A woman’s place is at the table

Female lawyers are essential to the practice of criminal law
Image by: Herbert Wang
As Cassandra grows in her education she finds herself continuously drawn to a career in law.

This article discusses sexual violence and may be triggering for some readers. The Journal uses survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424.

I decided I wanted to be a lawyer in the fourth grade.

I just learned about environmental law. No animal would go extinct under my watch if I were an environmental lawyer.

Now a fourth-year university student, I know a lot more about myself and the world. I’ve allowed new information to inform my professional aspirations, always open to fields other than law.

In high school, I realized a career helping people sounded more fulfilling than a career in environmental law, which is largely corporate. I could only see myself being satisfied with the same work for some forty-odd years only if it involved advocating the interests of human beings.

I wanted to connect on a personal level with those I defend, and to see immediate results from my work.

Discovering I wanted to work closely with people and help them through difficult times, I debated becoming a social worker or a psychotherapist. Loving my job tutoring, I contemplated becoming a teacher.

The more career options I considered, the more I felt drawn back to law.

I love technicalities and puzzles and red tape. I want a career with high stakes, and to cultivate expertise that can be of service to my friends and family. Nothing but law seemed to check those boxes so perfectly.

I settled on family law, primarily impassioned by the prospect of fighting for just custodial agreements—ideally on behalf of brave women escaping toxic partners—and supporting families through difficult times.

Then, in 2020, I got angry.

Hearing about horrible, everyday injustices that aren’t only tolerated but normalized because they’re imbued into our social fabric galvanized me. I developed a need to use my career to contribute to the social causes I care most about.

I was forced to confront inadequacies of the Canadian justice system I previously tried to disregard. Despite policy supposedly addressing systemic racism, Indigenous women were the fastest growing population in Canadian prisons between 2009 and 2018.

I wasn’t sure I could bear to join a system that not only fails to protect vulnerable communities, but one thatdisproportionately prosecutes them.

I could too clearly envision myself as a young lawyer being pressured by a firm into representing a wealthy and disinterested parent robbing another more deserving, but less well-off parent in a custody case.

And yet, I still felt I could somehow do good as a lawyer. I wasn’t ready to let go of that aspiration for all the other reasons the law always appealed to me.

By my second year of university, I was decided on pursuing criminal law as a crown attorney. I want to work in sex crimes prosecution.

The reaction from most people to this plan is almost annoyingly predictable: a sharp inhalation, a momentary pause, and a revelatory, “ooh, that’ll be difficult.”

The question behind that reaction, at times asked aloud but otherwise implicit in the gasp, is of course, “why would you want to do that?”

I know this question intends no harm, but it does feel patronizing. I receive that discouraging sound and grossly obvious retort as doubtful and patronizing. People react as if it’s never occurred to me that studying heinous crimes might be unpleasant, when really, I’ve thought about it, a lot.

Worse, people who react this way seem to think they’re presenting me a reason to change course. They think I should give up on pursuing sex crimes prosecution because it’ll be “difficult.

I can’t help but wonder if they’d be so viscerally unsettled if I were a man expressing desire to prosecute violent crimes.

Only women from generations before mine and men respond apprehensively. Women around my age generally respond with praise and reiterate the importance of the job.

That disparity implies women my age can register my capability, while others imagine my delicate, feminine sensibility may cause me to shatter if exposed to disturbing content.

It’s true women exit criminal law at a much higher rate than men, but it’s not because they’re inherently fragile or incapable.

The field of criminal law wasn’t designed to be compatible with the social roles ascribed to women.

Female lawyers in criminal law are paid less and treated differently than their male counterparts. Women experience more internal and external pressure to take parental leave than men. As a result, the difficulty for criminal lawyers getting time off or paid leave disproportionately disadvantages women.

The failure to modernize criminal law proceedings to be accessible for female crown prosecutors is even visible in its physical infrastructure.

At Osgoode Hall—the building in downtown Toronto home to Ontario’s highest courts and its Law Society—there used to be men’s and women’s changing rooms, intended for lawyers to change in before court. The men’s space was opulent and expansive, with nearly 70 full-length lockers.

The women’s space, meanwhile, was small, decorated with mismatched furniture, and contained 12 lockers—less than a fifth of the lockers the men’s space had.

Following years of complaints and the widespread circulation of a petition calling for renovations, the Law Society remodeled the facilities. In 2019, the men’s space was transformed into a gender-neutral changing room for use by all lawyers.

The men’s room was always large enough to accommodate more people, yet change came only after the difference between the spaces sparked public criticism. The redesign, though positive, doesn’t represent an interest in welcoming female lawyers as much as it does the interest of appeasing public pressures.

What makes working in criminal law particularly difficult for women, most notably for female crown attorneys, isn’t their own shortcomings—it’s the sexist presumption of their unsuitability for the job.

Maybe I will feel too emotionally burnt out to work in criminal law after a few years.

I can’t yet know how frustrating and upsetting it will be to watch an attacker walk free when there’s insufficient evidence for a case against them. I’m sure it will be devastating, but I can’t see how that feeling should discourage me.

For women who have been assaulted by men, as is the case for many survivors, it would be more comfortable to work closely with another woman on building a case than it would be to relive personal details of an assault in a room full of men in positions of power.

The majority of victims of sex trafficking and sexual violence are women and members of other marginalizedcommunities. Sexual violence is physically, emotionally, and unforgettably degrading. The people defending its survivors should be those most capable of empathizing with them, those who care most deeply.

Being a woman doesn’t make me too delicate to work in sex crimes prosecution. Being a woman makes me angrier on behalf of survivors, more determined. My feminine rage is productive.

Not only are female lawyers capable of practicing criminal law, they’re necessary to its adequate practice.


feminism, Law, Law school, Postscript

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