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.
Separated into five different time periods, Soloway and Costante profile 50 women lawyers starting with the “Trailblazers: Leading the Way” and Clara Brett Martin, Canada’s first female lawyer. The remaining chapters work through the following decades up to the “Millennium: Juggling It All” and a final note on “Looking Ahead: Lessons for Our Daughters”.
What I enjoyed most about the book were the personal stories, trials and tribulations, and triumphs of these remarkable Canadian women. One notable story was how Marguerite Ritchie’s mother was so committed to her daughter’s future that in the 1930s she hitchhiked with her from Edmonton to Halifax so Marguerite could use the scholarship she earned from Dalhousie University. Also of note was the story of Annie Langstaff, a single mother, who became the first female law student in Quebec but was stopped from becoming a member of the Barreau du Quebec because she was a woman. Her multiple appeals of this decision were unsuccessful and eventually she worked as a paralegal for nearly 60 years. Several years after her death she was posthumously admitted to the Barreau du Quebec and was awarded the Medaille du Barreau de Montreal. (Too little, too late - in my opinion).
Other lawyers profiled include: Kim Campbell, Louise Arbour, Mayo Moran, Constance Backhouse and Marie Henein, just to name a few. Interestingly, the authors noted that there are three common traits among these 50 women: 1) they are supported (encouraged by family, communities or mentors); 2) they are risk-takers; and 3) they are resilient.
My only criticism is that sometimes I felt like I was reading the curriculum vitae or resume of these women (listings of awards, distinctions, positions held). I think the real draw of the book is in their stories, including the glimpses into their personalities, flaws and all. Also valuable and enlightening were the accounts of how these women bounced back or forged ahead after a misstep or set-back.
A copy of the book can be purchased here. Please note that I am not affiliated with this book or the publisher. I am just one of many female lawyers interested in the women who paved the way for our current successes.
When I worked in a large firm in downtown Toronto, a colleague and I would say to each other: “Someone should write a book about our lives”. We didn’t say it out of arrogance; rather we said it because we felt like we were living in a work of fiction.
Well, we don’t have to write that book anymore because Lindsay Cameron, an ex-Big Law lawyer, has just written it. It is aptly called BIGLAW and the protagonist, Mackenzie Corbett is a corporate lawyer at a large firm in New York City who gets caught up/set up in a potentially career ending scandal. The book covers some nightmarish scenarios for Mackenzie, including working non-stop on two very important and headline making deals and suffering abuse at the hands of senior partners while answering to their impossible and contradictory demands. Mackenzie is eventually forced to choose between her high-paying prestigious job and her family, friends, sleep and her overall health and sanity.
The book is lighthearted (don’t expect a serious tome on gender equality in the legal profession), a quick read, and had some laugh-out-loud moments. I loved Ms. Cameron’s discreet nod to “Working Girl” (one of my favourite movies). The mystery part of the novel can be quickly solved by the reader, but I think Ms. Cameron did it that way to show how out of touch MacKenzie had become with life that she couldn’t see what was right in front of her face.
I have to admit, reading this novel did produce some nightmarish flashbacks for me: sleeping with my blackberry on vibrate under my pillow, being woken up in the middle of the night to review documents, having to tell my mother that I couldn’t attend the 30th birthday plans she made for me, dealing with wealthy eccentric clients, etc. But I am happy to say I never had any partner treat me the way the partners in the novel treat Mackenzie. For the most part, the partners I worked with recognized and appreciated my hard work and were great mentors to me.
Overall a fun and entertaining book for those who have worked, are working, or are interested in working in Big Law, or who just want a lighthearted read.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance lawyer, entrepreneur, legal career consultant researcher & writer, and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.