In Their Shoes: Diverse Stories From the Legal Profession

  • November 10, 2016

Stories differ from political positions. Political positions propose solutions to our problems, and are legitimately subject to debate and discussion. Stories, in contrast, tell us what problems we face.

The legal profession has many stories. It is experienced in different ways by different people. Many experiences are universal: long hours, short deadlines, complex analysis. Others are not. And this article shares some of those experiences.

Below, I have compiled anonymous stories from a diverse group of individuals who are currently, or are soon to be, part of the legal profession. Their stories expose an unfortunate truth: that, despite how far we have come to advance inclusivity and equality in the legal profession, much work remains to be done.

To be clear, these are not the only stories that exist (indeed, many groups are, unfortunately, not represented here). Further, every lawyer has their own subjective experiences and struggles, and I do not intend to define for lawyers, no matter their background, what their experience in the profession has been. But I also know that these stories are not exceptional. They are frequent. And yet, at the same time, go unnoticed by so many in the profession.

The accounts below are anonymous to ensure that everyone felt comfortable being open and candid in describing their experiences. However, I do provide some information about the contributors’ identities—such as their occupation and location—to ensure that readers appreciate that discrimination is not just a “small town” problem: it is everywhere. The city you work in, your area of practice, even your seniority, does not insulate against exclusion and marginalization.

So, with that, I encourage you to read these short stories, recognize the unique struggles only some of us must endure, and, most importantly, reflect on what you can do (or stop doing) to promote greater inclusivity in the legal profession.


Identity: Queer Woman
Occupation: Litigation Associate 
Location: West Coast

I’ve been called “sweetheart” at work so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve grinned-and-borne-it as the only woman, and the only queer person, in the room when co-workers make cracks about some part of my identity. I’ve been quietly warned about that lawyer—you know, the one who drinks a little too much and then stands a little too close—and then quietly passed on the same warning, because what else can I do?

Dealing with this stuff is so disheartening, because it tarnishes the things about work that I love.  Most days I love coming in to the office, and I have so much respect for most of my co-workers, but I’m so sick of wondering if “nice work!” actually means “nice work!”, or if it means “nice work—for a girl.” It’s exhausting, and this job is already tiring enough.


Identity: Black Straight Man
Occupation: Litigation Associate
Location: Canada

As a black straight man I have had the dual experience of privilege (straight, male) and disadvantage (black). I have experienced prejudice because of my identity. But I have also witnessed prejudice experienced by others—in particular, women—in ways I can only describe but will never fully understand. Too often, these impacts go completely unnoticed by the majority of practicing lawyers.

As a black lawyer, I have been told, by a partner, to change my natural black hair to advance in the profession. I know many black peers who have been similarly instructed. When I self-identify as a lawyer it is routinely met with skepticism (Really? You’re a lawyer? You?), or, at least, the assumption that I must be a criminal defence lawyer (I am not). I have been told by colleagues that I could not possibly experience prejudice in my city and, on the same day, been called a “n**ger” in broad daylight downtown. I can tell that some white colleagues resent my success, and wish to attribute that success to “affirmative action,” rather than confront the possibility that a black lawyer could be as capable as (or, heaven forbid, more capable than) they are. Despite all this, I have also been told that my path in the law will be “easy” because diversity is “in” right now (reducing basic equality to a fad). Indeed, diversity is so “in” right now, that seniors at my firm have told us that, for business reasons, it is something we must now take seriously, at the insistence of clients who want to know that the firms they retain value diversity (spoiler alert: many don’t). All that said, I have also had positive black experiences. I have had partners in other offices reach out to me specifically because of my race. I have found a community of black lawyers who are loving, supportive, kind, and, above all, empathetic. I have been placed on better files because of partners who want to be “seen” as valuing diversity (I’ll take it). I have spoken to young offenders—many black—and told them that being black does not mean that there is only one side of the law that they can participate in. I could tell that seeing a black man, in a suit, tell them this, really meant something to them. It was everything.

But I am also privileged as a straight male lawyer. And that privilege has shown me how others in the profession, too, experience terrible discrimination that I have never faced.

As a male lawyer, I have seen, year after year, how female articling students are consistently overqualified and undervalued. I have seen women not invited to social events; events which, inevitably, build bonds with senior lawyers. Bonds that build careers. It is not only senior lawyers who perpetuate this discrimination. I have been on email threads where male articling students email half of the articling class (the male half) and ask who is interested in playing golf, squash, etc. Those games build bonds among junior lawyers. Again, bonds that build careers. And those emails are particularly absurd when the female articling students are all far better athletes. I have been told by in house counsel that their favourite lawyers are the “relaxed” lawyers who can “take a joke” (something tells me his jokes are offensive to some groups, which helps explain why all his “favourite” lawyers are white men). Most depressingly, I have heard a partner refer to an attractive female lawyer as a “tease”, and later advocate for her dismissal from the firm.

As a straight lawyer, I have heard callous remarks made about the promotion of LGBT events in the firm. I have been told by a partner that an incredibly qualified gay lawyer is “not just a lightweight, but a gay lightweight”. I have been told by senior lawyers that they feel more comfortable working with straight lawyers because straight lawyers can “make jokes” and “not take things too seriously.”

In sum, I have learned what the ideal lawyer looks like. And it’s not me. Nor is it most of the exceptional lawyers I call my good friends.


Identity: Visually Impaired
Occupation: Litigation Associate
Location: Toronto

Criminal courthouses can be difficult places for the visually impaired. Some are poorly lit. Some have confusing layouts. All are crowded with anxious people who either don’t know where they are going or are too busy to stop to give directions. Dockets are printed in tiny font and are rarely made available online ahead of time. Every courthouse follows its own procedures. Sometimes a counsel sign-in sheet is posted far from the courtroom, other times it is necessary to make eye contact with the Crown to get their attention and let them know who you are representing. Each of these obstacles is a minor puzzle that must be solved even before a court appearance begins.

I began carrying a white cane years ago. I did so reluctantly, in spite of the obvious safety benefits, because of apprehensions of how the people around me would react. Carrying a white cane means encountering a wide spectrum of reactions in courthouses. Many people keep a respectful distance and intervene only if it looks like I could use a hand. Others offer patronizing or offensive comments. It is amazing how often my white cane is taken as an invitation by total strangers to ask intrusive questions about my medical history. On one occasion, a police officer came and sat down next to me. He decided to lighten the mood in the courtroom by telling some jokes about blind people. Obviously, it had not even occurred to him that I was a defence lawyer that could have been cross-examining him that afternoon.


Identity: Woman
Occupation: Junior Crown
Location: Prairie Province

We were having an office meeting, and at the end we had a round table where each person had the opportunity to raise an issue or concern. I had not planned on contributing to that part of the meeting. However, there had been a heated discussion about a certain step we were taking on some files that was causing a technical problem with one of our computer systems. The discussion was dominated by the senior men in the office. I had an idea that I thought would help resolve the problem, so I saved it for my turn at the round table. When my turn came, I started to introduce my idea and my boss assumed that I was reviving the argument, and also assumed I was taking the opposite position from his (neither of which were true). He began speaking over me, igniting the whole discussion again (with the same group of senior men all getting back into it). It wasn't until quite some time later that one of them spoke up to say they hadn't let me say my bit. I quickly tried to make my suggestion, and before I could finish, my boss again interrupted before I was finished, explaining why it wouldn't work, and moved on to the next person at he table. Several people noticed this treatment and apologized on his behalf in private after the meeting (mostly women), but no one said anything to him, and he said nothing to me. The next year I skipped the meeting.


Identity: White Gay Cis Man
Occupation: Junior Associate
Location: United States

Dramatis Personae
Me: White gay cis man, junior at major US law firm (“Firm”)
Ally: White straight cis man, senior partner at the Firm
Homophobe: White straight cis man, senior partner at the Firm
Managing Partner: White straight cis man, managing partner

Over two days, three emails were sent to the office-wide listserve. As each email was multiple paragraphs, I paraphrase for brevity, clarity, and to maintain anonymity. Although I only include the provocative sentences, I have done my best to stay true to what was said, and have not exaggerated nor excluded exculpatory context.

The Emails
Ally’s email: Promotion of diversity is important to the Firm. I will be our lead delegate to an LGBT lawyers’ conference. There are other delegate spots available. Please see me if you’re interested.

[Note: To my knowledge, there were no openly queer partners at the firm, so it was understandable that an ally, rather than a queer person, was the lead delegate.]

Homophobe’s email, the next morning: I don’t know who designated Ally as the moral director of the Firm, nor why his opinions should be diffused to the entire office. I’ll keep my opinions to myself, and I urge Managing Partner to end this propaganda of political correctness.

Managing partner’s email, an hour later: I asked Ally to be our lead delegate to this conference, and I thank him for taking on this role. I understand that some of you find this initiative unsuitable. This is not propaganda and no one is required to participate in the workshop against his or her will. I apologize if any of you have been offended by Ally’s request for volunteers. As you may know, we are a part of a group of law firms that holds diversity workshops. This LGBT conference is one of those workshops. The group contacted me and said they were having trouble recruiting enough delegates. We have found volunteers in our office who were interested. If you would like to participate, please reach out to Ally or me.

Participation in an inclusive conference was openly discouraged before the entire office. A senior partner our office delegated to attend on the firm's behalf was ridiculed by another senior partner.

This made me uncomfortable. I am openly gay at work. Someone peripherally if not directly in charge of me sent an email to the entire office saying that being queer should be kept private, and invitations to conferences for queer lawyers should not be circulated.

A few days later, after calming down, I approached a junior partner (a white straight cis man) with whom I had a good working relationship. I explained to him why I was offended. He was receptive and called Homophobe an a**hole, which made me feel a bit better. He asked if I was in a fighting mood. I told him I didn't want to do anything that would hurt either of our careers, but I said if possible Homophobe should take part in sensitivity training. Suffice to say that never happened.


Identity: Lesbian
Occupation: Litigation Associate
Location: Calgary

I was terrified moving to Calgary. I had enrolled at the U of C law school without ever having visited the City. I had been out since Grade 10 and was concerned that the rumours I had heard about Calgary’s conservatism and “old boys club” business style may not bode well for my future. I was the only out LGBT student in my 1L class but, apart from the standard inquisitiveness and occasional inappropriate question from classmates that are now good friends, I found my class and the school to be welcoming, diverse, progressive, and respectful. My concerns were eased until I walked into my first “big law” interview as part of 2L recruitment.

“We expected you to be more diverse” was the first thing the lead interviewer said when I walked into the room. None of my interview prep had quite prepared me for that comment and luckily the second interviewer jumped in when she noticed my look of utter confusion. Not that she helped much when she said “Your resume notes that you were on diversity committees at law school and in undergrad so we just didn’t expect you to be Caucasian and blond.” I was then forced into the obligatory coming out introduction (sorry, I’m gay, not a visible minority) and suffered through the remainder of a derailed interview. All of my remaining interviews went much better, and even after my early years of practice, which only had a few minor bumps along the way, I am proud to say that the interview still sticks out in my mind as my most awkward “diversity” moment.

In hindsight, my concerns about moving to Calgary were irrational and I grew to love the City. Calgary might not have as vibrant of an LGBT community as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver but, despite a few awkward moments, my diversity has created opportunities and forced me to lead in areas where I would have otherwise not. One of those areas is assisting with training our interviewers for recruitment.


Identity: Woman
Occupation: Associate
Location: Calgary

When I started articling, I was assigned to do some work with a male lawyer. I heard he had the reputation for working almost exclusively with men, but I was determined to do good work for him and be the exception to the rule.

He gave me some interesting work assignments and I felt like I had broken the mould. However, I noticed that he would never invite me to social events—for example he would take my male colleagues out for lunch, but I would not get an invite. One random Friday around 4 pm, I heard him go around knocking on doors to round people up for drinks. I figured he would swing by my office, but soon my area of the office was quiet and I realized I had been left behind. 

I was determined to make the most of my situation so I decided to work late that night and get ahead of a few deadlines.

Around 8 pm, I heard another male lawyer and one of the male articling students coming back from the bar. They were talking about funny things that had happened at drinks but then talk turned to work. The lawyer asked the student if he wanted to help with a highly coveted file that I had been keen to work on. I couldn't help but feel that if I had been out for drinks, I could have had the chance to talk to that lawyer and maybe get that work.

I learnt an important lesson that day. Not being invited to social events works against you in two ways. Firstly, you feel left out and miss out on fun. Secondly, you can work as hard as you want and deliver good products but still miss opportunities because you just... weren't there.


Identity: Visually Impaired
Occupation: Law Student
Location: Canada

I am completely blind and currently am attending law school. I have had many experiences that have led me to understand how different my experience is from everybody else.

One main event stands out in my mind. In my first year we were given practice assignments to complete and we were to hand them in by email. The professor would then print them off, write comments on them and hand them back. As I can’t read these comments I approached him to ask if he would mind emailing me my comments instead. The response was “I have no interest putting any more effort into your assignment then I would anybody else’s.” I was shocked and didn’t know quite what to say or do. This professor then followed up by telling me that I was most likely going to fail the assignment we were practicing for unless I started correcting the errors he was pointing out to me. I tried to explain that I couldn’t correct the errors because I couldn’t read his comments. This fell on deaf ears and seemed to make no difference. One of my close friends ended up spending hours with me reading the comments and helping me type them out for myself.


Identity: Queer Woman
Occupation: Law Student
Location: Western Canada

As a sexual minority, I don't often experience the overt discrimination that other, more visible minorities face. On one hand, I "pass" as straight, and receive the privilege that comes with that. On the other hand, I am very aware of the hostile environment for sexual minorities within the business of law, and have withdrawn from networking events, social events, and even job opportunities because of it. This hostility arises in many ways, from the strictly gendered dress code taught to us in "Women's Dress for Success" to the extremely heteronormative places chosen to host school events.

During the highly competitive articling recruitment process, I was invited to a mixer for short listed applicants at a well known corporate firm. At one point I was politely listening to a senior partner with a small group of my peers. He commented that us students were very friendly, and that he'd even seen two men hugging earlier that night. I stiffened. He quickly added "Don't worry! We won't be hiring any gays here." I was not the only one taken aback, but my colleagues looked nervous and laughed politely. I was stone faced. I looked each of my peers in the eyes before walking out of the mixer and withdrawing my application. It wasn't the partner's comment that stung the most, although it was completely inappropriate. It was the reaction of my peers who knew full well what had happened, and chose to shrug it off for the chance at a sought-after job. The competitive nature of the recruitment process forces students to use every edge up they can get, even if the edge is an oppressive system which they disagree with. I felt alienated and isolated in this experience, but ultimately it led me to seek out queer mentorship within the legal community, which has been a very rewarding and successful experience.


Identity: Woman
Occupation: Partner
Location: Calgary

During my first few years of private practice, I never felt “marginalized” because of my gender. I seemed to be treated in a similar fashion as my male colleagues, never seemed to have any issues in getting good work assignments and was included in the same office social events as my peers. I had a number of women colleagues in and around my vintage. I thought all of the chatter about the challenges faced by women in big law private practice was overstated or isolated.

However, as I progressed within the firm and became a more “senior” associate, the number of women with whom I worked shrank—all but disappeared—in comparison to the number of men. I began to be called upon to “represent” the firm’s alleged “diversity”, and often felt like the poster child they would trot out when optic management was needed.  At the same time, while I continued to get good work, I could see my male colleagues more often be mentored and included in the business development opportunities so necessary to grow private practice success.

By the time partnership became an option, I was regularly advised by my male colleagues that I would obviously be offered partnership because of the massive underrepresentation of my gender at the partnership table. The fact that I had billed more hours, brought in more business and was more involved within firm and community initiatives than any of them was completely disregarded.

Finally, upon being made partner, I was literally told that I should not voice my opinion or share my views with the partnership on firm matters, notwithstanding some serious issues regarding sexual harassment of young women associates, and the virtual absence of women around the partnership table. I was “lucky” to have been made a partner and I should “just put my head down and shut up and work”. How soul eroding to find that my male counterparts were never so advised, and despite all of my hard work, I had merely become a token representative of my gender to appease the PR guilt of firm management.

Joshua Sealy-Harrington is clerking at the Supreme Court of Canada. He also articled at the Federal Court for the Honourable Justice Donald J. Rennie (now of the Federal Court of Appeal). His publications centre on criminal law, the Charter, and critical theories.