I first met Charlene when she was a panelist on a program I helped organize for the Ontario Bar Association's Women Lawyers Forum on networking advice (if anyone can give advice on networking it is Charlene, she is really good at it!) Read on to learn more about Charlene's career path and her career advice targeted at in-house counsel:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business:
I’m a lawyer with a background in public policy and government relations and I have devoted my career to the protection of people in the workplace and in society. I articled and then worked as Policy Counsel for the African Canadian Legal Clinic. I went on to represent unions, acting as Counsel to the Ontario Nurses’ Association, and now work Counsel for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA). I advise management and staff on the impact of legislative and regulatory changes in the education sector and provide legal assistance to teachers who are disabled or injured at work. I also advise on issues related to benefits and pensions. I love my job and I love that my work has a positive impact on employees of predominantly female workforces.
2. Why did you go to law school?
I was a such a bookworm as a kid. When I was 15 or 16, I read “The Steven Truscott Story”. I remember the feeling of horror that someone my age could be wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. You would think it would have driven me towards criminal law, but what I took from that story was the power that lawyers and judges had to right wrongs in any area of society. Once I finished the book, I spoke to my guidance counsellor to find out how I could get into the profession.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
I am very happy with what I have achieved and where I am in my career today. I got to this place by trusting my instincts, keeping things in perspective, being unafraid to make choices that worked for me as opposed to what was expected of me.
One of the best decisions I made was to accept an offer from the International Bar Association for an internship in their International Commercial Law Program in the summer of my second year. The conventional thing to do would be to take a job at home that would lead to an articling position. Accepting that job took me out of the running for those coveted summer jobs at home, and also paid nothing but a stipend for living expenses. It exposed me to the the intersection of human rights law and commercial law in the global economy. I came home from England with no clue as to where I was going to article but with a wealth of experience and no regrets. My experience in the UK did lead to a great articling position where I had the opportunity to advocate against racism before the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination for Racial Discrimination, as well as federal and provincial legislative committees. My specialized human rights experience opened the doors for me to do the work I do now.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
I’ve never shared this publicly before but in my third year of law school I was sidelined with a bout of severe depression and anxiety. Those feelings of extreme sadness, the paralyzing panic I would feel before every exam - I thought they were just the normal reactions to the pressures of law school. Having to deal with a diagnosis like that in the final year of law school and manage this new reality and the stigma that comes with it during articling and at the start of my career was too challenging to articulate. That I made it through without derailing my career and ended up happy and healthy in both my professional and personal life is my most significant achievement. I have “pinch me” moments of gratitude daily because I know how close I was to losing my career before it even started.
5. What are some key challenges and opportunities for women in law?
I’d like to use this answer to speak to women working in-house or those aspiring to an in-house role.
This work can be very rewarding but also very isolating. You can very easily become disconnected from issues that affect the Bar as a whole. Additionally, when you work in house you have to navigate both the legal landscape and the particular corporate landscape of that organization. Both of which can present challenges for women in male dominated workspaces. I think it’s important to make sure you have a presence outside of the legal department. Sit in on meetings, offer to assist work groups and committees, - it will inform your legal work and dispel the common notion that we’re needed for “just” transactional work. It’s also important to develop relationships with other in house counsel and other lawyers. They can be an important resource for how to manage your client relationship. Volunteer for a Bar or lawyer association and get to know lawyers outside of your company, industry or sector.
I hope we are getting closer to the point where the opportunities are starting to outweigh the challenges. Until we get there, women need to be vigilant about advocating for themselves at work and making sure they are not sidelined when professional opportunities arise.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
I hear from a lot of young women in our profession who are unhappy with their work or the pace of advancement in their field. You need to put in the time and gain experience to have full agency over your career - you can’t circumvent that. That being said, earning a law degree in this country bestows privilege. You didn’t put in all of that work to be stuck in a job you hate. Always know that you have options - at every single stage of your career.
Speaking specifically to black female lawyers, don’t ever lose your connection to your community. Seek out networks with other black female lawyers and other professionals that you can rely on while you navigate your career path. The reality is that path and your obstacles will be different than those of other women. When you make it, reach back and create opportunities for other people of colour whenever you can.
Thank you Charlene for taking the time to provide such honest and open answers.
ICYMI: Previous posts profiled 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! The series will continue until December 2018.