Women industry leaders examine the barriers they overcame to sustain their legal careers
At the Law Society of Ontario International Women’s Day event, the legal profession’s female leaders discussed the barriers women still endure and the need for a feminist, intersectional analysis to address growing social and economic inequalities, and the amplifying calls of racial and colonial injustice.
Moderated by Jocelyn Tatebe, vice-president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario, the panel shared their experiences and the barriers they faced in sustaining their legal careers and their efforts to help advance gender equity in the profession.
Katherine Hensel, partner at Fogler Rubinoff LLP said she could never have anticipated her path to partner when she was in law school. She began her legal education as a single mom of a two-year-old son and graduated with a hefty debt in addition to Toronto’s cost of living and day-care expenses.
“Prior to that I’d been a high school dropout, left home when I was 14, worked in law offices and became exposed to law that way.”
Hensel said she received much praise from judges, colleagues, and court reporters for being articulate, once they found out about her Indigenous heritage. They showed a deep skepticism about her credibility, objectivity and rationality when advocating for Indigenous parties and litigants.
As a younger lawyer and parent, Hensel said she should have challenged significant barriers. She recalled being refused 24 hours’ notice to arrange for childcare and a driver when she was over eight-months pregnant and required to litigate an unexpected two-day trial.
“I got up at four o’clock in the morning, and I drove myself. I was with a firm at the time, I should have asked my firm for intervention and support on that and if I became aware of that now as senior counsel, I would intervene.”
As a single parent of four children, Hansel said having a nanny has been crucial since the birth of her second child. She would be unable to maintain her job without paying somebody to be present, she said.
Senior counsel are obligated to address the challenges mothers face in the profession and call out any undue new barriers that make it even harder to carry out their legal practice, she said. Her fourth child was present for many court presentations, community engagement sessions, client meetings and Federal Court mediation.
“I could change a diaper without breaking stride by that point. I would not have been able to do that confidently as junior counsel, or if she was my first child.”
Vice president and co-founder of the Women’s Paralegal Association of Ontario Gerri Camus’ passion for justice led her to switch careers a third time and seek paralegal certification. She said she encountered several women, either pregnant or with children balancing their studies, and became quickly aware of the challenges faced by women studying to be paralegals and that the issues persisted after graduation.
Camus said she was shocked at hearing stories of women verbally and physically assaulted by their colleagues and in court and being sexually harassed and propositioned by men, colleagues or others in the legal field.
Women paralegals have a massive fear of reprisal, she said. They fear that if they speak out, they will never be able to find employment and complaints about them will follow them throughout their careers, said Camus.
“The idealistic part of me figured that in law offices or courts, everyone should have a higher bar, but I found out in many cases that that was not the case.”
Although women in the legal profession have come a long way, Camus said there is still much work to be done. “I would like to hear a lot less of these kinds of stories, I would like for women to not have to experience this level of trauma.”
Shara Roy, chief legal counsel at Ernst & Young Canada was the first woman in her family to attend university and attain a professional degree. Roy said she was a late bloomer in advancing EDI efforts and was spurred into action after participating in the International Women’s Day march in 2017 with her children, sister, and mother.
She is co-creator of her previous firm Lenczner Slaght’s ReferToHer platform, which promotes work referrals to experienced female lawyers. The platform started with lawyers and has expanded to other professionals, including arbitrators and mediators and litigation insolvency trustees in the accounting space, she said.
Roy said the program was not created to exclude the men, but more referrals came to men than to women despite the equal numbers of women in the profession for the last 25 years.
“I’m very proud of that as a legacy.”
Roy, who transitioned from private practice, said there is a misconception that going in-house is less strenuous for lawyers juggling work and childcare obligations. “The idea that going in-house means that all of a sudden, your life is cupcake and roses in your home by five is not true.”
Roy said being audacious in the face of opportunities that come knocking is the attitude that has furthered her career. She also disparaged the myth that in-house counsels cannot have big careers, saying they have much flexibility in their daily jobs and career paths.
Superior Court Justice Audrey Ramsay said was audacious because she did not expect to finish high school, never mind going to law school and becoming a judge. However, many lawyers said that she would become a judge throughout her private practice career.
Coming from Jamaica and being the eldest child, Justice Ramsay said she encountered several challenges including finances and caring for her ill mother, who, for cultural reasons, did not want a stranger taking care of her.
“In my 30s, I decided that I was way too exhausted to get married and have children because I had children.”
“We have to decide, timing-wise, what’s good for us and we have to give to ourselves first, before we can give to anyone else, including our families,” she said.
Justice Ramsey advised lawyers interested in joining the bench to get involved in professional bar associations and advocacy, find the work balance, and build on it. “What you do unintentionally is you build a support network. It’s those people who come forward and support your candidacy either for the bench or other achievements.”