Women in criminal defence: the good, the ugly, and the truth

Women in today’s society don’t have it easy. We are expected to be well-educated, have a career, a house, a husband, children . . . the list goes on. Managing all these aspects of our lives, while becoming successful professionals is impossible to achieve, right? Wrong.

Recently, the Criminal Law Students Association of the University of Ottawa, organized a women in criminal law panel. Guests included Ontario Court Justice Heather Perkins-McVey, and criminal lawyers Anne London-Weinstein and Annik Wills — all successful and accomplished professionals as well as mothers and wives.

One might think of them as superwomen, but what drives them above all is their passion and will.

What is it like to be a woman practising in a demanding field such as criminal law? How do they manage to find work-life balance? How are they perceived by potential clients and the public? How do clients behave around them?

The answer lies in acknowledging their lifestyle as far from glamorous at times — but it is worth it if you believe in what you do, and more importantly, in who you are.

Day in and day out, the passion, the drive, the mind-over-matter attitude should become the air that you breathe, I feel.

People who work in the private sector, such as criminal defence, work exhaustingly long hours. Balancing work and life is a juggling act. Some of the women have brought their children to the office and to court. While she was a defence counsel, Perkins-McVey even attended a client’s bail hearing the day after delivering one of her kids.

If that is not dedication, I don’t know what is!

So work-life balance is relative. In my opinion, career-orientated women make their own choices based on their lifestyle, and on what they perceive as a balanced life. These women do what is required of them in order to fulfill their personal and professional roles and ambitions. They make time for their kids whether it is a hockey game, school play, or simply staying home and watching movies.

Most of the panellists are married, and some of their spouses are partners at their firms, which eases the workload. In some households, the roles are reversed; the women work late while their husbands take care of the kids.

They welcome the support of their family, and friends. Otherwise, nanny services can provide you with the necessary help. In fact, they say, having a nanny and a cleaner let you spend quality time with your children rather than spending your free time on household chores. So don’t be too quick in dismissing this option.

Then there’s the issue of being a woman in a male-dominated area of the profession.

The client may frequently question the panellist’s ability — perhaps solely based on their gender. “Have you even done this before? … What would be my defence?”

These are just some of the questions that come from the unfounded belief women are less capable than men in defending clients accused of serious crimes.

However, the panellists counselled students not to let themselves be intimidated by these questions.

Show confidence and be upfront about what you can do for your potential clients, they said. You can even point them to the door and let them know that they are free to walk out if they do not have faith in your abilities. They will overcome their doubts and see you for the exceptional lawyer that you are. You will be amazed by how many clients will refuse to have anyone—but you—defend them. Such is the case of Perkins-McVey whose clients, at the time that she was a defence counsel, refused to have anyone — but her — defend them. She wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself, and this attitude served her well throughout her career.

Women often have to prove themselves and their skills, unlike their male colleagues. However, not only do they end up getting the respect they deserve, but they gain the loyalty from their clients as well.

One last topic is worth discussing: the “how can you defend a rapist or a murderer” question that every aspiring or established defence lawyer — male or female — will have the “joy” of being asked.

Whenever I say that I want to specialize in criminal defence, I get that sideways look from people. It used to irritate me to have to explain myself each time. Is it because I’m a woman, or because of the profession I chose that I need to justify myself? However, the more I follow this career path, the more I realize I will just let my work speak for itself.

London-Weinstein, who owns her own firm, said: “Defending the clients’ rights is not justifying their actions; it is defending their rights. . . . We have a role to play as defence lawyers, and we do not have to justify ourselves.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

As human beings, it is not our gender but our passions, our duty to society, our life goals, and our convictions that should define who we are.

Whether you are pursuing a career in criminal law or in another legal field, there will be many hurdles to overcome.

But keep in mind that a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.

Ines Gavran is the former co-president of the Criminal Law Student Association and a JD student at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa.

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