STARTING A FEMINIST LAW FIRM
Interview by Andrea Tredenick
Karin Galldin and Leslie Robertson are two feminist lawyers from the Ottawa-based feminist law firm Galldin Robertson. The firm was founded by Karin Galldin in 2007, and Leslie Robertson joined in 2009. I got in touch with them to learn more about what it was like to start and run their firm.
Andrea: When you have a “feminist” law firm, what does that mean exactly? Do you refuse to represent male clients? Or is your client selection based on the nature of the claim — so long as the case is about fighting classism, racism, sexism or ableism, you will take it, no matter who the plaintiff is?
Karin: The main components of identifying as a feminist practice are twofold: one is inward looking and reflective about the way that I work and the way that my colleagues work with me, and the relationships we create with our clients. These relationships are meant to be informed by a feminist ethic, so there is an accessibility component to that, but really it is a more collaborative and partnership-based way of working (more so than the conventional “lawyer as expert” dynamic). We organized our office based on beliefs that we really want to embody in our relationships with our community.
The other key of having a feminist legal practice is the outer face of it — what are we trying to use our skills to achieve in terms of our interactions with the legal system? For us, it was challenging dominant systems rather than focusing exclusively on limited communities to work with. Our definition of feminism, as Leslie and I came to apply it, is sort of the lived impressions of various communities under hetero-patriarchal violence. I would say that largely, overall it was a work in progress over the years. Part of what you do when you identify as having a feminist practice is you commit to being reflective about your role in the legal system and your relationship with clients on an ongoing basis. But it was a sort of an extra level on which you can connect with potential clients and it was really satisfying in that sense.
Leslie: For me being a feminist practitioner means centering the experiences of our clients and working from an anti-oppressive framework. We take direction from our clients and work to empower them throughout these processes by having their voices heard as best as possible. A lot of the time our feminism is about process and how we respect and value our clients’ experiences and needs.
We also prioritized advancing files that challenge violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. We did represent male clients and we did turn down files that were at odds with our values. We also included a statement about our feminist values in our retainer agreement that we sign with clients. It gives us a good opportunity to talk with prospective clients about how we see the issues involved in their cases and agree on how we would approach things from an anti- oppressive standpoint.
For the most as we very publically and explicitly identified as a feminist practice, our firm attracted like-minded clients.
Andrea: On that line of that questioning, Alice Woolley wrote about zealous or resolute advocacy in Lawyer’s Ethics and Professional Regulation.(1) The idea is that you must do more than just advance your client’s interests, you must zealously advocate for those interests. Woolley believed that having a clear idea about which clients you are able to zealously advocate for, and those you will not, can avoid a lot of potential conflict. Is there benefit to implementing Woolley’s suggestions on client selection, and would you encourage this kind of thinking to other law students with strong leanings towards feminism or other social issues?
Karin: When we first started a few colleagues of mine did warn me to be careful because I could be liable for claims of discrimination because you’re not going to be working with, for example, men who have been accused of committing violence against women, and I think the type of issues that Woolley raises are more entrenched in the legal community that we like to admit. I think there are lots of different ways in which lawyers signal to community members the types of clients that they are looking to work with, whether it’s a way of indicating that lawyers work with well-heeled clients thereby suggesting a certain income level, or for example the way union-side labour firms signal that they only work for the employee side for clients. Ideologically, I think it is a fiction for us to say as a profession that we aren’t selective with our clients. But more generally, there is a tension that I would like us to be able to unpack eventually as feminist lawyers, which is the tension between bringing your own feminist beliefs to working with clients and having it inform your work with clients versus being able to apply a client-centered analysis. I know there’s some discourse out of human rights work particularly in the international context around actually expressing some caution for lawyers substituting some of their own values or beliefs for those of their clients and I think this is a tension there that we need to be alive to as feminist lawyers.
Andrea: Well on a more positive note, on your website it says that you “work in the areas of human rights, civil litigation, family law, and employment and labour law” You also wrote “We are aware that women and trans people can experience oppression on different and intersecting levels.” Do you think your firm, as a feminist law firm, is more appealing to clients who are lesbians, transgendered persons, persons who identify as female? Why do you think that is?
Leslie: We have had clients tell us that they appreciate this approach and value being able to work with lawyers with whom they share feminist values. Most of what brings folks to lawyers are very personal issues and often experiences that can be linked to parts of their identities so I would think it’s easier to work with practitioners that can empathize with these experiences and are explicit about understanding the intersections.
Karin: Yes because I think we have been careful to convey that, for us, trans women are women (for example we wanted to convey that gender is a means by which people are categorized and oppressed as much as sex) so there’s been an understanding amongst Ottawa’s queer community that we are focused on understanding their lived experiences as much as historical definitions of feminist advocacy. But more generally, I think the way that people connected with us was how much of a distance you feel like you are at from dominant systems, and do you feel like an outsider, and if you feel like an outsider, then here’s a law firm that messages that we see this system as not entirely aligned with your needs, and with the needs of other communities that have been historically oppressed in Canada. Let’s start with them because we won’t have to do as much work explaining to them what our lived experiences have been.
Andrea: Why did you decide to start a feminist law firm?
Leslie: I was not the brave one who founded the feminist firm. That was my good friend Karin Galldin. I joined her in her practice, first as an associate at Galldin Law and then we later starting working in association as Galldin Robertson.
Personally, I didn’t really fit in at law school and wasn’t set on articling or practicing. I didn’t participate in any recruitment and only applied for a few non-traditional articling positions. After graduating from McGill in 2007 I started a Master’s in Social Work thinking that I might look to work in a more interdisciplinary environment. When I was working for a large national union I ended up turning my job into my articling position by asking my boss who was a lawyer to be my supervisor. I called to the bar just under the 3 year deadline.
I left the union to work with my friend Karin. It was an obvious fit as we were already collaborating on different non-law feminist projects (we were in a burlesque troupe among other things), were good friends, and I had admired her work and her firm since she had started it a few years prior.
Karin: I started this law firm, with a friend, because we both had some questions about our home within the legal system. We wanted to be able
to work directly with community members in a way that reflected our own beliefs about how to operate in the world while in possession of tools of great privilege. I was pretty stubborn about it — my first year out of law school I told myself that I was giving the system one last chance, or I’d give up on it for good! Now, with my vantage point I realize it’s more complicated than that, but it really was a desire to be able to represent myself directly with community members in terms of how I could work with them and what I would like to do for them.
Andrea: Solo practitioners have previously come to McGill to discuss their experiences starting a firm. The consensus seems to be that it is very hard and requires a lot of sacrifice — both time and money. I’d heard the start-up costs can be immense. What was your economic plan for starting your law firm?
Karin: I think that’s a good question because it is a conversation we need to have with more transparency when it comes to speaking with law graduates who have increasing amounts of debt. As a single woman, without a home, with a very aging and decrepit car, without a life partner, this is where you do become a lot more aligned with small business owners. Banks didn’t feel that my business venture was reliable enough to offer me a significant amount of credit on, so the most supportive environment I found was the Ottawa Women’s Credit Union, they were the only women’s credit union operating in North America at the time (they also now no longer exist) so you have to be able to hustle, to be honest. The general point I want to convey is that you need to be really financially careful, and if you have the capacity to do something like buy a home (which is not accessible to a lot of people as it is, I know), that will really help you in terms of having credit. But I also think that as we move towards more virtual workplaces, solo practitioners will be able to rely on more technologies and won’t have as many costs.
Andrea: So did you ever work from home or was your plan always to immediately purchase office space?
Karin: My previous employer Sack Goldblatt Mitchell really generously rented office space to me and my former business partner for the first couple of years, and it was a wonderful downtown Ottawa office space, but it also offered camaraderie and informal mentorship that was valuable to me. So I know that over the years small practitioners who have worked from home, or rent temporary office space on an as- needed basis, I think one of the things that these people really struggle with is where to find their community and how to connect with it. So I would encourage people who are opening up their own practices, women who are doing so to balance what you obviously need to be careful about in terms of overhead with your need to be supported, and have access to mentors and peers who will be able to empathize with you, laugh at things that really should be humorous, and make referrals!
Andrea: When you speak about community, was there a certain point that you became “established” as a known figure and it took off from there?
Karin: I would say that probably after two years I had established enough of a reputation that I would get referrals from other lawyers, either cold calls or have someone approach them for something that they thought raised an equality issue, or physical or psychological integrity issue, so I had stable source of referrals from other lawyers, also had the reputation in the community of being a feminist lawyer, so if a community member felt that was something they wanted as a characteristic in someone to work with they would call me, and I also had gained the trust of community groups at that point. So I was able to act as a resource for them, if they were looking for referrals, also to have conversations with them around what we were seeing in the community, so like what issues maybe existed in a more widespread phenomena within the community that we were concerned about. This is how we started working with sex worker advocacy groups in Ottawa, which turned out to be a really exciting and creative partnership.
Andrea: Was there a case where you were able to assist a client above and beyond what they were expecting, or a case where you are particularly proud of how you handled the case?
Karin: I’m happy with the entirety of what I do. The truth is, because you are working on issues that are really hard for people, not everyone you work with is going to feel great about the outcome. Or not everyone you are able to work with is going to be able to turn around, in all sincerity and thank you for the work you did with them. But if you set that aside and acknowledge that that’s part of being involved in this system, there is really no means for me to say big case vs. small because so much of what we did was helping community members with small legal issues. But they were small legal issues that had a big impact on their lives. So really any work that I did that contributed to the dignity of the clients that I worked with, that’s my goal. The legal system, the public rights granting institution is a matter of human dignity, being able to connect with it in an empowered way that I was able to do that in the course of my years in practice, and that’s my gage, that’s what I’m satisfied with.
Leslie: We’ve worked with a lot of amazing people and I consider it a feminist victory when our work with someone has helped empower them or contributed to a better sense of justice or restitution for them. Sometimes we achieved this through civil suits or human rights complaints that held perpetrators or institutions accountable, or by educating institutions and requiring them to change their policies and ultimately their cultures.
It was a victory every time I helped a client confront her abuser in family court and retain custody of her children. Or the case we intervened in that helped recognized the intended parental project of a queer couple in relation to their sperm donor.
Karin and I were also co-counsel representing a coalition of sex worker organizations in the Bedford case, a recent constitutional challenge that ultimately led to the Supreme Court invalidating the prostitution provisions in the criminal code. The Bedford trial was a huge victory for pro-choice feminists as it saw the Supreme Court valuing the lives of sex workers and striking down abolitionist laws that made their work unsafe.
Andrea: What general, last piece of advice would you give to young feminist law students who are interested in perhaps starting their own feminist law firm?
Karin: I want to be able to encourage young women to have the courage to start their own law firm; the benefits that you will experience in terms of your personal wellbeing, your place in the community, and the work that you will be able to do will outweigh the stresses that come along with running your own practice and establishing a financial security for yourself.
I want to say to women be courageous, but be careful as well in terms of finding mentors and finding sources of work. You have to really be able to step away from the paradigm that we are sort of asked to buy into around who a lawyer is. Because, in all honesty, some of the best feminist lawyers I know are people who for example work part time in other areas, or you know, have a really good sense of perspective of the legal system that is also accompanied by a good sense of humour. So don’t convince yourself that you should only behave a certain way as a lawyer.
I think you will find a lot more space and openness and compassion towards yourself if you allow yourself to imagine all the ways in which you can be a feminist lawyer, rather than try to fit yourself into the limited categories that dominant belief systems endorse about lawyers in Canada.
(1) 2nd ed, (Markham: LexisNexis, 2012).