voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Written by Professor Helena Lamed, Director of Legal Methodology, McGill Faculty of Law.

Women in the law face the same challenges as men do, at any given time, depending on the economic circumstances: right now, the about-to-graduate are worried about finding, keeping and liking a job, connected in some way with law studies.  But many women face the challenges more acutely, more urgently, with the added pressures of work-family balance, ‘’choices”,   real or illusory, about looking after children, and about wanting to look after the people and society around them, to “help”, to “make a difference”, “to feel satisfied”.  Women in law school who already feel something of this tension, that something will have to “give” in order to make a place for themselves, will find confirmation and understanding in Carol Gilligan’s work, from In a Different Voice to Joining the Resistance.  However muddy her science, she describes the experience of women losing their own, distinctive voices in order to sustain relationships, be they personal or professional.  She calls on women to listen to their voices of resistance and to let them be heard, for they are authentic agents of change.  I wish I had read her first book when I was starting out, rather than 20 years later.  I don’t think I would have done anything differently, but at least I might have understood why I found it so difficult to find a place in the law.

I graduated from McGill law school thirty years ago, after having done a BA in English and Economics and graduate work in comparative literature, all at McGill. (I can never be grateful enough for the sense of belonging and of limitless possibilities that this stodgy, dusty institution has given me.) About 35% of the Faculty was women; I don’t know how many were finely tuned to gender issues, but I know I was not.  I thought the battle had been won, wherever it had taken place.  I did not think about inequality in hiring, I really had no idea what work in law would mean, I just thoroughly enjoyed studying law.  It appealed to my love of detail, my respect for authority, and to a desire to belong to a community with the power and commitment to “make things better.”  The practice of law in 1982 mostly meant private practice, with some in-house and government jobs, but most graduates went to work in firms. I wrote one letter to a very large Montreal firm, (now merged and re-merged) for an articling position, had an interview, got a job.

The practice disappointed me as much as the study had thrilled me.  The hierarchy in the law firm appalled me. I did not understand about billing, and thought that looking after a matter meant doing the work well, but felt unhappy about putting down all my time, because I was inexperienced and slow.  I kept trying to reach compromises, find the human element, work it out, not fight, even though I was a whiz with the Code of Civil Procedure and felt almost guilty at the thrill I experienced in the courtroom, and at my success there.   I could not articulate the yucky feeling I sometimes had in meetings with the clients and the senior (male) lawyers; I know now it was that resisting voice, mocking me for being proud of always having the right document to hand my senior,  knowing the last detail of this or that, fast on the photocopy, basking in a word of praise for research well done.  The voice was despising me for being so dependent for confirmation of my worth in the profession.

At one point, about seven years into practice, I gave it up to look after my first child.  But as soon as I left practice, I looked for something else, anything, and taught some law courses in a technical college.   I raised a family with joy and heartache, with a toe-hold, no more, on the profession, missing the company, the suit jackets, “let’s have lunch”, the sense of something my own, however unsatisfactory.  I decided to return to work, and for a few years had a small solo practice, had to give it up, things happen.   I was indignant at a newspaper story of a woman who had done law school and joined the bar, but who could not find work as a lawyer, only work as a paralegal in a firm.  The firm would not let her use the designation “Maître” in her job.  It did not want her confused with the “real” lawyers.  A male lawyer I knew remarked to me about this story: “What difference does it make?  I never use my title, I don’t feel the need to”.   You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.  And you, my friend, could afford to be casual,you were at no risk of losing your title, but a lot of women are.

How could I have known that I had fallen under the spell of the “Mommy” backlash of the early 90’s, the accumulated years of Reaganiteconservatism?   I just could not bear visiting with my child, then children, for an hour a day.  Maternity leave and part time work were by then part of firm culture, but only just, put into place with sighs and concessions not only by the male partners but by senior women partners who proudly boasted of delivering right after a closing and of returning to work within a couple of weeks.  Part- time work was evidence of “going soft”, of only half-hearted commitment to the firm, and the passport to second- class citizenry in the law firm.  Many of the women I knew toughed it out through the childhood years, with nannies, missed events, tears, midnight oil and determination.   Maybe they heard their partners tell them, “ I am not getting up in the night because I am the higher income earner”, and still got up, or maybe they were the higher income earners, or maybe they hadthe support they needed, or listened to their voices saying, “do it, do it”.  They are partners in firms, judges, senior government lawyers.  I am full of admiration for them they are models for women in the profession.  Others left;  the women Susan Pinker interviews in her book The Sexual Paradox, or some of those described in Bar Codes: Women in the Legal Profession, “chose” to get out, didn’t care whether the ceiling was glass or not, because the climate and culture of law practice was fundamentally alienating and unsatisfying.   The question women must ask is about the authenticity of that choice.  Which voice is making the choice?  How authentic is it?

Determination by women lawyers have madefamily policies integral to law firms now, and men are also included.  This is a good thing. Many other good things have made it better for women in law: now more than 50% of graduates and the top of law classes are women; the Barhasto pay attention.  Mobility within and between jurisdictions is now not only accepted but valued (used to be you changed firms and there was “something wrong, you know, unsteady” about you) and more options are offered to women in law.  Pay equity achievements, changing mores, equality laws, and technology have, in theory, made law more open to women.  However, the growth of the larger law firms, the lure of big profits in boom times (and the need to preserve partner profit in down times) take their toll, and every so often you still hear about large firms “cleaning up the dead wood”, meaning getting rid of unproductive partners.  Of course, some are men, but it is shocking when those put out the door en masse are women.

Women in the law have to find and keep their voices.  Speak in class and speak in the boardroom. Don’t speak only for the sake of speaking, but don’t be silenced either, don’t leave thinking “I could have said that, I knew that”.  Don’t make yourself small and unheard.  Speak your knowledge and vision.  Above all, don’t give up, don’t toss it, stay working, stay in the profession, however you do it.  The profession needs you to make it better, and work, especially for women, is the key to maintaining a sense of oneself.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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