This week this blog series features leading lawyer Gillian Hnatiw. I believe I first "met" Gillian a few years ago on Twitter and then subsequently in real life at various legal networking events (yes, the legal community in Toronto is rather small). I have always been impressed with Gillian's unwavering commitment to advancing equality and I love her no-B.S. feminist tweets. Read on for Gillian's reflections on her career, her achievements, and advice for new lawyers.
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business:
I am a partner with Adair Goldblatt Bieber LLP in Toronto. I have broad civil litigation practice with particular expertise in claims for sexual assault and harassment, as well as other types of gender-based violence like voyeurism, the non-consensual distribution of intimate images and other forms of image-based violence. In addition, I practice in the fields of administrative law, health law, professional liability and regulation, and employment law, with some general commercial litigation and appeal work thrown into the mix. I really enjoy Inquests and Inquiries, and have been lucky to be involved in some major ones over the years (namely the Coroner’s Inquests into the deaths of Ashley Smith and Katelynn Sampson). I have also been fortunate to do some high level intervention work for organizations like the CCLA and LEAF, which has given me the opportunity to get on my feet at the Supreme Court a couple of times. So every day is different!
Outside of my ‘paid practice’, I am on the Board of Directors for the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), which is dedicated to advancing substantive equality rights for women and girls in Canada through litigation, law reform and public education. It is, in essence, the litigation arm of Canada’s women’s movement. LEAF has been integral in shaping sexual assault laws and safeguarding reproductive rights for more than 30 years. Although it consumes increasing amounts of my time these days, I am very proud of the work it does.
2. Why did you go to law school?
I don’t have a very good answer! The truth is, I was starting the fourth year of a history degree at Queens and had no clear plan about what I was going to do next. Law school was an idea that I had been tossing around, but mostly to placate all the adults in my life asking ‘what are you going to do?’ Then all of the sudden it seemed like everyone in my program was writing the LSAT and actually applying to law school. I was sort of swept along with the tide. I explored a range of other options, from various post-graduate programs to teaching English abroad, but when I was admitted to U of T’s Faculty of Law in January it became a bit of a foregone conclusion that I would go. I recognize there’s a lot of privilege in my ‘gee whiz, it just happened’ story - and I will say in my partial defense that I worked my ass off throughout undergrad – but that’s basically what happened.
In truth, I wish I had wanted it more at the time. I recall having reservations about whether law school was the right path for me, but nobody I spoke with at the time would validate those reservations. I was repeatedly advised that a law degree would never hurt me (which I admit I’ve come to agree with) and that I would be foolish to pass up the opportunity. Also, I had the good fortune of enrolling in 1999, when tuition was not as crushing as it is today. I was able to make the decision to attend without facing the prospect of spending $100,000 for my degree.
Law school itself was a real mixed bag of experiences for me. First year was very disorienting, in part because I arrived with no clear idea of why I was there in the first place. By contrast, it seemed like all of my classmates had a clear sense of purpose that I both lacked and envied. Firms from Bay Street and Wall Street were omnipresent on the University of Toronto campus and I recall really struggling with all the pressure to ‘network’ and land a big firm job. It was difficult to have credible conversations about what I was looking for in an articling experience when I wasn’t even sure I wanted to practice. I have never been very good with insincerity or just telling people what they want to hear. In hindsight, I know I wasn’t the only one in my class who was struggling with these things, but it sure felt that way at the time.
The law finally started to click for me when I began volunteering at Downtown Legal Services, U of T’s legal clinic. I took it for credit in second year and began hiding out there as much as possible. I ultimately served on the clinic’s Executive in my third year. I sometimes say that I “majored” in clinic. Once I started working with real clients who had real problems, the law started to make sense to me, both as a field of study and as a profession. 16+ years later, it’s the clients that continue to anchor my commitment to practice.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
I would say a healthy mix of both. In my early years, it was probably more chance than design. After summering at Downtown Legal Services, I articled at Lerners in Toronto. Despite my lingering reservations about Bay Street, it turned out to be a great fit for me. As a student, it is so difficult to know what you are getting into, especially when job offers get made so far in advance and your interests are still evolving. I knew I wanted to litigate, but I was very unsure about private practice. I had this idea that I would be buried in research, miles away from any client, for years. Fortunately, that was not my experience at all. Lerners was pretty small at the time (approximately 25 lawyers in 2002) and I was given a lot of hands on opportunity from the start. To my surprise, I really thrived at the firm. I was hired back after my call to the bar in 2003 and ended up practicing there for fifteen years, first as an associate and then as a partner.
As my career evolved, I became more intentional about charting a specific course and practicing on my terms. I have been involved in sexual assault work since my articling year. I was lucky enough to junior for Elizabeth Grace, who is one of the pioneers in the area. From the beginning, the work really resonated with my feminist principles and gave me a deeper sense of purpose. At the same time, it involves a lot of emotional labour and I cannot do it all the time. I’ve always counter-balanced my assault work with other areas of practice. In my early years, I also did a lot of complex corporate commercial litigation with Earl Cherniak and others. It resulted in an eclectic practice mix, but I really enjoyed it. The intellectual challenge of the commercial work offered a healthy counter-balance to the particular needs of my sexual assault clients. I learned a ton about litigation and built my basic skills.
Five years and two kids into my career, I was finding it increasingly difficult to juggle everything. With Elizabeth’s support, I orchestrated some changes that allowed me to begin practicing in the areas of health and professional regulation. The work was still challenging, but the pace was slightly more predictable. Plus, the tort law principles that animate most medical malpractice claims dovetail with the theories of causation and damages that underpin most sexual assault claims. By narrowing my focus for awhile, I was able to feel more on top of things during a hectic era in life.
Most recently – fifteen years and three kids into my career – I made some very big and very intentional changes to my practice. In February, I left Lerners to join Adair Goldblatt Bieber, a new Toronto litigation boutique that opened its doors on January 1, 2018. At this point in my life, I have a much clearer sense of what I want the next 15 years of my career to look like. I also have a better sense of the compromises that I am and am not willing to make to get there. Lerners changed a lot during my time there. Staying at the firm was going to require me to make too many compromises, and I realized I wouldn’t be happy in the long run. So it was by design that I started looking around for a new home. However, it was incredible good fortune that the exact firm I was looking for – young, smart, dynamic, courageous - came into existence at the same time that I was looking to make a change. I have known and respected Jordan Goldblatt for years, but it was largely chance that made him my partner.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
That’s a really tough question. Professionally, I think it’s a significant achievement to have built a practice that is both intellectually and personally fulfilling. I’m proud of the work I do for assault survivors, who struggle to secure ‘justice’ through the legal system. I’m very proud of my advocacy on equality issues generally, through my paid practice, my pro bono practice, and my work for LEAF. And I’m proud of the time and effort I invest mentoring younger women in the profession and helping them to advance.
I’m also proud of the fact that I’ve built a practice that is meaningful to me. I’ve always been a feminist. In law school, the idea that I would be able to weave my feminist ideals into a Bay Street practice seemed impossible. But, somehow, that’s the reality of my practice today. It hasn’t been without compromise or sacrifice – there have definitely been points in my career when I have paid a price for rejecting political expedience or refusing to bend to someone else’s idea of what my career path should look like – but I have fought to be valued for who I am, rather than what someone else wants me to be. One of my key mentors, Jasmine Akbarali (now Madame Justice Akbarali!), taught me that if you can’t get where you want to go without being true to who you are, you either have to pave a new road or pick a new destination.
In my personal life, my most significant achievement is my kids. Super cliché, but undeniably true. They’re currently 6, 10 and 12 years old. I am super proud of the interesting, independent humans they are becoming.
Overall, I think I am most proud of the fact that I have built a successful practice while remaining true to myself and investing in life on multiple fronts. It is not easy to balance a public-facing career with the needs of a young family. This is not news to anyone. But I wanted a career and I wanted a big family. I'm so glad I didn’t cave to the pressure to give up one for the other.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
Some of the challenges are obvious. I feel like I end up talking a lot about babies in these types of interviews, but my kids have had the most obvious impact on my career path to date. The first decade of practice felt like a revolving door of maternity leaves. My grasp on any ‘career’ often felt tenuous. My husband and I graduated from the same class at U of T. We articled in the same year (different firms!) and were called to the bar at the same time. But our career arcs have been very different. In addition to my three maternity leaves – he never took paternity leave – I slowed down for a few years when the kids were really young. We knew that we couldn’t both take a run at partnership at the same time, so we made a conscious decision to prioritize his career for a few years. It was only after our third child was born in 2012 that I committed to building a practice and a profile in earnest. The past six years have been intense. It often felt like I would never catch up and there were many times that I seriously considered leaving private practice. But I am so glad I stuck it out. If you can find a way to hang in through the tough early years of practice and parenthood, it does get better. But you need to stick it out.
A related challenge lies in the fact that the ranks of women in private practice tend to thin as you become more and more senior. Where do they all go? Think of all the firms you know. How many of them include (let along start with) the name of a woman? Thanks to the systemic barriers that have traditionally worked to push women out of private practice – the ‘old boys’ networks, the ‘mommy track’, the everyday sexism women face in boardrooms and courtrooms – they are few and far between. This can make it harder for women to find mentors and sponsors to help them advance to the next stage of their career. I’m only in my sixteenth year of call and already it feels like I beat some significant odds. However, I am encouraged by the fact that many of the women in my cohort are treating this phenomenon as an opportunity to support and amplify each other. I am part of some amazing women’s networks and I really feel like I have some incredible allies out there. And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there are many men in the profession who are extremely supportive as well. My current partners are all male and it’s hard for me to overstate how supportive they are of my practice and my plans.
Which brings me to opportunities: I am optimistic that the profession is finally starting to appreciate the importance of diversity. Not just as a watchword, or as a feel-good initiative, but as a necessary ingredient to running a successful firm or business. Study after study has demonstrated that a plurality of voices lead to less group think, better decision making and, ultimately, a stronger organization.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
1) Take the long view. It is marathon not a sprint. For many reasons, the early years are daunting: the hours are long, the expectations are high, the financial pressures significant. If you are like I was at that stage, you will spend a large part of everyday feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing. It feels like everything is riding on your performance on a day to day basis and that you can’t afford to take a breath or a break. But there is a long arc to anybody’s career. It is important to take the time to invest in yourself long term. Check in with yourself every 6 months and make sure you’re still happy with the direction your career is heading. If the answer is no, invest the time to course correct.
2) Seek out mentors and sponsors. It’s hard to overstate the importance of having someone you trust to show you the ropes and help direct opportunities your way. Mentorship is a bit like dating - you have to click with someone for it to really work, and you’re likely to have a few false starts. Stick with it. If you can’t find someone within your firm or organization, get involved in an external organization that lines up with your area of practice or identify someone who looks like they have the career you want and reach out. Put yourself in the path of the right person.
3) Be true to yourself. Sometimes, the advice to lawyers in their early years is to say “yes” to everything that comes your way. I only partially agree with this. Yes, you should be willing to give up some sleep and social time for opportunities that will help you build the practice you want. Yes, you should network broadly and pay attention to building your reputation. But that doesn’t mean you should say yes to absolutely everything. Be sure to safeguard your personal relationships and your mental health. Also, give yourselves permission to recognize there are many ways to be successful. Be sure that the goals you’re pursuing are, in fact, your goals.
Thank you Gillian for taking the time to answer these questions so thoughtfully and for giving us a glimpse into your career.
ICYMI: Previous posts profiled 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. 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 be "pausing" in December 2018 for something new and will return at a later date.
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.