Welcome back to today's Women Leading in Law profile. Meet Jordana Goldlist an impressive criminal defence lawyer in Toronto. If you have a moment, be sure to watch Jordana's important TEDx talk (link in profile below):
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I run JHG Criminal Law, a boutique firm focused on “high risk criminal litigation,” defending people charged primarily with murder, firearms offences, and drug trafficking. When I started my firm five years ago, I had a huge practice that included most criminal offenses and many jurisdictions across Southern Ontario. After working for a year without a day off, I decided to scale down and focus, both in terms of the type of cases I take on and the jurisdictions I cover. Today, my main office is in downtown Toronto and I am opening a satellite office in Hamilton, as most of my cases are in Toronto, Hamilton, Brampton, Brantford, and St. Catharines. I currently employ a junior associate and articling student and have a senior lawyer on contract to help make sure that my practise can keep running, even when I’m in back to back murder trials.
2. Why did you go to law school?
The short answer is that I needed to make money and my undergraduate degree in philosophy wasn’t going to be much help! The full story is that I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was 7 or 8 years old, when one of my family members was facing criminal charges and the lawyer he hired became the most important person in the world, to my family. I didn’t actually understand what he did or why it was so important, but I wanted to be that important; that when I called somewhere everyone stopped what they were doing to listen. I started reading crime novels and watching courtroom dramas in the coming years and continued wanting to be a trial lawyer or maybe even a judge. Then life took a turn for me during my teens. From the ages of 14 to 20 years old, I bounced around group homes, institutions, rehab, and the streets. I was 21 years old when I finally completed high school and made my way to university. I assumed that my life had veered so far off course that law school was not even in the realm of possibilities. After four years of studying philosophy at York University, I still could not imagine myself in any other career, so I applied to Osgoode Hall Law School and luckily was accepted.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Definitely a bit of both. I was drawn to criminal law but I know that my history as a street kid made it easier for me to develop a practice. I don’t judge my clients by their criminal records and instead I take the time to understand their situation and circumstances. My business, however, has been built by design. I marketed to a specific demographic and chose jurisdictions that would allow me to build the type of practice I wanted for the type of clients I wanted to represent. It took years of dedication and sacrifice but I now have the practice I always dreamed of having.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
My TEDx talk, called “Who Judges The Judge?”. It was the culmination of my career and my personal successes; where 10 years after being called to the bar, I could get on a stage and admit that I was a criminal turned criminal lawyer. I use my own struggles to try to set an example both for people trying to transition their lives and for people who so easily judge the mistakes of others. The premise is really simple: we as a society need to stop judging people for what may be the worst decision they made on the worst day of their life.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
I have heard rumours of challenges specific to women but I haven’t experienced any. I have never been harassed or belittled or disrespected by male lawyers or judges I have crossed paths with. Either that, or I have just ignored it because I truly don’t care. I think that a career in law is hard enough and a career in business is hard enough and so to combine the two requires a different level of focus to be successful. There is a ton of opportunity to make money and excel at criminal law but it is hard work and requires dedication. And it requires sacrifices that most people do not want to make. Everyone wants to make money but they struggle with competing wants, like spending time with family and friends, and drinking, and travelling. The challenge for most is recognizing that in order to get to the next level, you have to dedicate time that would otherwise be spent on activities you really enjoy doing. The question is how bad you want that next level of success (however you define it) and what you are willing to give up to get it.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
First of all, figure out what you love. I started off in civil litigation and after two years I hated it, which means I hated most of my waking hours on any given day. I switched to criminal defence and knew I was where I needed to be. After you learn what you love, practice like a racehorse, with blinders on. Horses wear blinders because if they look over to see what the other horses are doing, they fall down. So, they wear blinders and they focus on the finish line and they do everything they can to get there first. That’s how I approach each of my cases and it is how I built my business. But because you are doing what you love (step one) you will enjoy most aspects of this career, most of the time. The best advice I ever heard from another lawyer: “never celebrate a win for more than 24 hours and never mourn a loss for more than 24 hours.” But always celebrate the wins…
Thank you Jordana for your frank and honest answers and advice!
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: 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.