Recently my husband and I attended a legal gathering with several other lawyers. My husband, being my biggest champion, so kindly promoted my freelance lawyer business (Flex Legal) to another lawyer, telling her that I was “revolutionizing” the way law was practiced in Toronto (a bit of an exaggeration, but still appreciated). She immediately asked if everyone at Flex were “yummy mummy lawyers.” My reaction was “Ugh, this again” as I involuntarily rolled my eyes and explained (as I so often do) that:
“No. It is not only mothers who want to work flexible hours. We have lawyers in our network who do not have children. We also have lawyers who are transitioning to retirement. We’ve met several men who wish to practice law in a more flexible way. But yes, I happen to have birthed a few kids.”
I probably reacted the way I did (blood boiling) as I find such terminology completely insulting, even if it was not meant to be. This was not the first time that I was called this and it unfortunately will likely not be the last. I've Googled the term “Yummy Mummy” and Wikipedia tells me that “it is a slang term used in the United Kingdom to describe young, attractive and wealthy mothers with rich, high powered husbands” and that “a yummy mummy would have several children and yet remain a ‘girl-about-town’, dressing fashionably and appearing well-groomed and carefree” while “bankrolled by a husband working himself to death in the City”.
Do people who call me (and other freelancers)"yummy mummy lawyers" think that we are just dabbling in law while being supported by powerful husbands who do the "real" work? Good grief. Having the desire to work flexibly is not synonymous with being lazy. It also does not mean that we work fewer hours (although it can) than “real” lawyers. I have chosen to have a full time practice. We do the same interesting and challenging work that other lawyers do, just in a novel and more flexible way. Freelance lawyers are not second-class lawyers for wanting to practice law differently. And we certainly are not all “yummy mummies”.
 And seriously, as if it is a shock that women can still be attractive after having kids? And more importantly, why must our looks and appearance take precedence over our professional accomplishments? Is there a male equivalent to a "yummy mummy"?
Another great program was presented by the Ontario Bar Association's Women Lawyers Forum, this time jointly with the Civil Litigation section. It was called “Female Litigators: Staking Your Claim in the Courtroom” and it was part of the 2017 OBA Institute.
The two hour program was chaired by Maureen Whelton and Richa Sandill and was split into two sessions.
The first, “Candid Conversations”, with Linda Rothstein and Linda Fuerst, was indeed candid. While some may be tired of hearing “back in my day the judge called me ‘toots’” talk, I believe that it is important to remind ourselves that not so long ago things were much worse for female litigators. Most lawyers in the room were shocked at the sexist behaviour exhibited by judges and lawyers toward “The Lindas” (as they were affectionately nicknamed) in their early days of practice. Linda Fuerst had to “dress like a woman” in court in order to gain respect from the judges. Comments on their appearance were often made. Linda Rothstein was once interrupted by a judge while she was making submissions in court so he could tell her how nice her nails looked. Both Lindas stuck to their guns, demanded respect, and knew they were worthy of the same respect as their male colleagues. Both also recognized that change occurred when there were more female judges appointed to the bench, but outside the courtroom the discrimination continued.
The second session was called “Women in the Courtroom: Intergenerational Perspectives on Challenges and Success Strategies” and Shantona Chaudhury, Anne London-Weinstein, Asha James and Sandra Nishikawa were on the panel.
I appreciated Sandra’s initial comment that those of us in the room were ultimately very privileged and empowered women. It was important to keep our privilege in mind as we went on to “whine and complain” as Sandra half-jokingly put it. I agree wholeheartedly.
The stories from the second panel revealed that in some ways we have come a long way; but in others, not so much. For example, Sandra was recently at the Supreme Court of Canada when, before Court, she was referred to as “the girl” by a senior staff member. While the person later apologized, this is just wrong and disheartening on so many levels.
Some of the panellists also spoke from the perspective of being racialized lawyers and how that has affected how they are treated in the courtroom and elsewhere. Sandra is sometimes mistakenly identified as a court translator. Asha finds that racialized lawyers must be extra or over prepared compared to other litigators.
A few of the panellists expressed the same sentiment as The Lindas that behaviour outside the courtroom is always worse than in the courtroom as there is no “overseer”. When asked if we should call others out on bad behaviour, the panellists felt that it depended on the context. As women, yes, we should. However, as litigators we have our clients and the case to think about. Is it in your client’s best interest to call out opposing counsel or a judge or adjudicator on their misbehaviour? Perhaps you wait until the case is done. Shantona advised us to know how to “pick your battles”. Is it something egregious? Call them out. Or is it something that can wait? Then, let it wait. As you practice longer, and gain more experience, it is easier to make these calls. If something occurs during a court appearance, Asha suggested calling a mentor for advice when court was on a break.
Some takeaways from the second session:
“Disagreeing does not make a person disagreeable. In fact, it can change the world! Through her life, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made a big difference . . . one disagreement at a time.”
I was already an admirer of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but when I found a children’s book on her life I became an even bigger fan of the “Notorious RBG”. “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark” by Debbie Levy is an introduction into the life of an amazing woman who has been sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States for over 23 years. It’s pretty cool to see her life and the advances she has made in the fight for equality in the form of a picture book.
The target age is 4-8 but adults will enjoy reading it as well. The writing is at an appropriate level for children, with complicated legal concepts explained clearly. The book covers examples of Justice Ginsburg “objecting” “protesting” and “dissenting” her way through childhood, university, and on the bench. I especially like the part describing Justice Ginsburg’s close friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, even though they were very much ideologically opposed (to say the least).
When I asked for her opinion on the book, one 7 year old girl said, “I learned that men shouldn’t always do the important stuff. Maybe they could cook dinners too”. Also that Justice Ginsburg was “very smart. Maybe she could now fight Donald Trump” and that “it was interesting because she was teaching women can be powerful too”. Another 8 year old, after having read the book, dressed as the Justice for a Super Hero Day at school. RBG sent her a handwritten note.
Now we can only hope that the almost 84 year old Notorious RBG is exercising, eating healthy, and getting regular checkups. In this current legal/political climate, we need her dissenting opinions now more than ever.
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.