Reflections on being Women’s Forum co-Chair

  • November 01, 2017
  • Agnes MacNeil

It is bittersweet knowing that my term as one of the two Co-Chairs of CBA Nova Scotia branch of the Women’s Forum has come to an end. I had no idea at the beginning how enriching the experience would be.

I had been a member of the CBA since my call to the bar, a long, long time ago. I enjoyed keeping current by attending CBA section meetings, meeting other lawyers, networking, discussing legal and practice issues – it was so much added value to my practice and my life. In the last few years, I reached a point where I felt I was finally able to give back. I thought about which sections I could contribute to most given my practice experience. I never gave a thought to the Women’s Forum until a friend and colleague suggested it.

Being a co-Chair of a substantive law section would be easy, I thought. I had lots of experience organizing CLE for various groups, including the CBA. But being Co-Chair of the Women’s Forum – how would you do that? You can’t find a recent case and tap a practitioner in the area to speak about it. And how could you possibly find topics all women members, with their diverse interests, backgrounds, seniority, practices and opinions, would find interesting?

There are very loose guidelines for the Women’s Forum, the main purpose being to facilitate networking for women in the legal profession, from law students to lawyers to judges. It is a place to discuss women’s issues faced in the practice of law. There is also a social justice component.

With the guidance of my co-Chair, Jennifer Reid, who had been actively involved in the Women’s Forum for years, I helped organize a fundraiser for women’s shelters across Nova Scotia. In the process, I met the executive directors from key women’s shelters in Halifax. Those discussions gave me a street-level view of what poverty looks like for a lot of women, and the difficult times many of them have trying to find affordable housing, or dealing with mental illness. I also had discussions with many people who work with women in contact with the law, and the problem some have finding appropriate, affordable child care when they must appear in court, which is not generally a good place for children to be.

We organized joint section meetings allowing me to meet many women I would not have encountered in my practice. So many of my colleagues were trying to care for aging parents, so we had a speaker from the Nova Scotia Palliative Care Association discuss values-driven care and treatment and the importance of having discussions about this with family at any age. The topic was of interest to the Family Law and Elder law sections, but also to many in the Women’s Forum from a personal perspective.

We had a “speed-dating” event with the Law Students Section to give them the space and time to ask question about our real-life practice and experience. We were so impressed with the bright young women, who seemed so much more together than we were at that stage of our lives. Another session featured a panel of women practitioners who spoke about the diverse roles they held utilizing their law degree, with the message that if you are not happy in your practice, there is still a place for you. We also went to a screening of a film on Millennials and had a great dinner and discussion afterwards on the differences between generations.

We had novel networking events. We booked a local yoga studio with a great instructor, for a private wellness session with a local shop providing aromatherapy. Not just a wonderful after-work event, but yet another opportunity to meet different women than I had in many of our other sessions. We also had a rum tasting and distillery tour given by one of the woman owners. The tour featured the role women have played in brewing and distilling over the centuries. We had great fun with a diverse group of attendees.

While I had been blithely of the view that equality had been achieved, even while hearing for the call of increased representation of women on corporate boards and on the bench, being part of the National Women Lawyers’ Forum opened my eyes. I learned of the significant difference in pay most women experience in the legal profession. The National Women Lawyers’ Forum is working to find ways to shine light on this and address it in a meaningful way. I heard about women who in private practice had been sexually assaulted by partners, and the concerns surrounding the impact of reporting it. At a women’s conference held following the National Section meeting of provincial and national Chairs, I had the privilege of listening to former Prime Minister Kim Campbell talk about her experience as the first woman Prime Minister, and Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosie Abella speak about her career. She thanked Kim Campbell for the work she had done ensuring women were appointed to the bench, which she credited as being one of the key reasons she herself had been appointed.

We also had success in working with the judiciary to revise the robing policy. The rewritten practice direction now provides a process for discretely advising the court in advance why a modification on court attire is necessary, not just for pregnancy, but also for medical conditions. The National Executive put through a CBA resolution in support of such dress code modifications, and the provincial representatives brought it back to their respective jusrisdictions or supported ongoing efforts. Many jurisdictions have since made a similar modification to their dress code.

The opportunities I have had these past two years have been tremendous. I am grateful to have met so many wonderful, diverse women and privileged to have been able to be co-Chair. I look forward to a continued, active involvement with this Forum.

Agnes MacNeil is past co-Chair of the N.S. Branch