I don't know about you but I need some good news right about now.
And I believe there's nothing better than reading positive stories about women kicking butt in law, so welcome back to the Women Leading in Law blog series! Sit back and enjoy lots of upcoming posts about amazing women leading in law.
First up is superstar Neha Chugh!
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business
I started Chugh Law on May 1, 2014 – just me, with a passion for criminal law. Marriage, circumstances, and opportunity took my practice to Cornwall, Ontario – a small town between Ottawa and Montreal. I slowly expanded to family and child protection defence. My main area of focus is criminal litigation – trials, juries, pleas, sentencing, motions, research, discoveries – that is my comfort zone. After a lot of growth, I hired two lawyers to help me out with my expanding clientele – one with criminal and one with family experience. More clerks, more lawyers were on-boarded – we are now 5 lawyers and staff. I purchased a building in October of 2017 and we were able to pay it down, pave a parking lot, and complete some renovations. Overall, the growth has been unprecedented – we are humbled.
I love my job. The funny moments and the hard days are all met with camaraderie and friendship with the lawyers at Chugh Law. We are all in the same boat. Some days it feels like a luxury yacht, travelling through crystal waters to the Bahamas on a sunny afternoon. Some days it feels like a dingy escaping the Titanic. Having a team to work with makes it so much better.
I also love being self-employed and the freedom of choice that it brings me. While my schedule is largely dictated by the Court, I also have the ability to massage my schedule to fit in new challenges. This past year, I began teaching at St. Lawrence College, both at the Iohahi:io campus in Akwesasne and the Cornwall campus. This was a very valuable experience and I love working and dialoguing with students, preparing them for their careers as social workers and in the business world. Chugh Law also helps out the City of Cornwall from time to time when their prosecutor has conflicts. I worked as the duty counsel in the Akwesasne Court and look forward to starting as their prosecutor when the Courts reopen. I also started a PhD in social and cultural analysis at Concordia University for the prime reason that I was hungry to read, engage, learn, write and meet other like-minded individuals. My schedule works for me, it wouldn’t work for everybody.
2. Why did you go to law school?
I have South Asian Tiger Parents. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer the moment she started watching LA Law in the 80’s and because of her crush on Jack McCoy from Law and Order. They pushed and pushed for me to succeed, and I always pushed back, never wanting to concede to their wishes. I started with a Bachelors of Arts in Sociology and a Bachelors of Social Work from the University of Waterloo. I love the study and practice of social work and the study of community development. I was passionate about it – my parents were in the background pushing law school. The more they pushed it, the more I pushed back. I went on to do a masters degree from the University of Guelph in planning and development. Amazingly, my parents were backing off about law school. I would say “PhD” and they would say: sure honey, if that makes you happy. That made me furious: they were supporting me? As a graduate student, I started a job with the federal government in policy studying community development. I talked to my parents about joining the public service permanently. “Honey, it is a great job for a woman.” What the heck! Where did these supportive people come from? I had to prove them wrong. I wrote the LSAT, I applied to law school and I got into every school I applied to. I chose Osgoode Hall because of their commitment to social justice and their reputation in the legal community. As an ongoing rebellion to my parents, I chose to be a criminal defence lawyer and not a prosecutor like Jack McCoy.
Seriously though, as the daughter of immigrants from New Delhi, India, and as a first generation Indo-Canadian, I watched as my parents worked hard to make good lives for my two younger brothers and I. I also saw their deep fear of the state and how they managed to navigate the systems for us so that we could succeed. I was challenged to find ways to help individuals, powerless against state intervention and state action, to build a strong sense of identity, community, and to have a voice against illegal or incorrect state intervention. It is such a privilege to have the trust of community members to take their cases on for them. Often, it is just about helping community members understand why the state has intervened in their lives. I see this when child protection agencies intervene with families who have limited knowledge of the system. It is also rewarding to ensure that the state is subjected to the checks and balances that we would anticipate of our state actors. In Canada, no one is above the rule of law – working with our community’s most vulnerable is a constant reminder of the immense power of the state.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
After three years of law school, and articles in downtown Toronto with the Honourable Justice David Berg during his time as a criminal defence lawyer, I found myself in the position of being a “trailing spouse” – the spouse that follows their husband for his career. Many marriages find themselves in this conundrum. My academic husband found his first step in Ottawa, so I applied to work with Peter Dotsikas and Terry Hawtin in their Ottawa office. I was pregnant during my articles and so we moved to Ottawa in July of 2011 with an infant. I spent two years in Ottawa while my husband worked on his post-doctoral fellowship. After two years, he had two academic job offers: Winnipeg or Montreal. I chose Montreal because it was closest to Ottawa, and I had heard of a small town called Cornwall located between the two cities. My Ontario law licence and my anglophone barrier would not get me far in Quebec. Cornwall was 45 minutes from our new home in Montreal, so the commute was not bad compared to Toronto and Ottawa traffic. I was also pregnant again with baby two. I closed my eyes and let the chips fall.
I started in a one room office at the bottom of the stairs in a chambers like environment in Cornwall. We are now in a 4 story chambers that I own with 5 lawyers who work for me plus staff. With the 6 month old baby in tow in 2014, I started building the practice. After almost 6 years of practice, a third baby, and my husband achieving tenure, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t still feel like that wide-eyed, exhausted girl at the bottom of the stairs wondering if I will be able to pay the next month’s rent and phone bill.
The reality of the situation was a combination of design, chance and also skill. Cornwall has faced the problem, especially in the criminal defence bar, of a greying bar. I came in as an outsider with few contacts, I am a woman of colour in a relatively homogeneous bar, and I am an extrovert with a social work background. I was able to use my social work skills to work with clients, especially very vulnerable individuals, mental health, youth, victims of abuse, individuals struggling with addiction. I was able to attract other young lawyers to join the me at the firm, which I think is a positive thing for Cornwall – a rejuvenation of legal ideas and approaches and a youthful energy.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
I made it and the chips were stacked against me. I am a woman, a mother, a woman of colour. I am an outsider. I did what businesses want to do when the odds are in their favour. We are the biggest barrister firm in Cornwall – and it took me just six years to achieve that honour. That is a significant achievement. But even bigger than that: I did it my way. That is my most significant work achievement.
Completely unrelated, in 2013 I gave birth to my daughter with no drugs. It was not a fast birth either – I had blood issues during the delivery that made me ineligible for any pain medications or epidurals. In retrospect, I can’t believe what the human body – my body - can accomplish. When I am struggling with a deadline or from exhaustion with work and kids, I remind myself of that superhero delivery and it reminds me how far I can push myself.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
Find your champion, but be very cautious about what advice you are receiving and internalizing. Some people (especially men) will love to tell you what to do, how to do it, what their opinion of you is, and how you should change in order to meet their expectations of how you, as a woman lawyer, should behave. We are trained to look for a mentor – mentorship programs abound. But approach this relationship with caution and be weary of who you receive advice from in the guise of mentorship.
To present date, I am still told: you are too vocal, you are too terse, you are too nice, you are too mean, you are emotionally driven, you are cold hearted, you are unprofessional, you are selfish, you are smart, you are dumb. It still hurts to be told this, and it is hard to remind myself not to internalize it. The advice givers always seem earnest and well intentioned, but the advice is not necessarily correct. Women especially need to be very careful about how they receive and process advice. We already have so many institutional barriers, relying on incorrect advice should not be an added setback.
Looking for a champion is more than looking for a mentor – a champion is someone who wants to see you succeed and will help you open up doors to achieve your goals. I found my champions at home. My husband is my champion: he has supported me and encouraged me to set up my practice and apply for positions I never dreamed I could get. He pushed me out of my comfort zone with career decisions but has provided me with the scaffolding such as childcare, access to technology, and the resource of time, so that I could succeed.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Thank you Neha for your thoughtful, honest, and funny answers to these questions. They were a delight to read and thanks for participating in this series.
ICYMI - previous posts profiled the following amazing lawyers: 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.