Meet Anne-Marie McElroy a criminal defence lawyer at McElroy Law in Ottawa. I love seeing all of these criminal defence lawyers succeeding at law. (You are writing down their names and adding them to your referral lists, right?) Read on for Anne-Marie's story and her journey in law:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I am a sole practitioner, doing exclusively criminal defence work. I have been on my own since 2015, when I came back from a maternity leave with my second child. I began my solo career with precisely one file and have grown it from there! My practice has evolved into a mix of trial work, pleas and appeals. I really enjoy working with clients and helping them to navigate their way through the criminal justice system.
I also love the flexibility that comes with solo practice. It was a huge relief to come back to work on my own terms and according to my own schedule. The shift also gave me an opportunity to focus on other things, such as my blog where I write about new cases, legislation and other issues in criminal law. The blog has been an amazing way to keep current and also indulge my love of writing, as well as providing some opportunities to speak to the media. I think that public legal education is so important and I’m really proud to be able to contribute to it in my own way.
2. Why did you go to law school?
I really had no idea that I would ever be a lawyer growing up, but I knew that I wanted to have a job that was challenging intellectually and also helped people. Towards the end of my undergrad, I remember reading an essay by Jacques Derrida about refugees and it sort of clicked that law could be an area that is people-focused but also theoretical. And then I found myself watching Legally Blonde on my couch one evening and I thought again, maybe law is an option? I applied for law school with the intention of working in policy, but then thought I should probably get called to the bar. Mid-way through my articles, I helped one of the partners at my firm with a jury trial and I was hooked.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Given that part of my decision to apply to law school was driven by Elle Woods, I would say mostly chance, but also a bit of design. I never planned too many steps ahead, but kept moving forward in a direction that felt fulfilling and challenging. In law school, I loved constitutional law and criminal law – those were the two areas that I most connected with. I figured that criminal law would be the best way to combine those interests, so I articled at a criminal firm.
My own practice has been more intentional, where I’ve worked to gain experience in all sorts of types of files and areas of criminal law. I have also done my best to give myself space to do things like write, present at conferences and volunteer. These sorts of extra-curricular things help me to stay engaged and excited about law.
And while I work as a sole practitioner, I have built a strong network around myself so that I can have matters covered if I need to go to my kid’s Christmas concert or duck out for their dentist appointment. I wouldn’t say that I sat down on day 1 and mapped out this course, but my practice has grown intentionally in a way that aligns with my priorities both within and outside of work.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
Aside from a few particularly rewarding trials that come to mind, I am most proud of having grown a practice while parenting young kids. While both can be challenging and sometimes draining, they are both immensely rewarding.
I am also very proud of having represented the Criminal Lawyer’s Association at the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs with respect to bill C-51 in the fall of 2018. It was a really interesting opportunity to advocate on behalf of the profession, drawing on my own trial experience and research, and to engage with those shaping the legislation. (Not that it really mattered – the bill was passed without any real changes, but the experience was great nonetheless!)
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
Having a family while in private practice remains one of the most challenging things that a woman can undertake. Parental leaves are so difficult to take without having your practice decimated and it has led to many amazing, bright young women leaving private practice. Despite so many initiatives to retain women and promote equity practices, there is still so much work to be done. (I wrote about this with my colleagues Rebecca Bromwich and Juliet Knapton in "2019 Reality Check After the LSO Bencher Election: Parenting While (Criminal) Lawyering")
In terms of opportunities, I think many women bring important qualities to law, particularly criminal law, that are huge assets in helping out clients. While law isn’t necessarily thought of as a caring profession, in many ways we are helping clients through an immensely stressful period of their lives. Women lawyers are often so well suited to listening and advocating effectively for our clients. Also, as the world shifts in the wake of the Me Too movement, women defence lawyers are often uniquely situated to represent accused persons in a way that is sensitive and ethical, avoiding rape myths and keeping trials streamlined and focused.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
First off, don’t be afraid to chart your own path. When I first went out on my own, a colleague took me for lunch to discuss solo practice. He asked me, “Who do you want to be?” and listed off a number of our colleagues with different types of practices. The answer for me was none of those people. I respected them all immensely, but I needed to build something that was true to me: to be a fierce advocate for my clients while being an empathetic guide through the justice system, providing public legal education and engaging my brain in creative legal work. You can take bits of what others are doing, but don’t try to replicate anyone else exactly.
Perhaps more importantly, find your people. This is such a tough job and it makes it so much easier if you have support from those around you. Find colleagues who will work through Charter issues with you, help you to prepare a cross-examination, answer the panicked mid-trial phone call on a discrete issue and listen to you complain at the end of a long day in court. You will be a better lawyer for it.
Such great advice Anne-Marie, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions and share your experiences.
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!
ICYMI - previous posts profiled the following amazing lawyers: Jennifer Gold, Jordana Goldlist, Megan Keenberg, Yadesha Satheaswaran, France Mahon, Sarah Molyneaux, Richa Sandill, Vivene Salmon, Kim Whaley, Alisia Grenville, Frances Wood, Maggie Wente, Anita Szigeti, Neha Chugh, Christy Allen & Nancy Houle, 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.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.