Women flex muscles in Ottawa legal circles

Twenty years ago they were a rarity, but female defence lawyers are gaining in numbers. Tony Lofaro talks to some of the women who are altering the city's judicial outlook.

Tony Lofaro ,  The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Tuesday, December 27, 2005

It wasn't long ago that Ottawa's legal landscape was primarily the domain of male lawyers. But more and more, at the courthouse, in judges' chambers and in law offices across the city, women's influence is being felt.

And as more young women enter the legal profession, it's not just the sheer number of female lawyers, but the variety of cases they're taking on that's catching the attention of male colleagues and the public.

According to the Law Society of Upper Canada, at the end of 2004, Ontario had 1,306 female lawyers under the age of 30, compared to 944 male lawyers. At the other end of the age spectrum, the law society had 2,666 male lawyers over the age of 60, versus just 145 women.

Ottawa boasts about 30 female defence lawyers. That's a big change from the early 1980s when Kimberly Pegg ventured out to place her shingle as a novice lawyer.

"If a woman wanted a female mentor, she could get one today," says Ms. Pegg, who entered the field in 1982 and is today considered one of the city's veteran defence lawyers.

"I learned from the men," says Ms. Pegg -- men like Michael Neville, Donald Bayne and Patrick McCann, stalwarts of the profession.

"I always wanted to be a lawyer because I like the idea of being my own boss," she says. "I like criminal practice because of the amount of court time. I still enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the proceedings. And it's great when you're able to help somebody and make a difference in their lives."

Constance Backhouse, a professor in the law faculty at the University of Ottawa says the increase in female representation is seen in law schools across the country.

"We now have a gender-balanced class, which we didn't have for many years. We actually have more women coming in, although when women go out into practice, we lose a fair number, because they find it difficult to have children and run families under the traditional gender patterns."

Natasha Calvinho represents the new wave of female defence lawyers. She was called to the bar in 2003 after graduating from the University of Toronto.

"I find clients accepting of women as (defence) lawyers," says Ms. Calvinho, 30, who practises at the law firm of Langevin-Morris.

"The hardest thing I've faced is not gender, but age. I look a lot younger than I am, but once clients see you can act on your feet and you're capable of doing what you're doing, nobody passes judgment on you."

She believes female lawyers sometimes have an advantage over men, particularly in dealing with domestic assault cases, where women often prefer dealing with a lawyer of the same sex. Her caseload runs the gamut of criminal law, everything from domestic assault, to fraud and theft, which she finds exciting and challenging.

"I like that I'm in court every day. I really like being on my feet and the litigation aspect, and that I'm thrown in kind of head first." She says it's easier being an associate at a big law firm, rather than being on your own, especially as a rookie.

Defence lawyer Karen Reid sees criminal law as the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" of the law profession, but admits it's not a path for all lawyers.

"You're going to get calls at hours of the day and night, and some men and women are suited for that and others are not," says Ms. Reid, 49, who started criminal law in 1987 after a few years of general practice.

She faced few barriers, but sometimes the old guard of judges would test her toughness in court.

"In the few places where the judges were sexist, it only operated to my benefit," she says, recalling some former judges she had to appear before.

"The judge would make certain assumptions about you as a female -- and we're talking about the real dinosaurs here. But when you showed you could stand up to whatever slings and arrows were thrown in your direction, then they accepted you."

She says female defence lawyers need not work harder than their male counterparts, but they have to show they can do the job. She believes the statistics are proving that female defence lawyers are handling the job with aplomb.

"You have to step up to the plate and you can't run crying, claiming somebody doesn't like you because you're a woman or you're being unfairly treated.

"If you're identified as a whiner, then nobody is going to want you as a colleague, an adversary or as their lawyer."