

Expanding the Standard Leadership Model

In recent years, Mandel and Chown have seen a broadening of the discussion of what it means to be a leader. In the past, predominantly male-gendered norms have dictated who rises to the top. But now, organizations are re-examining the concept of leadership, and seeing more so-called “female” traits – like teamwork, consensus building, empathy, listening skills and service-oriented approaches – as important, adding diversity to the standard leadership model. This may explain why women are tracking so well on the general counsel function, which requires a delicate balance of independent thinking and risk assessment combined with an increasingly commercial orientation.

Mandel and Chown would argue that companies need to look at more diverse kinds of leaders in general, to gain more balanced and nuanced points of view in decision making rather than always choosing leaders who follow a more traditional path. 

Adapting to the ‘Norm’

Mandel and Chown also spoke to some women GCs who feel that the views of leadership are not changing, but rather that women are just adapting better to male norms and entrenched rules of behavior. Either way, it is a healthy discussion. 

In Canada, Mandel said, many women are at the forefront of transforming the general counsel role into something more than it once was, making it a more important C-suite level role. Many Canadian women became GCs at a time when the role did not have the scope and the complexity that it does today. As time passed, these women, joined by newer female GCs, have contributed to the increasing heft and impact of the GC role. 

According to a recent KPMG survey of Canadian general counsel, almost half of Canadian GCs sit on the executive committees of their organizations. More than three quarters are more involved in business strategy than was the case five years ago. It is worth noting that while some of the women featured in “Breaking Though” may have moved in-house for better work/life balance; once there, their talent and ambition drove them to seek increased responsibility and to progress into the top legal job as GCs. They stepped up, evolving the function and growing along with it. 

Women Influence & Power in Law

Chown and Mandel will participate in the Women Influence & Power in Law conference in Washington, D.C. Held from Oct. 2-4, the event is a unique chance for female outside counsel to network with female inside counsel for the benefit of all. Those who attend their session on Oct. 3 will receive a free autographed copy of the book. 

For more information on the event, click here. For more information on the book, go to