On Wednesday, March 6, 2019, the Lerners London office hosted a kick-off event featuring a breakfast with Janet E. Stewart, who this year is celebrating fifty years with the firm. Janet regaled us with stories of her early days as the first female lawyer at Lerners at a time when only a small fraction of women were entering the profession.
The numbers say it all: Janet attended Osgoode Hall Law School, where out of a class of about 200 only 8 were women. She articled at a firm on Bay Street in Toronto with only one female lawyer on the roster. She then attended the bar admissions course with 19 other women in a class of about 400. After she was hired at what was then known as Lerner, Lerner, Bradley, Cherniak, and Granger, she was the only female lawyer for several years before another joined the firm in 1975. Janet then oversaw a period of dramatic growth for the firm as its managing partner from 1991 to 2008. During that time, she was one of a handful of female managing partners in Ontario and probably one of the first in Canada.
The profession today looks vastly different from what which Janet entered fifty years ago. And yet, there is still so much more to do.
As a young female lawyer, the discussion about whether, and when, to start a family is an ongoing and concerted negotiation with my spouse and close family members. I invariably have to consider the impact of one or more maternity leaves on the progression of my career. In my short tenure as a practising lawyer, I have already encountered many older male lawyers who need to be reminded, more than once, that certain language and behaviour is inappropriate. And I know that I am not alone in these experiences. As my colleague, Yola S. Ventresca, writes in her post on the historical significance of International Women’s Day, gaps of various forms, in law and other fields, continue to exist.
As a young female visible minority lawyer who immigrated to Canada as a teenager, I find myself in a constant tug of war between my cultural identity and traditional notions of what a lawyer should “look” and “sound” like. I am also acutely aware of my position in a community like London, which is rapidly diversifying and catching up with cities like Toronto. During each student recruitment cycle and events hosted by the local bar association, I eagerly look for faces like mine—perhaps just as Janet once did in the early days of her career.
In writing this post, I cannot help but reflect on Hadiya Roderique’s essay, “Black on Bay Street”, which was published in The Globe and Mail on November 4, 2017. Like her, my parents moved to Canada with the promise of a better life for their only child. And like her, I have been faced with the reality that a successful career in law is built not only on merit, but also on belonging, opportunity, and fit. I have, in the past, repeatedly fallen into the same trap of feeling like I had to suppress that which made me “different” to meet perceived expectations. But now I realize that is not the answer. These days I strive to live simply as I am, because maintaining a carefully curated identity is detrimental to the clients I am duty-bound to serve. As I listened to Janet speak, I realized that the floodgates were opened for women like me when she and others in her position courageously blazed the path forward. It is now up to the rest of us to continue the charge.
At the end of Janet’s talk, she acknowledged the many individuals, including men, who supported her. She ended by saying, “For the people you see struggling, be at their back.” As we celebrate International Women’s Day, in a society that is more diverse and globalized than ever before, I am mindful that in order to effect real change, we all need to be at each other’s backs.