Focus on Canada: An Interview with Dawn Jetten

Jetten Dawn 2013

We caught up with Dawn Jetten to discuss why women’s networks are just as vital as ever; how long it takes to build a practice; and why an alternative career as a librarian may not have panned out so well…

I’m the oldest child, so I always felt like I could do anything I wanted!” jokes Dawn Jetten, as we discuss what career she envisioned pursuing as an adult. She admits that she wasn’t as forward-looking as young adults are today, and laughs as she tells me how she “never really thought about it too much!” Eventually, Jetten did consider hitting the books to prepare for medical school, but was deterred by the prospect of spending many years slogging away in the library. Yet that’s not to say that Jetten is averse to libraries: in fact, Jetten says that if she hadn’t become a lawyer, then she would’ve liked to have been a librarian. However, the rise of e-book readers has somewhat extinguished this dream, and she adds (a tad dispiritedly) that: “It would’ve been a limiting move though, given the way libraries have gone…”.

With no concrete career decision arrived at, somebody suggested to Jetten that she sit the LSAT: after that brief remark, Jetten would set in motion a legal career which would see her make partner at one of Canada’s leading firms – Blake, Cassels & Graydon. She attended law school at Queens University, and very much enjoyed the academic side of the law, but as a student still wasn’t entirely sure whether she would like to take it further and pursue it as a career.

However, any uncertainty Jetten felt was dispelled as soon as she spent a year articling at Blakes. Her last rotation was in the firm’s banking group, and her experience there shaped her future focus as a lawyer. It was an interesting (and, as it turned out, fortuitous) time to be based in the group, as Jetten explains: “Foreign banks were just starting to introduce subsidiaries in Canada – so I was well positioned to start learning about that process and what it involved.” Consequently, she started working on a regulatory matter with a “terrific mentor” who she would later build the practice with. Back then, she says, the regulatory part of the banking practice was much smaller, but it has had the chance to expand over the years, in line with the evolution of the financial services landscape. “The group started with me and my mentor,” says Jetten, “and together we built it up over 30 years. In the last 15 years it has especially developed, and now we have three partners fully involved, three or four partially involved, and a team of associates who continue to bolster the group. I’m very proud of it.”

It’s what I like best about this type of work. It gets more and more intricate, and you’re always learning something new about the regulatory environment.”

 Today, as Co-chair of the Financial Services Regulatory Group, Jetten’s work is broad in scope. Some of it is more strategic, and requires her to help clients design products (such as loans, Internet and mobile payments, credit cards, insurance products) that are compliant with the current law. Clients will also call upon Jetten if they need her advice on a whole raft of regulatory issues that may affect their transactions, which can encompass acquisitions, outsourcings or securitisations. Then, of course, “there’s the more day-to-day work, like dealing with contractcompliance, that type of thing.” Having the opportunity to assist an array of financial services clients – comprising, among others, banks, insurance brokers, loan and trust companies – is one of the job’s perks, but its unending complexity is another bonus too: “It’s what I like best about this type of work. It gets more and more intricate, and you’re always learning something new about the regulatory environment.”

Jetten returns to the role of her initial mentor in the banking group, and credits him for “supporting me throughout my career, and for sponsoring me later on when I needed him to.” She adds that she was lucky to kick-start her career with a group of “collegial females who were senior to me, but always available to give me advice, whether solicited or not – we’d often get together as a group and share our stories and tips.” It was, she says gratefully, “a great place to start from as a female lawyer,” but tells me that it took a long time for her to “realise that other women didn’t necessarily have the same level of mentorship or guidance.” Commenting on this delay, Jetten identifies the need for women who have experienced success to “be aware that other women out there may not be having the same experience as you – we have to encourage both men and women to be mindful of these unintentional oversights, which can limit the range of those progressing through the profession.”

Failing to be mindful of such needs, could, as Jetten points out, be detrimental to a firm’s future success, as it’s “our clients who are pushing for diversity as well: they want law firms to become more diverse, and they will continue to drive this push in years to come.” Ignoring this request could well result in clients looking elsewhere for legal representation. At the moment Jetten feels that the US is ahead of Canada in the conversation about diversity but does tell me that the Canadian Law Societies are instigating an increasing number of studies and projects. Blakes recently participated in one, which was overseen by the Law Society of Upper Canada: it was called The Justicia Project, and was formulated to set goals pertaining to the retention, advancement and development of women lawyers.

You hear and read a lot about networks and whether they are still needed, but judging by the numbers that turn up to our events and programs, I would say that yes, absolutely, we still need them.”

 As well as participating in external initiatives like the one above, Blakes also has its own women’s network, and Jetten is very active in the leadership. The aptly named ‘women@blakes‘ network was created in 2007, with the intention of helping women achieve business success. The founding of the network doesn’t suggest that there weren’t initiatives and activities beforehand, but, as Jetten explains, “they just weren’t very organised, and back in 2007 we realised that we still had some way to go: with the network we created that degree of formality and focus, which could boost those leadership opportunities – not just for women within our firm, but for women in our clients’ organisations too.”

Indeed, it’s clear from what Jetten tells me about the network that the range of activities are thoroughly inclusive. Blakes hosts joint events with similar women’s networks in client organisations, and an annual event for all women clients. Jetten highlights the recent annual event, which saw Canada’s former Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, speak to Blakes women clients and lawyers on “the importance of using leadership to revitalise communities not just in Canada, but around the world.” It was well attended, to say the least: around 600 women from client organisations showed up, as well as many of Blakes female professionals. On top of these more expansive occasions, there are also many internal initiatives that are solely aimed at developing women within Blakes. On top of the firm’s professional development programme, women are also encouraged to attend The Rotman School of Management Leadership Program (which is specifically for senior associates and junior partners), as well as The Judy Project Leadership Forum for Executive Women. The ‘Judy’ in question here is the late Judy Elder; a Microsoft Canada executive who urged women to be ‘proud of their ambition, to reject barriers and simply make stuff happen.’ The network has also started using an in-house training programme – formulated and distributed by The Rainmakers Roundtable – which has been a hit in the US.

Jetten is positive about the effect the women@blakes network has had, and feels that as a result, women across the Blakes offices and practices areas are more closely connected than ever before. It has shown that the ongoing usefulness of such networks cannot be underestimated, as Jetten illustrates: “You hear and read a lot about networks and whether they are still needed, but judging by the numbers that turn up to our events and programs, I would say that yes, absolutely, we still need them.”

Somebody just came back from one of those skills conferences and they said that they were tired of hearing that women had to change.”

Perhaps all of this emphasis on skills training can produce an unintended effect, if deployed in a constrictive way: instead of empowering, it can lead to frustration, as Jetten suggests: “Somebody just came back from one of those skills conferences and they said that they were tired of hearing that women had to change: people need to learn to appreciate a whole range of styles and approaches, and recognise the value in each, rather than pushing a ‘one size fits all’ approach or the dominant style that we’re all accustomed to.”

Looking back over her career, Jetten doesn’t feel that her gender has held her back. She’s had three children, and while raising them alongside the demands of a hectic job was a challenge, she describes it as a worthwhile one, and one that she doesn’t feel was career-limiting. Despite her positive experiences, Jetten still points to a range of reactions to women’s initiatives in the Canadian legal profession. Specifically, she draws my attention to a recent study by Catalyst, which has investigated “why men have not been assisting women to help them advance within their careers.” She adds that “sometimes it’s just apathy; sometimes it’s that fear created by the idea ‘if a woman gets ahead then I might get behind’; and sometimes it’s just ignorance – they genuinely don’t know what’s going on.”

Firms need to do more to tackle these responses, but Jetten feels that Blakes is ahead of the game in this respect, and comments on the number of men at the firm “who are making a concerted effort to champion women.” She raises the fact that implicit bias is always liable to rear its head when it comes to sponsorship and advancement decisions, but again suggests that her firm does a good job when it comes to nipping such bias in the bud: “We have training on implicit bias. It is one of those things that everyone needs a reminder of otherwise we all run the risk of slipping back into old habits – the problem is that picking someone like you is the easiest and most tempting course.”

You don’t advance at a law firm solely on the good work that you’ve done – you’ve got to get out there!”

Ultimately, the key to career progression revolves around more than just winning the favour of effective sponsors. It’s also vital to hone a very proactive approach to your work. Jetten relays the extent to which such a method has worked for her, and explains how: “It’s quite easy in a big firm to close yourself off, put your head down and churn out good work – and people will love you for it. But you have to open your eyes to what’s required from you in order to get you to where you want to go. You don’t advance at a law firm solely on the good work that you’ve done – you’ve got to get out there!”

Ideally, we would all have a long time to think about what we might like to do,” Jetten muses , as we return to considering her pathway to the legal profession: “But the reality is that you often don’t know what you really like until you do it!” While aspiring lawyers may not be able to fully make up their minds until they’ve got a taste of life in a firm, Jetten nonetheless urges would be lawyers to take “some kind of pause to think things through: forty plus years is a long time to be working in a career like law, and it takes a long time to learn and practise it successfully – it’s a huge commitment.”