Claire was recommended to me by Lisa Jean Helps (who was very helpful in introducing me to some great lawyers from the West Coast). Through our email exchanges, and in her thoughtful answers below, Claire stands out as an authentic and accomplished lawyer in her field (and someone I would want to hang out with if I had the chance!)
Read on for some great advice for women seeking out a career in criminal law or interested in starting their own practice:
1) Tell me a little about your practice or business:
I practice with three other wonderful colleagues at Pender Litigation – a criminal law practice in downtown Vancouver which we started together in July, 2017.
I practice criminal defence as well as some administrative law (workplace misconduct investigations; professional discipline). I occasionally take on Crown work as well. I also occasionally act for complainants in domestic violence and sexual assault cases, providing them with independent legal advice, or acting for them on defence applications under s. 276 or s. 278 of the Criminal Code.
2) Why did you go to law school?
When I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph (Sociology; Family and Child Studies), I had a strong interest in family dynamics and therapy. After some volunteer work in the social work field, I found myself questioning how much change I could really effect without a law degree. It was only then I started to think about law school. I started the application process a year after obtaining my B.A.
I attended law school at the University of Victoria 2000-2003.
As is often the case, my interest shifted during law school towards criminal and constitutional law from my starting point of family law. And here I am now practising criminal law, so it all worked out perfectly.
3) How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Both, I would say. My design evolved from chance.
I obtained a wonderful articled position with a well-reputed criminal defence firm in Vancouver, Bolton & Muldoon, and then was asked to stay on. I did stay on for 6 or so years as an associate, got a wealth of experience on all sorts of files, then started my own practice in 2011 called Bolton Hatcher Dance. Last summer, I started a new practice with three fantastic lawyers called Pender Litigation. We work hard, but we make sure it`s still fun to be there.
4) What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
Early in my career, I worked really hard for many years, developed a practice with a variety of private and institutional clients to balance things out, and then took the plunge into being a sole practitioner at just the right time and was able to build a thriving and interesting practice.
Recently, at the risk of sounding cliché, I would say my biggest accomplishment is balancing family life and motherhood (and step-motherhood) with my still full-time practice, with a [way too] long commute. The clichés one hears are true – it’s all very challenging.
5) What are some key challenges and opportunities for women in law?
I think this probably depends on the particular practice area, but in criminal law I would say it is the extra task - in addition to running your business and doing quality work – of negotiating long-entrenched stereotypes of a male-dominated defence practice. I can’t count how many times early in my career I was asked while sitting in a courtroom “are you Crown on x-file?"or “can you call this file for me real quick?” or “what’s your position on bail on x-file”. This may not sound like a big deal, and we can laugh it off in the moment to diffuse the awkwardness, but it does cumulatively get annoying and weigh on you as systemic sexism does.
In the criminal defence world, I do think client development can be more difficult for women because there is still a belief – although usually unstated - that women aren’t tough enough to handle the “serious” files. I do believe there is a heightened need to “prove your mettle” and perhaps go out of one’s way to engage in vocabulary and tone that might serve to reassure clients you have the inherent ‘make-up’ to conduct their defence. [Perhaps male defence lawyers say that they have to engage in this too, but…]
The spectre of potential parenthood – or if you’re already a parent – looms large as an elephant in the room right from initial hiring interviews to client interviews and retention.
I know and feel things have evolved and improved, but they’re not resolved yet. This is still an issue that women contend with. We still hear stories of blatant “future plans re: procreation” questions from prospective employers (or clients, which brings it’s own fun magic to the table).
And I must point out that it’s not an issue that only faces women who do want children or who have them. I empathize with the frustration of my female colleagues who do not want to have children or who cannot for a variety of reasons. Imagine feeling compelled to share this deeply personal information with employers and clients in service of “getting out ahead” of the topic or “putting it to rest” as some sort of comfort or reassurance to others (audible sigh).
6) What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
This is tough to answer. It depends on the individual and the experience, personality and values they bring to their practice.
Be flexible as to the path you take, but know that it is really a rewarding career (even if it sometimes feels like the worst decision you ever made).
Give yourself perhaps a 5-year period where you know you’re going to have to work almost every day, at least to some extent, and perhaps for people who really aren’t that kind or considerate of your time or wellness. Go the extra mile with your research and written work product – and as a junior, make yourself indispensable both inside and outside of court.
Rely on your friends and family to support you and help you weather the storms– listen to them when they tell you to take a break.
Practically speaking, when you’re first starting – even as an associate, get set up with a great banker, a great financial planner, a great bookkeeper and a great accountant. If the latter two know each other, all the better! Having this in place early on will allow you to set yourself up for way better work-life balance in the future.
Thanks Claire for sharing your story with us!
ICYMI: Previous posts profiled 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!
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!