For this post we have the pleasure of hearing from TWO women leading in law: Christy Allen and Nancy Houle, partners at Davidson Houle Allen LLP in Ottawa.
Andrea Daly, an articling student at their firm, wrote to tell me: "Impressive and lengthy resumes aside, Nancy and Christy are generally all-around amazing people. They treat clients and employees alike with kindness, respect and empathy. . . As for amazing women succeeding in the legal profession, Christy and Nancy really do set the bar (no pun intended).I am inspired working with them every day and hope that you would consider profiling them." Who could say no to that?
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business:
We are a small boutique condominium law firm in Ottawa, and we represent almost exclusively condominium corporations (although we also represent other collective property interest groups, as well as some individual homeowners). Our practice spans most of Eastern Ontario, though we also represent some clients in Northern and Southern Ontario, as well as in Toronto.
Condominium law is a far more interesting area of practice than most people realize. It is an even mix of corporate and litigation work, and it touches on a multitude of legal issues and areas of practice. We deal with everything from large scale construction deficiency litigation to helping clients navigate human rights issues, employment issues, statutory compliance issues, and corporate governance issues, to name a few. It is this variety that really keeps us interested in the long run.
2. Why did you go to law school?
Christy - I went to law school because it was available to me as a practical option when I graduated from my undergraduate studies, and I liked the idea of a career in law. While I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, I know now how fortunate I was to have had law as a realistic option, and to be honest, I worry about the future of our profession when I think about the fact that had I graduated from undergrad today, law school might not have been economically available to me. There are others out there with far better and more inspiring reasons than I had to go to law school, and my hope is that we can find a way to ensure that they are given a fair opportunity to become lawyers.
Nancy – My goal to go to law school began when I was 12 years old. Actually, it began because I wanted to be a Judge, and was advised that I would first need to be a lawyer! I echo Christy’s comments and concerns about the future of our profession, and the opportunities for those who wish to pursue a legal career. I truly love practicing law. [So much so that I have no intention of ever applying to the Bench!] It saddens me to think that there may be someone with such passion who is not able to realize a dream because of economics.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
We both pretty much tripped over the practice of condominium law, and fell into a practice group within a larger firm that included the amazing partners that we have today.
Having stumbled into the area of practice, we both ended up really enjoying the practice – and we particularly enjoyed the people we were working with.
Our group ultimately left that larger firm to become the boutique firm that we are today - that start up of our small firm was less about chance.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
One of the best things about the practice of law is the fact that we get to experience some pretty amazing moments as a result of our careers. So its tough to chose, but we both have to say that our proudest career achievements, at this point in our lives, is the fact that we were able to successfully start up a boutique law firm.
In addition, one of the best parts about starting our own firm has been that we’ve been able to shape it into a firm that maintains core values that are reflective of our own shared philosophy and beliefs. In an industry as traditional as the legal industry, it can be difficult to move away from the standard way of practicing and doing business. So, its been incredibly refreshing for us to be able to move in our own direction with our new venture.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
The biggest challenge, in our view, is that the traditional model of practice doesn’t generally allow for women to balance the interests of being a lawyer and a mother. This is, in our view, what has resulted in so many women leaving private practice before year 10.
Having said this, this challenge in many ways provides all of us with an opportunity to change how we practice law, to allow for more flexibility and more options, and to ensure that we are being more inclusive and losing less talent. There are so many extremely talented lawyers (both men and women) who earnestly want to balance their careers with parenting. And if given the proper opportunity, they may decide to stay in private practice - and in so doing will themselves help to drive the significant change that will be required to overhaul the way lawyers have practiced for so long.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Christy - Even before starting law school, I’ve always believed that each of us has to forge our own path, regardless of what others may say or what obstacles may lie ahead. For women just starting out, I think the best advice I could give is this: Don’t let the statistics scare you and don’t give up just because others say it might be too hard to balance law with whatever other challenge you may be facing in your life. If you want a career in private practice and you also want a family, it is possible. Adjustments may be required, and inevitably some soul searching will take place along the way. But just keep putting one foot in front of the other and try to ignore all the voices that say its not possible. And don’t forget to take whatever opportunities may come your way (particularly later in your career) to seek change for the better, so that this work-life balance challenge that so many women in this profession face will be less of a challenge for future generations.
Nancy – In addition to Christy’s advice, I would add the following advice to young mothers struggling to find balance in the profession: As a young mother trying to maintain a successful legal career, you will inevitably be pulled in many, many directions. You might, at some point, feel like a failure in every aspect of your life: work, personal and family. If that happens, reach out to those who have been there too. Share your story, seek guidance and input, but make the decision that is best for you!
Thank you Christy and Nancy for participating in this series, and thank you Andrea for introducing me.
And a really big THANK YOU to all of the leading women in law profiled in this series: 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, a network of freelance lawyers.