Female litigators don’t just fight legal battles in the courtroom; they’re also fighting the battle against sexism within the legal profession.
During a two-part panel discussion in Toronto Feb. 8 hosted by the Ontario Bar Association’s Institute: Female Litigators: Staking Your Claim in the Courtroom, six female lawyers shared their experiences and strategies on overcoming sexist treatment on the job.
“I am as much worthy of respect as my male counterparts in this career,” said Linda Fuerst, senior partner with Norton Rose Fulbright LLP, on the first of the two panels.
Whether sexism is experienced inside the courtroom, for instance, focusing on a female lawyer’s appearance rather than her job as a litigator, as spoken of on the first of the two panels, or outside the courtroom during meetings with colleagues or clients, or through email correspondence, as spoken of in the second panel, it’s proving to be an ongoing issue.
The speakers agreed that one of the best ways to overcome sexism inside the courtroom is to command authority and have a thorough knowledge of the case at hand. According to panellist Linda Rothstein, partner at Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein, you have to protect your own integrity but also act in the best interest of the client.
“Men who are tall and had baritone voices sounded authoritative. I couldn’t do that because I was short and female,” said Fuerst.
Fuerst added that it’s important to speak with confidence and to practice changing tone and intonation. It’s important to act authoritative because when so much emphasis is placed on a woman’s appearance in court, female lawyers need to command respect.
For instance, Rothstein said that early in her career, as she was delivering a motion, a judge stopped her to tell her that she had “lovely nails.”
Outside the courtroom, the importance of having a mentor was stressed because whether a lawyer needs advice on how to react professionally to sexist behaviour or just have someone to debrief with, they’re there to serve as a guide. Panellist Shantona Chaudhury of Pape Barristers said that inter-generational learning is key and believes that these can be the most important relationships in the profession.
Often, when experiencing sexism outside the courtroom, the verbal attacks on gender are subtle. According to Asha James of Falconers LLP, older male lawyers have tried to tell her how to deal with a client.
“Hey, honey, let me explain to you how this works,” she said, quoting from a past experience.
Another strategy touched upon was taking on a leadership role and expanding one’s sphere of influence. According to Law Society of Upper Canada Bencher Sandra Nishikawa, a big reason she ran for bencher was to help facilitate change in the industry and to help change the institutions that are part of the profession.
Nishikawa, a mother of three, said many female lawyers struggle with juggling childcare and motherhood with a career due to the fear of losing their clients and their position in their law firm when taking maternity leave. Often, mothers are perceived to not be serious about their legal career as their femininity becomes more evident, she said.
“Sometimes, you need to say, ‘I need to leave to pick up my kids from daycare,’” Nishikawa said. “It seems to be more acceptable, even charming, when men do this.”
Another benefit male colleagues have, according to the panellists and the session attendees, is ease at networking with other men. Often, men are able to bond with their clients and network due to mutual interests women might not share. For instance, male lawyers might build rapport with a client by taking them to play golf.
“I think men have a secret society. They golf together and they even go to the urinal together,” said Fuerst. “As women, we could find other things and other common ground to build rapport with these male clients.”
Above all, it was stressed that women in law need to look out for each other and propel each other forward, especially since there’s a shortage of women who make it past the 10-year mark working in law.
“I’d like to share a quote that I’ve read before: There’s a special place in hell for women that don’t support other women. Build bonds with women in the profession rather than see them as just your competition,” said Chaudhury.