Meet Robin Parker, today's leading lawyer profile. Robin's colleague, Megan Andrews, reached out to me with a lovely email explaining why Robin should be featured in this series, including that Robin "is – and excuse my corniness – honestly a beacon of goodness in a system that too often feels broken". I don't think that is corny at all and we need more "beacons of goodness". Read on for Robin's story.
(p.s. Robin provided the following interesting information about her photo: The photo I am attaching was taken in the back of an RCMP truck in Fort Good Hope, NWT. We were on our way from the airport to the community centre to run the circuit court. Note the bars on the windows! In addition, there were two shotguns in the gun well on the other side of the bars and plexiglass divider between the front and back seats. Quite naturally, the two defence lawyers gravitated to the back seat and the Crown sat up front.)
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I’m a litigator and problem solver, specializing in criminal and regulatory law. My practice is quite diverse. I do criminal and regulatory litigation- trials or hearings and appeals. I am really lucky to get a lot of referral work from other lawyers, so usually there is some wrinkle to the case to make it interesting, like a tricky ethical or procedural issue. I also do a lot of work with sex assault complainants and have mediated sexual assault allegations outside the criminal justice system- extremely gratifying work.
The second part of my practice is institutional or workplace investigations, often relating to sexual assault or harassment. I gather evidence and make findings about what happened. I really enjoy asking questions with no agenda other than the truth and I find it interesting to learn how these kinds of allegations arise. In fact, I am endlessly curious about what people do and why. I suppose this is why I like criminal law.
The third part of my practice is quite exciting – I work for Northwest Territories Legal Aid as defence counsel in trials and appeals. There are no words to describe the beauty of the people and the land. We fly into remote communities, many of which are only accessible by air (or boat in summer.) We arrive at dawn and literally build the court in the school gym or band office, and we stay until the last case is finished. I would say this is often after sundown, but the sun does not always rise or set in the north. Many of my clients have experienced personal and inter-generational trauma, and struggle with addiction, poverty, physical and sexual abuse. It is a real privilege to be able to build a relationship of trust with my Northern clients. NWT is on complete lockdown because of Covid, and I am really missing it.
I should say this is just what I’m doing right now. I’ve been a lawyer long enough that I’ve worked on a lot of different things. For years I specialized in international criminal law. I worked on some exciting extradition and war crimes cases. I worked with the special advocates on the security certificate litigation, and I taught international criminal law in the LLM program at Osgoode. Every now and then an international case crosses my desk, or I’m asked to be a pundit on something like the Meng extradition, but these days my attention is mainly focussed on what we are doing here at home.
2. Why did you go to law school?
Unlike many of our colleagues, I am not someone who always wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to help people and be intellectually engaged, which I get to do every day in my work. I was an extremely idealistic young woman and believed that I could make the system better from the inside – which is why I started out as a prosecutor. Fact is, I am still pretty idealistic. I believe that justice is worth fighting for, and that with work, we can get there.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
i) By aligning my work with my values and taking risks when I felt I needed to learn or grow professionally. To do this you need to know what your values are, and what you want from your work, and your life. Then you need to adjust your work and life. It takes persistence and patience.
ii) Passion and hard work. In the beginning I lived, breathed, ate, and slept criminal law. I still do when I am in the grip of a case.
iii) Making sure there are people in my orbit I can learn from. If there aren’t people in your circle you admire and look up to, change your orbit.
iv) And privilege. I do not come from a family of means – I worked pretty much full time in undergrad and spent a decade paying back loans after law school. I was the first person in my family to get a post-secondary education. Still, I was privileged to be able to access the education and community I did to be able to have this career.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
I’m a single mom. I’ve raised a smart, thoughtful and interesting young woman. She is not my achievement - she is her own achievement! But raising her while being a criminal litigator has, and continues to be, my greatest challenge, and what I am most proud of. It has been incredibly difficult. She is on the autism spectrum and trying to get her the support and help she needed when she was younger was near to impossible. But somehow, we did it together. I have always involved her in my work (she’s reading this as I write it!) She built cushion forts in the lawyer’s lounge at 361 University while I waited for juries and toured the courts at Old City Hall. She attended my graduation at Oxford. Afterward, we went to the best bookstore in the world - Blackwell’s - where I bought her as many books as she could carry. I wanted to thank her for the sacrifices she made while I was apart from her in England for two summers. I don’t want to romanticize it. Many days I was heartbroken, being torn between wanting to achieve at high levels professionally and needing to care for her. There were times when she needed me and I could not be there. It is not possible to “have it all” and “leaning in” is the privilege of women who have economic and family resources I did not. While I was not able to do nearly as much law as I wanted, when I look back, I see that I have done a lot of interesting and good work, while protecting the most important thing - a strong relationship with my daughter. It was hard work all around, which is why I say it is an achievement.
Professionally, what resonates the most deeply as I look back are the differences I managed to make for individual clients. These achievements are very private, and look small from the outside, but they give me the greatest pride. A client once said, “I have never thought about my life the way you described it to the judge. Now I understand how I ended up in trouble, and how to stay out of it in the future.” Another client gave me an eagle feather, which I treasure. These kinds of achievements don’t make the Globe and Mail or the Supreme Court Reports; still they mean the most to me.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
We forget that women have not been in law that long. My first boss was one of two women in her graduating class. When I started out, there wasn’t a washroom for women barristers on every floor at 361 University. My first day in court, the judge told me, on the record, that I made him think “inappropriate thoughts.” At Abdullah Khadr ‘s extradition bail hearing on charges of being an Al Qaeda arms dealer, defence counsel asked me when the assigned Crown would arrive. “You’re looking at her!” I replied. While I was still at Justice, another boss told me he didn’t assign me to a terrorism case because he thought it was likely I was going to have a baby (I was 41.) And so on. Litigators my age have legions of stories like this. My approach to this nonsense has always been to ignore it and keep working.
But when you ask about challenges, it’s important to remember that not that long-ago women lawyers were trail blazers just by showing up at work. Today BIPOC still are. And therein lies the opportunity. The more diverse our collective perspective and experience, the wiser and richer in creativity and problem solving we are. By making space for each other, we all benefit. It’s both morally correct and good business.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Always be proud of who you are, and never make excuses for it.
Thank you Robin for taking the time to share your story and insights.
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: Lorin MacDonald, Karen Yamamoto, Victoria Crewe-Nelson, Lynne Vicars, Kemi Oduwole, Anne-Marie McElroy, Jennifer Gold, Jordana Goldlist, 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, a network of freelance lawyers.