Some mornings I wake up and I feel like I can change the world. I see the inequities that exist and I know that with some hard work, supportive people, and a plan, I can make a difference. Other days I read the headlines, spend 10 minutes on Twitter, watch the news and I think it's impossible. There is nothing I can do to change anything. Why would I even bother trying? How can one person fix so much that is wrong?
When I saw that the Ontario Bar Association's Women Lawyers Forum was putting on a breakfast program called "Leaders & Changemakers" at the OBA Institute this year, I knew I had to attend. I couldn't miss the powerhouse panel of speakers. I needed to learn how these women became leaders and changemakers without getting discouraged.
The February 5, 2020 program was moderated by Pia Hundel (Miller Thomson LLP) and Gabriela Ramo (EY Law LLP), with speakers, Michele Landsberg (Journalist & Activist), Barbara Jackman (Jackman & Associates), Leola Pon (General Counsel, Toronto District School Board) and Anne Posno (Lenczner Slaght).
The program started with each speaker talking about her own journey and what made her a “changemaker”. At an early stage in most of their lives the speakers saw inequality and wanted to change the world to be a better place.
For Michele Landsberg it was growing up Jewish in a very Anti-Semitic Toronto, and being one of a few female journalists in her day, that set her on the path of becoming a changemaker. Being told to think and act a certain way did not sit right with her. While it was often painful being the one singled out, it “gave her a backbone” and a critical stance on society. It was obvious to her that women were second class, and she wrote an essay at an early age arguing against the use of “he” as the universal pronoun. Ms. Landsberg also spoke about recognizing her own reluctance to new ideas. For example, in the 1970s when people started speaking about sexual harassment, she was skeptical. Then she began to think about the sexual harassment she had experienced. As a journalist, she would take her readers through her own reluctance to new ideas and that enabled them to move along with her.
Barbara Jackman grew up thinking she had a say. Ms. Jackman had several siblings and they would vote on everything at family meetings, including bedtimes and chores. She spent her whole childhood trying to get her parents to see her point of view. She also wanted to be able to help people who had problems. This led to Ms. Jackman becoming a lawyer, and as a lawyer, she realized the most vulnerable were the people who did not have status in Canada. She began practicing in immigration and refugee law. Ms. Jackman told us that keeping her clients as her focus was what led to change. She argued significant cases on behalf of her clients that changed the landscape of immigration and refugee law in Canada. But it was important, she said, to recognize all of the cases she lost along the way to make it to the ones that she won.
Leola Pon comes from a working class Chinese Canadian family with parents who owned a restaurant and worked long hours. She saw how some customers treated her parents unfairly or took advantage of people who did not speak English very well. Ms. Pon never set a path to make change in life, it evolved over the years with her childhood and early adult years as her foundation: “Being a changemaker assumes you have choices and options. Sometimes you don’t”. Ms. Pon did not start her General Counsel role at the TDSB looking to change the legal department, but there were structural issues. For example, the compensation structure was not adequate. It took three years, but she was able to change the compensation structure for the better.
Anne Posno grew up in a family that helped foster her belief that she could accomplish anything. She didn’t think there were any barriers, but she came to realize that there are always new barriers to recognize. Ms. Posno noted that change comes in small steps. She spoke of the “phenomenal” women at her firm and the #ReferToHer campaign which provides a list of "experienced female lawyers to whom you can confidently refer work."
Some takeaways from the program:
It was a great way to start the day surrounded by these leaders and changemakers. They reminded me that I don't have to change the world in one day (of course I would feel discouraged if that was my goal!) Instead, I will keep making small changes that are in my power, whether it's as simple as bringing my own travel mug to the coffee shop and not using plastic wrap or paper towels, or writing blog posts and articles calling out bad behaviour, or donating money to good causes, or supporting striking teachers, or voting in all of the elections (including the Bencher election), or being a good ally...These are all things in my control. I can make change, one step at a time.
I keep coming back to a quote from Linda Silver Dranoff's book "Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution" and I think it is a fitting conclusion for this blog post:
Be aware of the areas that still require attention, and do what you can to be agents of further change. Speak, as I tried to do, for women who otherwise have no voice . . . I encourage those who follow us to do the same, to never ask “What can one person do?” but rather to say, “This is what needs doing, and this is what I will do about it.”
How are you a changemaker? What change will you make?
I was inspired to write this post by an article I recently read on how to exit an insulting job interview gracefully, called “Why Don’t More People Walk Out of Bad Job Interviews?” I started thinking, how can we avoid bad interviews in the first place? Interviews are a necessary part of finding and filling legal positions. What can we do as both interviewees and interviewers to improve the job finding process, especially in the current legal market?
Interviewing for any job is very stressful, but particularly so for new law grads. Many have massive law school debt and the market is still pretty bleak. I meet with a lot of new unemployed lawyers or lawyers that are in-between jobs. Anecdotally, I've witnessed that the average time for a new lawyer to find a law job is between 6-12 months. That’s a long time. These lawyers feel like their lives are on hold. They also sometimes get excited about a job and after months of waiting and follow-up interviews find out the position went to someone else. They start the job-hunting process over again. With these added pressures lawyers are going into interviews already super stressed.
And, being the interviewer can be equally stressful. Especially if this is the lawyer’s first time hiring an associate or law student. They will be spending a lot of time, energy, resources, and money on this individual, what if they choose the wrong candidate? Also, the associate or student will be working under the lawyer’s firm name and a brand the lawyer probably spent a long-time building. Can they trust the candidate to represent their firm?
I half-jokingly tell people I have my own law practice because I’m just really bad at interviews. I’ve had a few good ones, but I have also had some that were extremely embarrassing.
For example, in law school, during a full day of on-campus interviews I developed this nervous tick of licking my lips. Every. Few. Seconds. I. Would. Stop. To. Lick. My. Lips. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop! I probably looked like a lizard.
Then, later in my career, I once ended an interview with: “Thank you for this, I love talking about myself!!” What?!? “I love talking about myself?” Where did that come from? Who says that? I was mortified.
I’ve also had interviewers behave poorly. I was once interviewed by a panel of three people and the lead interviewer began by holding up the written component of the application, saying: “You do know that if you worked here I would have re-written this entire thing.” Another member of the panel would snort and roll her eyes every time I gave an answer. When they gave me a “situational” question involving a “big, burly client” I referred to the client with a male pronoun. The lead interviewer held up her hand and said: “I didn’t say the client was a HE, gender stereotype much?” The two women looked at each other, laughed, and started writing furiously in their notes. I was so confused by their behaviour. The third interviewer seemed just as puzzled and he kept giving me sympathetic looks. I knew I had absolutely no desire to work for these toxic people. I should have exited gracefully by thanking them for their time and telling them I didn’t think it was the right fit. Instead I sat there politely listening to their snorts and put-downs for a full hour trying to answer their questions to the best of my ability. I was holding back tears by the end. To this day I’m not sure if it was an interview technique to weed out people who couldn’t handle hostility or whether they genuinely thought I was completely useless.
Besides abolishing interviews altogether (is that possible?) what can we do as both interviewees and interviewers to avoid negative interview experiences and improve the process of finding a job? Although I am not an expert (as evidenced above), for what it's worth, here are my thoughts:
Do you have any tips for improving law job interviews?
Having finally listened to my own advice, I took a solid two weeks away from the office over the holidays and it was wonderful. However, this means that I am late in saying thank you to the Clawbies' (Canadian Law Blog Awards) organizers and judges for awarding this blog with a "Best Blog and Commentary" Award for 2019. I also want to thank my nominators for their kind words.
I love writing about life and law and I am just glad that someone out there enjoys reading what I write. :)
Congratulations to all the winners and all the best in 2020!
And another year has come to an end. I hope 2019 treated you well and all the best for 2020!
Here's a look back at my ten blog posts with the most hits in 2019. Some are from previous years but still remain quite popular.
Links are below, in case you missed them the first time around!
10. Building a Legal Practice: Say Yes, Until It Is Time to Say No (2019)
9. How Are Firms Improving Equality Diversity and Inclusion? First Post: Lerners LLP (2019)
8. My Biggest Mistake This Year (2019)
7. How do you do it? And How do you do it all? Dispelling Myths About Life as a Lawpreneur (2019)
6. As a Lawyer When Would You (or Should You) Report Another Lawyer for Professional Misconduct? (2014)
5. What are a Lawyer's Professional Obligations When Leaving a Law Firm? (2015)
4. Book Review: Full Disclosure by Beverley McLachlin (2018)
3. The Economic Costs of Mansplaining in My Life (2019)
2. Barristers Robes The Courtroom Equalizer (2017)
1. Women Leading in Law: Jessica Prince (2018)
Happy New Year and thanks for reading.
Starting your own legal practice, or business, can be overwhelming and terrifying. Some lawyers who branch out on their own are able to bring clients (or a full practice) with them from an old firm. Most of us are not that lucky. I started my own freelance lawyer practice, Cowling Legal Freelance, in 2013 from scratch. Through this I have learned several important lessons about building a legal practice and business. One of those lessons: Always say “Yes”...... until it is time to say “No”.
WHEN TO SAY YES
Unless you are independently wealthy, starting a legal practice with little or no clients means you have to say “yes” to files that show up, even if they may not excite you. Often people refer to this as practicing “Door Law” – your practice consists of whatever comes in the door. If you have a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed, saying "yes" is necessary. Obviously, you should only take on files that you are competent to handle, but use this as an opportunity to try new things and expand your skills. This is actually an exciting time! You may take on a file in an area that you never thought you would be interested in and discover you love it.
I learned lots by saying "yes" in the early years of my own practice. One firm asked if I would do a flat fee project. I had never done one before as a freelance lawyer, but I said "yes" anyway. I quickly learned that I had severely underestimated and undervalued my time - a mistake I never made again. But, I now know how to flat fee out projects better and have a new service to offer my clients. I never would have learned this if I said "no".
In the beginning I also said "yes" to things that took me well outside of my comfort zone or were a lot of hard work for little or no monetary reward. But, those opportunities turned into more opportunities and helped build my practice. For example, I answered "yes" when asked to write articles for legal publications and lawyer associations. Even though they didn't pay, and it takes a lot of time and hard work to write an article, it was a great way to get my name out there without having to pay advertising fees (low on clients, means low on cash). It was the same with volunteering for legal organizations. Saying "yes" to help organize a CLE event (not easy work), led to me being asked (and saying "yes") to speaking at a different legal event. A few lawyers saw me speak and sent work my way. Meeting the Dean of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law over Twitter (through tweeting some of those time-consuming articles I wrote) and saying "yes" to having coffee with him, eventually led to my part-time position as Regional Alumni Advisor. This are just some examples.
It can be scary stepping into new situations and trying new things – but just saying "yes" can open up so many opportunities and, in turn, build your practice. Saying "yes" meant I was trying new things, meeting new people and going to new places. It was so much fun saying "yes"....until it was time to.....
What is the downside to learning to say "yes" to everything? You get good at it. You get into a habit of automatically saying "yes".
You want to have a coffee to pick my brain and expect me to travel 40 minutes to you in the middle of the day? Volunteer hours of my time in an area of law I am not really interested in?
Write an article for a publication that has readers who would never use my services? Decrease my billable rate and put up with your abusive emails because you promise me lots of work?
It really sounds silly to say "yes" to these suggestions, but once you get used to saying "yes" to build your practice, it can be hard to shake the habit. It makes sense to say "yes" when you start out because you have more time (all you have is time, when you have no clients!) but that changes once your practice is up and running and time becomes a precious commodity. Sometimes, even though you now have a steady flow of work coming in the door, you have files that excite you, and you've built a solid brand, as a business owner you still can't help but worry that the files will stop coming. Or, the writing opportunities will dry up. Or, the speaking opportunities will disappear. So you keep saying "yes" to everything even though you should be saying "no" to some things.
Last December I felt the beginning of burnout creeping into my life. I had the constant feeling like I was holding my breath all day, waking up panicking at 3 a.m. convinced I missed a deadline, stress-eating (chips for breakfast? Why not?), I was irritable, cranky, tired…I knew something had to change. I was doing too much. So I decided 2019 was "My Year of Saying No”. Not with the intention of saying “no” to everything, but just to be more strategic with my use of "yes". The response to "My Year of Saying No" has been great. Most people have understood and respected my decision. Often it's not a straight out no (although sometimes it is, especially with difficult clients), but more of a "not right now". I ask that they check in again next year or I make a note to follow up when it is a better time for me to consider the opportunity. It hasn't been easy, but life is much more manageable.
For those of you who are like me, and find it hard to say "no", here are some things to consider:
Is that client questioning your hourly rate at the beginning of the relationship? Is she not respecting your time and calling you 15 times a day before she has even signed your retainer? These are red flags of a difficult client. It is okay to say “no” to clients like this.
If someone wants to have a coffee with you to "pick your brain", it's okay to ask them to come to you. It's okay to limit it to 15-30 minutes. It's okay to even say "Sorry, I am tied up for the next little while, can you check in with me in a month or two?"
You've been asked to write an article. Is it for a publication that your clients or referral sources read? Is it on a topic that interests you? Or, will it be a pain to write? Will you have time to write it during your workday? Or, will you spend your family time or "me-time" writing it? It's okay to say "no" if the publication is not a good fit, or suggest another topic, or ask if it can be published in the next issue if the timing does not work.
If you are asked to speak at a conference, is it paid? Who is the audience? Will it benefit your practice? Will they cover expenses (travel, etc.)? Do you have to write a lengthy paper? It can be flattering to be asked to speak, but if there are only a few "pros" and lots of "cons" it might just be a waste of your time and energy.
Building your practice, or keeping your practice busy, is an on-going endeavour and it can never stop. So, it is good to keep taking on clients, keep writing, keep speaking, keep networking, etc. BUT once your practice grows and your time shrinks, you must be more selective in what you say "yes" to...Otherwise burnout may be around the corner.
The Truth about “Truth be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law” by Beverley McLachlin - A Book Review
The truth is…I really enjoyed this book.
The former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, shares her life story in “Truth be Told”, starting with her small-town roots, to her seat on the bench, her rise to the Supreme Court, and her "retirement". McLachlin tells the story with sincerity and with the clarity of an experienced writer who has kept her audience and the purpose of the book in mind.
Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because I found parts of her story to be very relatable, in particular her childhood experiences in the small town of Pincher Creek, Alberta. I too grew up in the country. The closest village, Mount Pleasant, had a population of, at most, 500 people.
McLachlin speaks fondly of life on the ranch, the wide-open spaces, fresh air, and nature. She also highlights the feelings of isolation and hard work that come with living in the country. (We even had the same chores as children: “Bringing in firewood, washing and drying the dishes, sweeping the floor after every meal, helping outdoors..”)
Speaking of her regular visits to the small-town library, McLachlin states: “The Pincher Creek Municipal Library saved my life. Or so it seems to me now. Would I have survived without it? Probably. Would I have grown to be the person I am without it? Most certainly not.” Like Pincher Creek, my village had a library with a small collection of books housed in the “Women’s Institute Hall”. The librarian would put on summer reading programs for the local country kids. Much like McLachlin, I looked forward to my trips to the library so I could bury my nose in a book (or two or three).
Moving beyond her childhood and Pincher Creek, McLachlin highlights the influence of family and in particular her husband, Rory, who encouraged her to become a lawyer, something she had not considered. She talks about her marriage, her son, her career as a lawyer and a law professor, and the struggles with Rory’s cancer diagnosis and death. McLachlin writes with such honesty I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. (I happened to be in my hairdresser’s chair when I read about her husband’s passing. My hairdresser was alarmed as she thought she had hurt me.)
On her life as a judge and ultimately the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, McLachlin shares her stories with perhaps a little restraint but with a great respect for the legal profession and the rule of law. If you were looking for some legal gossip, you will be disappointed. A few peripheral stories of human interest with an air of conflict but nothing scandalous here. (Which is understandable.)
McLachlin also balances her personal story with information about the state of Canadian law and important Canadian cases, including insights into Rodriguez v British Columbia (Attorney General), Murdoch v Murdoch, R v Ewanchuk, Carter v (Attorney General), Bedford v Canada, etc. She discusses the criticism she received from several feminist groups for penning the majority decision in R v Seaboyer (which dealt with rape-shield provisions and the Charter). She explained that:
“My personal inclinations could not prevail over the constitutional imperative of maintaining the right to present a full defence. As a judge, my duty was to apply the law and call the case the way I saw it, adding guidelines as to how the law could be amended in conformity with the Charter. Sometimes a judge must make unpopular decisions that may go against her deepest preferences.”
What shines through is that McLachlin loves the law and has a deep respect for it as well as the need for judicial independence (despite some unnecessary criticism on Twitter regarding her judicial independence for her joke about naming her puppy “Harper”).
It was an interesting book and a well-told story of a woman navigating her career. Of course, she discusses some of the sexism she faced but it’s the same frustrating story I’m sure you’ve heard before, so I won’t repeat most of it here. One story that stood out though was when she spoke at a legal conference a few weeks after being appointed to the Supreme Court. She opened her speech by telling the audience what Justice Bertha Wilson told her after she took her place on the bench after signing the oath: “Three down, six to go” (referring to the three women now at the Court – Wilson, L’Heureux-Dube and McLachlin). The next morning there was an op-ed in the paper where the writer wrote: “How dare the new justice suggest that the Supreme Court of Canada should be composed entirely of women.” Interestingly, just last night at the Women's Law Association of Ontario’s 100th Anniversary Gala, Justice Andromache Karakatsanis also referred to Justice Wilson’s quote in her keynote address (this time "Four down, five to go"). I have yet to see any criticism of the Justice’s comments in any newspaper or more importantly, on Twitter. Perhaps we have made some progress.
What also was clear from the book was that McLachlin had many champions in her life, urging her forward, and suggesting the way: her parents, her siblings, colleagues, Rory, her son, and her second husband Frank McArdle. If only all women had the support she had and continues to have.
Not too long ago I came across the handwritten notes that I took on my one and only appearance at the Supreme Court of Canada. I laughed when I read the little notation I made at the top: “Beverley McLachlin said my name!” Although I was not speaking that day, Chief Justice McLachlin announced all counsel present and I was beaming with joy. Despite the fangirling, I am aware she is not perfect, we all make mistakes, we are all learning. However, she has contributed so much to the legal profession, to the law in this country and to Canadians as a whole (much of which I have not mentioned here but you can read about in the book). While her presence at the Supreme Court of Canada is missed, I hope this means she will now have time to write a sequel to her novel, Full Disclosure.
I recommend this book to all lawyers, law students or anyone with an interest in the law or who enjoys autobiographies. You can buy the book in several places, including Indigo or better yet, check out your local independent bookstore.
 Beverley McLachlin, Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law, (Toronto: Simon & Schuster Canada, 2019) [Truth]
 Truth at p 38.
 Truth at p 34.
 Truth at p 233.
 Truth at p 201.
I’ve made a mistake. A mistake that I know I should not make, I never intended to make, and I swore I would never make, but I did: the summer is over, and I didn’t take nearly enough time off.
I know there are more serious mistakes for a lawyer to make (the Law Society isn’t knocking on my door, demanding the revocation of my licence to practice law), however, this seemingly small mistake is having repercussions – a rippling effect - on my job and life.
How I Messed Up
I had the best of intentions to unplug this summer. In the past, I would work extra long days on Monday to Thursday so I could take Fridays off in July and August and enjoy the warm weather. This year I found myself saying, “Sure I can schedule that call/meeting on Friday, no problem”. Or, thinking to myself, “I’ll just pop into the office Friday morning and take the afternoon off”, only to look up and see that it was 6pm.
No worries, I thought, there’s plenty of summer left.
In July we loaded our three kids into the car and drove to remote Maine for a relaxing seven-day long vacation (I know, I know, “relaxing vacation” and “three kids” don’t normally go together). On our arrival, I found it so peaceful…almost too peaceful. My phone was not making any noises. I wasn’t receiving any emails. I mean none. No OBA emails. No Law Society emails. No “Let me do an SEO audit on your website” emails. What was going on?!
I looked at the service bars on my phone…. ack…. No cell phone reception! This might sound ideal to some, but as a sole practitioner and sole owner of a business (Flex Legal), and usually the first point of client contact, I started to panic. I quickly logged on to the WiFi at the rental home and sure enough - “ding, ding, ding” - the emails started rolling in. And, of course, something was up with one of our clients. There was a miscommunication between the lawyer client and a freelance lawyer. Both were looking to me to assist. By the time the issue was resolved it was three days into my vacation. On the seventh day I was finally starting to unwind, and . . . it was time to go home.
But, no worries, there was still plenty of summer left, it was only August.
On my return to the office I did not feel relaxed. I did not feel rejuvenated. I felt lethargic. I would go to the office with a long to-do list and I would barely get through a few items. Normally I am energised to get to the office in the morning, but 8 hours would go by and I wondered, what did I do all day? Anything? Instead of recognizing that I needed a break, I pushed through, I stayed at my computer all day, everyday. I didn’t get anything done, I told myself, how could I justify taking a day, or days off, now?!
And then August was over.(*)
We are now well into September (almost October!) which happens to be my busiest time of year. There is always an uptick in business for Flex in the fall and I teach at the University of Toronto. My calendar is full of conferences, networking events, volunteer meetings. My window of opportunity to take a proper break is closing.
Take That Vacation, it will Make you a Better Lawyer!
I’m not giving you any earth-shattering information. We all know that taking a real vacation makes us less stressed, more focused, and in return, better lawyers, better employees, and better bosses. Even though I love my job, I still need a break from it. I need to unplug and unwind. I need to think about something other than the law. When I do, I return to my practice with more energy and commitment.
When I worked for someone else, I always took all my allotted vacation. I felt I was working hard and I rightly deserved the time off. Now that I have my own practice and business and can, in theory, take as much vacation time that I want, I take even less. I need to change that.
So, here is what I have learned, and what may help to ensure that you and I take our important vacations:
p.s. VACATION ALERT: I will be out of the office starting on July 6, 2020 and will return to the office on July 27, 2020. I will not be checking email during that time 😊.
(*) I did convince myself to sneak off to an afternoon ball game one day in August (photo below), which was quite lovely, but it was not an uninterrupted break. Next time I will leave my phone at home!
Photo by chen zo on Unsplash
BOOK REVIEW - “Two Firsts: Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé at the Supreme Court of Canada” by Constance Backhouse
I loved Professor Backhouse’s biography of Justice L’Heureux-Dubé, so when I saw her book “Two Firsts: Bertha Wilson and Claire L’Heureux-Dubé at the Supreme Court of Canada” I knew I would enjoy it as well.
“Two Firsts” is a lot shorter than the 1000-page biography of Justice L’Heureux-Dubé and much of “Two Firsts” that discusses L’Heureux-Dubé’s life and career was already covered in the biography. However, what I enjoyed about this new book was the insight into Justice Wilson’s career and rise to the top court and how it compared/contrasted with Justice L’Heureux-Dubé’s.
Professor Backhouse eloquently tells the story of these two trailblazing women, juxtaposing their personal histories and career progressions. Wilson was Scottish born, married to a church minister, and was a research lawyer at a large corporate law firm in Toronto before being appointed to the bench. She was described by those who knew her as a “stoic Scot” who “stuck to her work”. While L’Heureux-Dubé, a Quebecoise who practiced family law, was described as having a “reputation as a femme fatale, whose flamboyance dominated every room she entered”.
While these women had different personal and professional lives, both were subjected to similar sexism and discrimination that arose due to their position as the “firsts”. They were isolated, left out, and “enveloped in a chilly climate that signalled disrespect”. Often their response was to downplay or ignore what was going on.
At the Court of Appeal for Quebec, a judicial colleague named Fred, whom L’Heureux-Dubé liked and admired, gave her a “quick slap on the buttocks” “in a gesture apparently meant to be playful”. When the other judges cried out “Fred, you’ll be sued!”, L’Heureux-Dubé just laughed and said, “Oh, it’s so nice. Oh, Fred…I miss it.” Years later she added, “I was the only one. I was not going to alienate everybody there.”
When a fellow judge pulled out a chair for Justice Wilson on her first day in court at the Court of Appeal for Ontario, she “put up her index finger and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ The front row …all Queen’s Counsel, just broke right out laughing”. The chair-pulling judge emphasized that Wilson was ultimately “a great sport about it”.
In addition to reviewing the reception these women had as the “firsts”, the book also examines the judicial history of some of the important cases that Wilson and L’Heureux-Dubé decided, including Becker v Pettkus, Lavallee, and Morgentaler for Justice Wilson and Moge v Moge, Canada (Attorney General) v Mossop, Seaboyer, and Ewanchuk for L’Heureux-Dubé.
A quick, entertaining, well-researched, and informative read, I think anyone interested in a ‘behind the scenes’ look at being a judge in Canada and the history (or “herstory”) of these “Two Firsts” will enjoy this book. The book is published by Second Story Press as a Feminist History Society Book.
 Constance Backhouse, Two Firsts: Bertha Wilson and Claire L'Heureux-Dube at the Supreme Court of Canada, (Toronto: Second Story Press, 2019) at p. 14.
 At p 131.
 At p. 138.
For this post we have the pleasure of hearing from TWO women leading in law: Christy Allen and Nancy Houle, partners at Davidson Houle Allen LLP in Ottawa.
Andrea Daly, an articling student at their firm, wrote to tell me: "Impressive and lengthy resumes aside, Nancy and Christy are generally all-around amazing people. They treat clients and employees alike with kindness, respect and empathy. . . As for amazing women succeeding in the legal profession, Christy and Nancy really do set the bar (no pun intended).I am inspired working with them every day and hope that you would consider profiling them." Who could say no to that?
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business:
We are a small boutique condominium law firm in Ottawa, and we represent almost exclusively condominium corporations (although we also represent other collective property interest groups, as well as some individual homeowners). Our practice spans most of Eastern Ontario, though we also represent some clients in Northern and Southern Ontario, as well as in Toronto.
Condominium law is a far more interesting area of practice than most people realize. It is an even mix of corporate and litigation work, and it touches on a multitude of legal issues and areas of practice. We deal with everything from large scale construction deficiency litigation to helping clients navigate human rights issues, employment issues, statutory compliance issues, and corporate governance issues, to name a few. It is this variety that really keeps us interested in the long run.
2. Why did you go to law school?
Christy - I went to law school because it was available to me as a practical option when I graduated from my undergraduate studies, and I liked the idea of a career in law. While I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, I know now how fortunate I was to have had law as a realistic option, and to be honest, I worry about the future of our profession when I think about the fact that had I graduated from undergrad today, law school might not have been economically available to me. There are others out there with far better and more inspiring reasons than I had to go to law school, and my hope is that we can find a way to ensure that they are given a fair opportunity to become lawyers.
Nancy – My goal to go to law school began when I was 12 years old. Actually, it began because I wanted to be a Judge, and was advised that I would first need to be a lawyer! I echo Christy’s comments and concerns about the future of our profession, and the opportunities for those who wish to pursue a legal career. I truly love practicing law. [So much so that I have no intention of ever applying to the Bench!] It saddens me to think that there may be someone with such passion who is not able to realize a dream because of economics.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
We both pretty much tripped over the practice of condominium law, and fell into a practice group within a larger firm that included the amazing partners that we have today.
Having stumbled into the area of practice, we both ended up really enjoying the practice – and we particularly enjoyed the people we were working with.
Our group ultimately left that larger firm to become the boutique firm that we are today - that start up of our small firm was less about chance.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
One of the best things about the practice of law is the fact that we get to experience some pretty amazing moments as a result of our careers. So its tough to chose, but we both have to say that our proudest career achievements, at this point in our lives, is the fact that we were able to successfully start up a boutique law firm.
In addition, one of the best parts about starting our own firm has been that we’ve been able to shape it into a firm that maintains core values that are reflective of our own shared philosophy and beliefs. In an industry as traditional as the legal industry, it can be difficult to move away from the standard way of practicing and doing business. So, its been incredibly refreshing for us to be able to move in our own direction with our new venture.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
The biggest challenge, in our view, is that the traditional model of practice doesn’t generally allow for women to balance the interests of being a lawyer and a mother. This is, in our view, what has resulted in so many women leaving private practice before year 10.
Having said this, this challenge in many ways provides all of us with an opportunity to change how we practice law, to allow for more flexibility and more options, and to ensure that we are being more inclusive and losing less talent. There are so many extremely talented lawyers (both men and women) who earnestly want to balance their careers with parenting. And if given the proper opportunity, they may decide to stay in private practice - and in so doing will themselves help to drive the significant change that will be required to overhaul the way lawyers have practiced for so long.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Christy - Even before starting law school, I’ve always believed that each of us has to forge our own path, regardless of what others may say or what obstacles may lie ahead. For women just starting out, I think the best advice I could give is this: Don’t let the statistics scare you and don’t give up just because others say it might be too hard to balance law with whatever other challenge you may be facing in your life. If you want a career in private practice and you also want a family, it is possible. Adjustments may be required, and inevitably some soul searching will take place along the way. But just keep putting one foot in front of the other and try to ignore all the voices that say its not possible. And don’t forget to take whatever opportunities may come your way (particularly later in your career) to seek change for the better, so that this work-life balance challenge that so many women in this profession face will be less of a challenge for future generations.
Nancy – In addition to Christy’s advice, I would add the following advice to young mothers struggling to find balance in the profession: As a young mother trying to maintain a successful legal career, you will inevitably be pulled in many, many directions. You might, at some point, feel like a failure in every aspect of your life: work, personal and family. If that happens, reach out to those who have been there too. Share your story, seek guidance and input, but make the decision that is best for you!
Thank you Christy and Nancy for participating in this series, and thank you Andrea for introducing me.
And a really big THANK YOU to all of the leading women in law profiled in this series: Suzie Seo, Kim Gale, Alexi Wood, Melissa McBain, Erin Best, Gillian Hnatiw, Melanie Sharman Rowand, Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Lisa Jean Helps, Nathalie Godbout Q.C., Laurie Livingstone, Renatta Austin, Janis Criger, May Cheng, Nicole Chrolavicius, Charlene Theodore, Dyanoosh Youssefi, Shannon Salter, Bindu Cudjoe, Elliot Spears, Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan.
I am so excited to profile Suzie Seo in the Women Leading in Law series. I met Suzie on the first day of law school. We were sitting next to each other in the large lecture hall waiting for the Dean's Welcome Address, both a little nervous, neither of us knowing anyone. We were pretty much inseparable for the remainder of law school, even becoming roommates for two years. Although our legal careers are very different and we live in different parts of the country, I am truly honoured to call Suzie a dear friend, supporter, confidante, and an amazing woman who is leading in law. I hope you enjoy reading about Suzie's interesting career path and advice for new lawyers:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I’m currently in a transition period.
The first transition is that in October 2018, after practicing in-house at the Senate of Canada for over 12 years -- Legal Counsel (2006-2012), Parliamentary Counsel (2012-2017) and Assistant Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel (2017-2018) -- I decided to start a new chapter in my legal career as Legislative Counsel with the Government of British Columbia in Victoria. Over a 7-week period, I wound down my practice -- advancing as many of my files as possible to see them to completion or to a state to transition over to colleagues -- while at home my spouse and I listed and sold our house privately; culled, packed and shipped our belongings across the country; and got ready for our cross-country road-trip with two kids in tow. I also began the process of being called to the BC Bar. I began my new post as Legislative Counsel in mid-October, exclusively drafting legislation (Bills, Regulations and Orders in Council) and enjoying the benefits that come with having ministry solicitors and policy advisors as drafting instructors!
The second reason for the transition period came two months into my new job when I decided to submit an application for a one-year Parliamentary Counsel position that unexpectedly came up at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. It is now June and I have been at the Legislative Assembly for a little over 4 months. In many ways I have returned to my former practice of law. As in-house counsel to the Legislative Assembly, I provide legal services and advice, upon request, to the House, presiding officers, parliamentary committees, Members and their legislative and constituency office staff, and to the officers of the Legislative Assembly and the administrative departments they oversee that consist of both parliamentary and corporate branches like HR, IT and Finance. As a Table Officer, I sit at the Table alongside the Clerk of the Legislative Assembly during House proceedings, providing procedural advice to presiding officers and Members. And lastly, as a member of the senior management team, I contribute to the governance, strategic and other corporate initiatives of the Legislative Assembly.
2. Why did you go to law school?
I went to law school because I wanted to become a lawyer in one or more of the following practices areas, which coincidentally all start with “i”: international law; immigration law; intellectual property law. I studied what interested me during four years of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto: human biology, zoology, anthropology and Spanish. I am an immigrant (“1.5 generation” Korean-Canadian) with most of my extended family in South Korea. Since my elementary school days, I have always been intrigued, excited and agitated by human rights and public policy issues. I thought I could build on all of this by studying law and pursuing a legal career in any one of the three “i” practice areas. Plus, I liked school and wanted to continue studying.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Probably a bit of both. I strived for and worked hard to achieve each of the
stepping stones -- law school, summering jobs, articling, legal jobs -- that led me to
where I am today (design). But I didn’t know, as each stone was being laid, what
the final destination would be (chance). I would be self-centered and foolish to not
acknowledge the role of my supportive and loving family who has always been my
cheering squad at every milestone in my life (and in between), encouraging me and
keeping me both grounded and buoyant in love. My mom and dad pray for me
everyday, so I believe there is also divine design in how I got to be where I
am today. What does the future hold for me?! I don’t know...
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
Work-wise, I would say working with Senators to work on various pieces of legislation that have become law over the years has been my most significant achievement because I directly contributed to the work of federal lawmakers that resulted in a direct, tangible and sometimes life-changing impact on Canadians. Looking back not too far, I am also proud I let myself reflect on where I was in my legal career and what I wanted to do in the next decade and beyond that led to the major change in my career path and to my family’s and my life last year.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
Not enough women in senior leadership positions in both the private sector (including law firms) and public institutions continues to be both a challenge and area of opportunity for women in law.
There is also the societal perception problems that many women lawyers, including those in senior positions, face in their everyday interactions with clients, opposing counsel and others in the course of their practice and the additional work required of them to be constantly mindful of managing the fine line (examples below) that is nevertheless more often than not crossed for them:
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Be purposeful in building diverse networks early in your career within the legal community (and outside the law!) and with everyone, especially women. Don’t overthink before calling someone in those networks to think out loud.
Thank you Suzie for sharing your journey with us. I also want to mention that Suzie obtained her Civil Law degree (magna cum laude) while working full time at the Senate and won the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. I am sure the future is bright for you, no matter what it might be!
ICYMI: Previous posts profiled Kim Gale, Alexi Wood, Melissa McBain, Erin Best, Gillian Hnatiw, Melanie Sharman Rowand, Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Lisa Jean Helps, Nathalie Godbout Q.C., Laurie Livingstone, Renatta Austin, Janis Criger, May Cheng, Nicole Chrolavicius, Charlene Theodore, Dyanoosh Youssefi, Shannon Salter, Bindu Cudjoe, Elliot Spears, Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan. Sign up to have these profiles sent directly to your email address and stay tuned for the next post soon!
I started this blog series because I was tired of hearing about women leaving law and wanted to hear about women leading in law. The "Women Leading in Law" series focuses on good news stories and highlights amazing women succeeding in the legal profession. Each post includes the profiled lawyer's answers to six questions. Prepare to be inspired!
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.