Book Review: “Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions” by Dr. Tiffany Jana and Dr. Michael Baran
While I normally only review “law” related books for my blog, I believe this book will be beneficial to all lawyers and leadership teams at law firms.
Like many of you, I have been reflecting over the past month or so on what I can do to address racism, and in particular anti-Black racism in our country and our profession. I am committed to anti-racism, but know I am not doing enough. Right now, my activism is donation based and I am listening and learning, and I am trying to amplify BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) voices. I have also committed to the Anti-Racist Small Business Pledge compiled for and presented during a town hall on listening, learning and committing to building an equitable, anti-racist organization that I attended in June, organized by Ericka Hines, Rachel Rodgers, and Susan Hyatt. Part of my listening and learning is reading more books on anti-racism and by more diverse authors. The first book I finished was “Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify and Stop Microaggressions” by Dr. Tiffany Jana and Dr. Michael Baran. I chose this book because while overt-racism may be easy to spot, we must also not forget about the subtle everyday actions that exclude BIPOC in the legal profession.
This book focuses on what are commonly known as “microaggressions”, a term that originated in the early 1970s with the work of Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce. Microaggressions have been defined as indirect or subtle discrimination against members of a marginalized group.
The authors describe these as subtle ways that verbal and non-verbal acts serve to exclude people. They want to reframe the term “microaggressions” to “subtle acts of exclusion” or "SAE" as there are drawbacks to the term “microaggression”. There is a lack of clarity about what a microaggression is and the term is communicating implicitly that it is not really a big deal (just “micro”). Also, the term itself provokes defensiveness (“Can I talk about your microaggression?” “I was not being aggressive!”).
The authors prefer the term SAE as these acts are subtle and they serve to exclude people. An example, when someone asks a racialized person “So, like what are you?” or “Where are you really from?” On the surface it might seem like the person is just being curious, however implicitly under the surface they are communicating “You are not normal” or “You are a curiosity”.
The book provides several examples of the harm that SAE cause to individuals in general, but especially in the workplace. As they note: “Work should not be a place where we are subtly injured on a regular basis until we have retreated into little cocoons of isolation and misery.” It is important that SAE are addressed at work and, I say, especially at law firms. As the authors observe: "Whether in the form of exaggerated stereotypes, backhanded compliments, unfounded assumptions, or objectification, SAE are insidious and damaging to our coworkers and colleagues."
What stood out for me was the stark truth that everyone commits SAE against others. Even the authors, experts on equity, diversity and inclusion, shared SAE they initiated. Thinking back, I cringe at some SAE I have said or done. The authors repeatedly underscore the point that SAE are never about intent. Many of us are well-intentioned in our comments or actions, but that is not the point. While I might have thought I was saying one thing, in reality, I was implicitly communicating something quite different. And that is not okay.
The book sets out a framework for identifying what SAE are implicitly communicating: You are invisible. You are inadequate. You are not an individual. You don’t belong. You are not normal. You are a curiosity. You are a threat.
The authors provide a step by step guide and recommended practices when SAE happen from the perspective of everyone involved, including the person who is being excluded by the SAE (the subject), the person who says or does the SAE (the initiator) and anyone who overhears or witnesses the SAE (the observer). The observer role is significant as the observer can take this opportunity to become an ally.
The book also gives advice on how to have a bigger conversation about SAE at work. SAE need to be addressed in the culture of the workplace or law firm. The goal being that there is an environment in which all people involved in an SAE know how to respond in a productive way. The authors point out that: “Organizationally, the culture can normalize the act of intervening by helping people recalibrate their expectations that SAE are a common part of human behaviour.” It is not about punishing people who slip up, it’s about “making room to name the problem and intervene in the moment to prevent further harm”.
Some suggested language is provided by the authors to use when an SAE occurs. Some of the examples sound a little contrived to me, but they do provide some guidance and some language to start with that you can make your own.
The book is extremely non-judgemental and comes from a place of wanting to help and make change rather than calling out bad behaviour or bad people. (The authors prefer “calling people in” to a conversation.) It is an easy and accessible read and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about this subject. I recommend using this book to guide a conversation with the members of your firm, including all lawyers and staff. There are several helpful nuggets of wisdom and advice in this book.
Many lawyers are subtly excluded in law firms all the time. How can we stop that? Start with reading this book and committing to change.
Next Up on my Reading List: Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to Present by Robyn Maynard.
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.
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.
I am a bit of a detective/mystery novel addict.
I read about a novel a week (interspersed with non-fiction books about law and the Canadian legal landscape). The majority of these novels are from one detective series or another. Favourites include the Detective Adam Dalgliesh series by P.D. James, the Detective Vera Stanhope and Detective Jimmy Perez series by Anne Cleeves, the Maisie Dobb’s series by Jacqueline Winspear and Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands series, just to name a few. I especially enjoy mystery novels set in Canada, in particular Barbara Fradkin’s Inspector Green and Amanda Doucette series, Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series, and at the top of my list, Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache series (which I discovered when reading this Ontario Court of Appeal case while doing some legal research).
So, it would be an understatement to say I have been eagerly anticipating the release of former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin’s debut mystery novel set in Vancouver, British Columbia called Full Disclosure: A Novel. Last week I came home to discover the novel had arrived, much to my delight, and I immediately cracked the spine.
. . .Then my heart sank. I struggled with the first couple of chapters. I started to panic. I had already tweeted that I was going to write a review, what if I didn’t like it? I couldn’t possibly write a negative review of the former Chief Justice’s book, could I?
I tried to figure out what it was that wasn’t sitting right with me. It wasn’t the characters or the setting or even the subject matter. Sure, there were a few descriptive sentences that had one too many adjectives, but that is common in this genre. Then it clicked. I was reading it with Chief Justice McLachlin’s voice in my head. When there was talk of “saucy haircuts”, or during a bedroom scene with “lovemaking”, or when a character swore, I was hearing it as if the Chief Justice was reading it from the middle of the dais of the Supreme Court of Canada. This created such an uncomfortable dissonance for me. Once I figured this out, I realized I had to forget who the author was (or more explicitly the role she used to fill), and just read the book. And thank goodness I did, it really is a good mystery novel.
The novel follows criminal defence lawyer Jilly Truitt as she defends a man accused of murdering his socialite wife. (One online legal magazine suggested that the protagonist was based on Marie Henein - as if there is only one competent strong intelligent female defence lawyer in Canada who also happens to wear lipstick and heels - insert eye roll here. See the Women Leading in Law series where I interview more than one awesome female criminal defence lawyer based in Vancouver.) Ms. Truitt has, like any good mystery novel main character, a troubled past with complicated and flawed relationships, but she continues to see the “good” in people.
The story unfolds like a true “whodunnit” with multiple possible suspects, interrelated sub-plots and the required twists and turns (some rather predictable, some not as obvious). The writing style is reflective of the genre, but also with evidence of Ms. McLachlin’s vast vocabulary (I am humble enough to admit that I had to look up the meaning of a few words sprinkled throughout the novel: carapace? escritoire? And who knew the proper phrase was “scotch the rumours”?). As noted by one Amazon reviewer and by Caroline Mandell on Twitter, Ms. McLachlin herself makes an appearance in “Hitchcock fashion”:
Full Disclosure is a fun light read that allows you to play detective and put the pieces of the puzzle together, potentially before Ms. Truitt does, which is exactly what I want in a mystery novel. A momentary escape from reality, but where I can have an active role. I hope this is the first in a long series of books featuring Ms. Truitt that will accumulate on my bedside table, with their rightful place next to my books by P.D. James and Louise Penny.
Overall, I would highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a quick “whodunnit” - just don’t read it as if the Chief Justice of Canada is reading it to you.
The Feminist Who is Not A Feminist - A Review of "Claire L'Heureux-Dubé: A Life" by Constance Backhouse
“How can such a feminist, not be a feminist?”
This thought popped into my head more than once as I voraciously consumed Constance Backhouse’s biography of former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Claire L’Heureux-Dubé called “Claire L’Heureux-Dubé: A Life”.
The book truly covers all of L’Heureux-Dubé's life, from her pre-birth family history to her post-retirement activities, including her complicated relationship with her father, the important role her mother played in her life, how she became known as the “Great Dissenter”, and the personal tragedies that befell her. Backhouse bookends the 545 paged biography (excluding 200 pages of endnotes) with L’Heureux-Dubé's reasons in the R. v. Ewanchuk decision and the public fallout and harsh personal criticism she endured as a result.
What stood out for me though, throughout reading this book, was a repeated refrain that L’Heureux-Dubé did not identify as a feminist. Professor Backhouse notes that L’Heureux-Dubé “was not someone who would ever claim membership in ‘women’s lib’” (p.228) and that “[t]he irony was that Claire L’Heureux-Dube rose to become a flag bearer for a movement to which she never belonged.”(p.229)
One excerpt is particularly revealing. When a group of women “invaded” a Quebec tavern that barred women (but made an exception for L’Heureux-Dubé when she lunched there with her colleagues when she was a practicing lawyer) and started “crying out loud that they had a right to sit in a tavern just as men did”, L’Heureux-Dubé observed:
They called themselves feminists in a place where men were drinking their pay while their wives were crying in our offices unable to pay their debts. To me, they were a bunch of crazy women, while we were fighting for justice where justice counted, in courts and before the legislature. The word feminist for me from thereon was associated with those crazy women and I never wanted to be part of it. (p.206)
This passage I think explains a lot. And I understand. While I have always identified with feminist ideals and causes, I have not always called myself a “feminist”. In my third year of undergrad, I enrolled in a feminist literary criticism course. One day when I was leaving the seminar room a fellow student started a conversation with me, saying: “I’m not sure if I like the word ‘feminist’ to be honest, I’m not sure if I would call myself that, perhaps there is a better word?” At the beginning of the next class another student stood up to explain to the whole class how she overheard “some students” (looking at me and my walking companion) say that they did not identify as feminists. She “could not believe that women in the year 2000 (!) thought this way” and she suggested that we had no place in that classroom or words to that effect. I felt embarrassed, I felt ashamed, I felt enraged, but most importantly I thought – if THIS is what it means to be a feminist and what feminism stood for, I want no part of it. I started calling myself an “equalist” for the next few years before I came to my senses and embraced being a feminist again. The point of this story though is I never stopped acting like a feminist or advocating on behalf of women’s rights, I simply stopped labelling myself a feminist. The label didn’t fit. It just didn’t feel right to me. And while I am comfortable with and fully embrace this label now, I do not judge other women or men who do not call themselves feminists. Do they support gender equality? Do they advocate for women’s rights? That’s all I care about.
It was the critics (and supporters) that labelled L’Heureux-Dubé a feminist and because of this she built a reputation as one. However, what is clear from this book is that it is not a label that fits or feels right to her. This does not diminish her advances in the fight for women’s equality or her steps in paving the way for other women to gain access to the bench.
Another observation: In commenting on her appointment to the bench and promotion up the judicial ladder, L’Heureux-Dubé and other female judges featured in the book often commented that they were “just in the right place at the right time”. I always bristle a little bit when distinguished, competent, and intelligent women say this. And I hear it a lot. I attended a session by the OBA’s Women Lawyers Forum called “Pathways to Power: Getting More Women on the Bench”. Every woman judge on the panel stated this as well, that she “was just in the right place at the right time”. While I know this is likely an act of humility and no harm is meant, I believe such a comment can do a disservice to women seeking out judicial positions and may discourage women from applying to the bench at all. This makes it sound like a judicial appointment is all luck or serendipity. It could discourage women from readying themselves appropriately (taking the steps to build a career and legal experience that would attract a judicial appointment) and downplays the significant work that these women accomplished before being appointed. Yes, luck or serendipity may play a role, but I do not believe it is simply a case of “being in the right place, at the right time”.
While Backhouse also concludes that L’Heureux-Dubé was in “the right place at the right time”, she suggests that the feminist movement deserves some credit too. L’Heureux-Dubé: “was unattached to the burgeoning new feminist organizations. But when the politicians went looking, she was in the right place at the right time. Simply by being the most senior woman in private practice in Quebec, she was the obvious woman for the job. . . Her opportunity emerged because the women’s movement insisted on change.”(pp.228-229)
Overall, this was a book I could not put down once I started and finished it in under a week. I would be working at my office and I would count down the hours until I could go home and pick it up again. Perhaps it is just the legal geek in me who loves anything to do with law, but I believe it had more to do with the excellent story telling on the part of Backhouse. She drew you in to the life of L’Heureux-Dubé , but left her own impression on you, the reader, as well. Backhouse’s views were provided, but in a subtle way. She was always there guiding the reader and reminding her of a different interpretation as to the events that occurred, an outside observer’s perspective on very personal inside accounts. Aside from the fascinating feminist analysis Backhouse brings to L’Heureux-Dubé’s life and career, this book offers so much more to lawyers, law students, or anyone interested in Canadian legal history.
It may be an understatement that I am an admirer of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court. Not only is she a well-respected judge, she’s an outspoken feminist who never shies away from voicing her opinions, she’s a cultural icon, and she even has an insect named after her (I. ginsburgae).
When I was at a cocktail reception and a prominent Toronto barrister said to me that RBG should be “dragged out into the street and shot”, it took all of my energy not to throw my wine in his face. It seems Mr. Lawyer was quite upset that The Notorious R.B.G. did not retire under the Obama administration so that another liberal judge could be appointed. So now, as he so eloquently put it, she is going to “drop dead” with Trump in power and it is “her fault” that a conservative judge will replace her. God forbid the woman wants to actually keep doing her job as long as she is able to, which she has every right to do. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. didn’t retire until he was 90 years old. RBG is only 84.
Also, it’s not like RBG doesn’t know her age and isn’t aware of her previous health challenges (she’s had cancer twice). I’m sure she is also more than aware of the importance of having some liberal voices remain on the bench. She knows very well the weight on her shoulders and she is doing everything in her power to remain healthy. One important part in her plan is her twice-weekly one-hour workouts with her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, who is also a court clerk and Army reservist.
Now, I dislike exercise about as much as I admire RBG, which is a lot. I exercise because I know I have to, but I will never be one of those annoyingly perky people who get up at 5am to go for an hour long run or head to the gym every day at lunch. I drag myself mentally kicking and screaming to my weekly Pilates or Zumba class and when I am there I count down the minutes until my body can be mine again. So when Amazon suggested I might want to order Mr. Johnson’s book “The RBG Workout”, I hoped my love of RBG would temper my dislike of exercise and I quickly ordered it.
It is a small hard covered book that can be held in one hand and easily transported to the gym. The book has a foreword written by the Justice and includes some fun facts about her as well. For example, she doesn’t sleep some nights. Like, not at all. Perhaps she really is superhuman.
It features awesome cartoon pictures of RBG in workout clothes demonstrating each exercise. Mr. Johnson gives two options: a gym option if gym equipment is available or a home option. Clearly I did the home option as I haven’t stepped foot in a gym since, probably, high school. The workout focuses mostly on strength exercises with warm-up and cool-down sections. The at-home version involves a flex band and things you can find around the house like chairs, steps, stools, etc. I was familiar with most of the exercises and they were relatively simple. Simple, that is, but not easy. Mr. Johnson gives a variation on some of the exercises as well, i.e. the regular version, the easier, and easiest. I also made my own variations: RBG does 20 regular push-ups; I struggled my way to 5.
This book would be a great holiday gift for the RBG lovers in your life or those looking for a new exercise regime with easy to follow instructions and pictures. Will I be adding this workout to my weekly regime? Honestly, probably not. But if I could do it alongside Justice Ginsberg.... that would be a different story.
The book can be found here.
“Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution”: A Must Read for the Next Generation of Feminist Lawyers
I’ve been a feminist as long as I can remember, even before I knew what a feminist was. Growing up in a small town in Ontario, I vividly recall being 12 and having my male teacher call me a “women’s libber”. I had written an essay on why the name “manhole” cover was sexist and argued that we should be using a more inclusive term. (Yes, I am keenly aware that there are more pressing issues facing women than being excluded from the name of a piece of metal covering the sewers, but 12 year old Erin saw it as a grave injustice!) I painted on my childhood bedroom wall: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and I argued at every family holiday gathering (much to the chagrin of my grandmother) that it wasn’t fair that the men could just sit after dinner while the women washed the dishes. I’ve always needed to call out unfairness when I see it and to fight for equal rights for women. It just seemed so obvious to me.
Recently, with the headlines showing that women still hold little power in law firms and corporations, the continuation of unequal pay, overt sexism and misogyny in politics, outrageous comments by our judiciary in sexual assault cases . . . I’ve been feeling rather jaded and discouraged. The book “Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution” by Linda Silver Dranoff has changed that.
Ms. Silver Dranoff’s book chronicles both her life as a lawyer and her fight for legal reform and the advancement of women's rights in Canada, including family law reform, pay and employment equity, abortion rights, pension rights, and access to justice, just to name a few. Part legal history book, part memoir, and part “how-to” guide on activism, it was a quick, entertaining, and inspiring read. Ms. Silver Dranoff reveals a behind the scenes look at political maneuvering, how laws are really made, grass roots movements, and most importantly, she shows the impact that one woman working within a sisterhood of supportive women can make on the inequities in our society. She also provides helpful career advice and concrete steps for the next generation of feminist lawyers. This should be mandatory reading for all law students.
The book covers the years from 1969 to the near present, chronologically examining the legislative changes that Ms. Silver Dranoff fought for, as well as the many women’s rights groups she belonged to or founded. All the while, Ms. Silver Dranoff was a single mother and a self-employed lawyer. Being her own boss provided her with the freedom to speak out and pursue her feminist advocacy. While I was aware of the changing of the laws in Canada affecting women’s rights, I never truly understood or appreciated how these changes came about, who was involved, or the effort and courage of these women and allies to use their privileged positions as lawyers to stand up and speak out.
The conclusion to the book is aptly called “Over to You”. This is a passing of the torch and Ms. Silver Dranoff reminds the reader that there is still so much to do:
“. . . I recognize that I might not have grasped the opportunity to contribute as I did had I not developed the confidence to trust my own insights and instincts. I hope that you, dear reader, particularly young people starting out on your own path, find a way to trust your insights and instincts, to summon the courage to become your own person and live life on your own terms . . . I hope that every woman reading this book understands the importance of working together with other women in sisterhood . . . Remain vigilant to ensure that the advances my generation made are not taken away from you. 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.”
Thank you Ms. Silver Dranoff for all you have done for women in this country and thank you for taking the time to document the history of lawyering the feminist revolution in Canada. I have often asked myself “What can one person do?” This book has reminded me how wrong that thinking is. We will continue to gather, organize, write, speak up, and make further change. We can do this.
(Now, who do I write regarding the changing of the name “manhole” cover?)
I bought this book because I thought it would make for a great review for this blog: a book about the demise of a large Canadian law firm, seemingly out of the blue.
I was going to write a typical summary review of the book, but as I started reading I could not ignore the feminist voice inside my head popping up at various times as I made my way through its pages. I was reading the book as “Lawyer Erin”, curious about how a large firm like Heenan Blaikie could collapse almost overnight, but also as “Feminist Erin” fascinated (and sometimes annoyed) with the male author’s, and male protagonists’, perspectives on the inner workings of a law firm and the legal profession in general. So this will be both your regular review of the book, but it will be followed by a few observations that Feminist Erin could not ignore.
This book is more than a recounting of the rise and fall of Heenan Blaikie. It is also the story of Norman Bacal, the author, tax lawyer, and former co-managing partner of Heenan. Mr. Bacal writes of his lessons learned, his regrets, his mistakes and his successes. The book also includes many stories of tax cases, as well as the history of tax planning and film and television financing in Canada. Readers who are interested in tax law and tax issues will take a lot more away from this book than just Mr. Bacal’s explanation of the end of Heenan Blaikie. (Those not so interested in tax law may wish to skim through those sections...)
So, why did Heenan Blaikie fall? There is no short answer. It was not because the firm was not making money, nor was there a large scandal or illegal shenanigans. Mr. Bacal paints a picture of a successful law firm that fell victim to the egos and emotions of the people at its helm. From my reading, it appears to have come down to fear, insecurities, lack of communication, and perhaps a little denial (although each person who reads the book may find a different explanation). Despite all the positive steps the firm was taking other less positive circumstances were chipping away at the firm (no partnership agreement, lack of trust between offices, conflicting personalities). Basically, once the foundations of the firm started to shake, the collapse wasn’t too far away. Eventually, it turned into a bank run. Once a few lawyers started leaving, the remaining lawyers got jittery: “If that lawyer is leaving, should I leave too? Why are they leaving? Is this a sinking ship? Should I look out for my own career?”
Mr. Bacal tells a tale of privileged lawyers and the "golden years" for law firms. He starts with the formation of the firm, and moves to its expansion to Toronto, across Canada, and globally. He chronicles the highs and the lows of managing a firm. The characters, the lawyers, are relatable (and familiar) to most lawyers in Toronto. He made it a human story, not a clinical examination of what went wrong.
Now….Some Feminist Musings: Where are the Women?
I could not help but notice the domination of male lawyers in this book. There are almost no female voices. And I get it, this story starts in 1973, at a time when men pretty much ruled the legal profession (some argue they still do). But Heenan collapsed in 2014. I was expecting some more women to emerge as the story continued, but few did. I can only take away from this that women did not play a large role in Heenan’s management over the years, or the author chose not to focus on their stories. I hope it’s the former and not the latter, but both explanations are disappointing. I am not saying that if women were in charge there would not have been a collapse. What I’m saying is this book is more proof of the lack of female voices in law firm management.
Even the language throughout the book reflects the male domination of the legal profession. A few examples: When Mr. Bacal talked about a turning point in his career, he noted, “I was forced to transform myself from a strong technical lawyer into a tax planner, and that required imagination. In the tax world, this is what separates the planners from the lifetime technicians, the men from the boys.” Also, the foreword states that a lesson to be learned “from Bacal’s book – is that in moments of crisis, firms must be able to rely on vigorous leaders as their last line of defence. In this regard, Heenan Blaikie didn’t have the men it needed.” It’s not hard to write with gender neutral language. Words matter.
The Hero(ine) of the Story
While some may see the hero of the story as Mr. Bacal and his attempts to resuscitate a dying Heenan, I believe the true hero of the story is Sharon Bacal, the author’s wife. Mr. Bacal clearly adores his wife. He leaned on her and looked to her for advice throughout his career. She counseled him on getting his job (“What do you have to lose…Why don’t you call him and ask?”) and how to be a good manager (“People need to see you, need to hear from you personally.”) And when he didn’t take her advice (e.g. "Do not open an office in Paris"), he regretted it.
But Sharon Bacal isn’t just a supportive wife; she is an accomplished woman, a chartered accountant, was a partner at Coopers & Lybrand and now a portrait artist. When the Bacals decided to move to Toronto, Mr. Bacal observed that he was “adding a lot of pressure to [his] wife’s life, leaving her to coordinate the lives of three children, a pregnancy, a job transfer, the sale of our house, the purchase of a new house, and a move – in short, a complete overhaul of [their] lives”. It was this woman who emerged as the true hero of the story.
Who should read this book?
Anyone with an interest in Canadian law, law firms, or law firm management (or even legal gossip) will enjoy this book and many can learn from the lessons told within.
“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.
I first learned of the novel “January: A Woman Judge’s Season of Disillusion” after retired Justice Susan Lang mentioned it at the OBA Women Lawyers Forum’s “Pathways to Power: Women on the Bench” event that was held in the spring. Justice Lang noted that the author, the Honourable Marie Corbett Q.C., chose to resign from being a judge rather than retire, which is rare. This piqued my interest. What made her lose interest or stop enjoying her work as a judge?
The story takes place in January of 1995 when Justice Corbett’s disillusionment with being a judge becomes evident at the same time one of her close friends, Anne Armstrong Gibson, is dying of cancer at the age of 46. The book follows Marie’s daily travels between the courtroom and the hospital room of her dying friend. Through up close and sometimes very personal accounts, she paints a picture of the shortcomings of both the medical and legal systems in the 1990s.
Most interesting were the glimpses into this judge’s daily life: her thoughts when she witnessed a poor cross-examination; her routine before and after court; her criticism of sexual assault trials; the feeling of powerlessness she sometimes felt; and her thoughts on feminism and the role of women in law (when she was appointed, women were only 3% of the judiciary and there were only nine women in her law-school class, the largest in its history).
In her storytelling the author presents herself as a confident woman who does not shy away from expounding her accomplishments, and in fact, has little patience for those women who do:
“I was all too familiar with women of achievement who were loath to acknowledge their accomplishments. Likewise, I had little patience with the women who say ‘I’m only a housewife’ ‘I’m just a secretary,’ I had even less when successful women found it so hard to take a bow and say ‘Yes, I did it.’ . . . Why is it so ingrained in women to diminish what we do and who we are? . . . A man takes a piss somewhere, and they put up a plaque.”[emphasis in original]
Weaved throughout the narrative are tales of lunches at private golf and ski clubs, private vacation resorts in the Bahamas, expensive boarding schools, dinner and dancing with Princess Di, and encounters with Margaret Thatcher and Queen Noor, revealing a privileged life that only a few can relate to. But balanced with this are experiences that all too many are familiar with: the scenes of sickness and cancer and Marie’s encounters with the dying Anne.
The book presents a unique insight into the judiciary, revealing that not all are suited for such a job, no matter how qualified they may be. Anyone who may be interested in seeking out a position on the bench, or wants to read about the judiciary, women in the law, or simply a tale of friendship (and a reminder to ‘seize the day’) would find this a quick and interesting read.
If you would like to learn more about this novel or the Honorable Marie Corbett, I've noticed that she will be giving an "Author’s Talk" at an upcoming Toronto Lawyer’s Association event on October 6, 2016. You can register for this event here.
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.