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The Problem With Women

At the prestigious law firm McCarthy Tétrault, a junior partner named Diane LaCalamita watched as less-experienced male attorneys were promoted above her. She complained, got fired, and is now suing the firm for $12 million. Her supporters say the old boys’ club is still preventing women from getting ahead. Her critics dismiss her as a mediocre lawyer who couldn’t hack it in the big leagues. The story behind the case that’s dividing Bay Street

(Image: John Hryniuk)

Every weekday evening, when the bell rings and the markets close, dozens of suits from the financial district pour down into Ki, a Japanese restaurant smart enough to be located at King and Bay. Outstretched arms, clad in sombre Canali, eagerly pass corporate credit cards to the bartenders, who then hand back a steady stream of vodka sodas, Jäger shots and goblets of merlot. Bankers, brokers and lawyers come here to mingle and gossip with colleagues and clients. On many nights last year, the most talked-about subject at Ki was Diane LaCalamita’s $12-million gender discrimination suit against McCarthy Tétrault, the fourth largest law firm in the country and one of the storied Bay Street outfits known colloquially as the Seven Sisters. LaCalamita’s story is set out in a statement of claim that stretches 66 pages. The day it became available, it was photocopied and eagerly passed around the financial district like the latest potboiler.

It’s not just the law firms that are fixated, but other institutions, as well—the banks and brokerage houses, the accounting and engineering firms. All have a stake in how the case gets resolved. It’s being watched—nervously or excitedly, depending on your rank and status—on both sides of the border. Never before has a partnership of McCarthys’ size and stature come so close to having its doors blown open and its pay scales and promotion methodology exposed for all the world to see.

Not surprisingly, McCarthys, in its statement of defence, denies LaCalamita’s allegations, which remain unproven, and vaunts its own efforts to promote women in the profession. The firm claims she was simply not up to the job.

On this, Bay Street is divided. For some—mainly men, but some women, too—it’s the story of a bitter, mediocre lawyer who couldn’t cut it among the top-flight litigators at an elite firm. For others—mostly women, but some men, as well—it’s the kind of case that will finally bring to light the subtle forms of discrimination and stereotyping that linger, like some insidious mould, among the offices and boardrooms.

Diane LaCalamita could not have known that she would one day be at the centre of a gender war on Bay Street. She’s the daughter of a pharmacist and a photographer. Her parents taught her not to think along traditional gender lines, and their choice of professions would influence her own decision, 18 years ago, to pursue the burgeoning field of intellectual property law. She attended Havergal College, the elite private school in north Toronto, before pursuing an undergrad degree in life sciences, followed by a law degree at U of T. She was called to the bar in 1992 and earned a master of laws degree from the University of London a year later. She then embarked on a career in a niche area of law.

Through the ’80s and ’90s, IP law was the exclusive domain of a few boutique firms in the city. The emergence of the highly litigious tech industry—including biotech, pharma and life sciences, where patent infringement can lead to lengthy multimillion-dollar lawsuits—was a boon for lawyers.