Thoughts from Nitya Iyer, the outgoing President of West Coast LEAF.
By Christine Murray
Nitya Iyer is the outgoing President of West Coast LEAF. She is a partner at Lovett Westmacott law firm in Vancouver. Her career in law, first as an academic, then as a member of the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, and for the last decade in private practice, has always been concerned with equality and diversity issues. Nitya has answered some questions about equality and diversity in the law, the work of West Coast LEAF and herself for this month’s equality and diversity issue!
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge to achieving equality for women in the legal profession?
I think that one enormous challenge is to change the hourly rate as the basis for valuing legal services and the lawyers who perform them. We assume that the value of legal work is best measured by the number of hours put into a file, and that the best lawyers are the ones who bill the most hours, devoting as much of their time to that work as possible. I don’t find that to be true. I find that time I spend away from the office makes me much more efficient when I am there, and that a “billable hour” can be very valuable or not productive at all. Having children made me much better at multi-tasking and at using my time efficiently. These are valuable skills to a lawyer, and they enhance my contribution to my firm and my clients. If we could stop assuming that a single-minded devotion to the office is the best way to practice law, and encourage lawyers to be more healthy and diverse in their interests, we might encourage more women to stay in private practice. Instead, we find more and more female lawyers going into public sector work with the private sector remaining predominantly male, and less and less amenable to change.
Q: What do you see as LEAF’s greatest success in the past year?
In the area of public legal education, I am thrilled that we reached more B.C. students last year than ever before with our youth programs on sexual consent and workplace rights. One of our litigation highlights was certainly our participation in the Polygamy Reference, which represented the culmination of many years of work with women who have left Bountiful. And, in the area of law reform, we were influential in the government’s decision to no longer remove the family shelter allowance from families whose children have been temporarily apprehended, which created a huge and unnecessary barrier to their return. I am also proud of our contributions to the push for legal aid reform in B.C., including the publication of Rights-Based Legal Aid: Rebuilding B.C.’s Broken System in November 2010.
Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge to achieving equality for women in the law?
I think, as a society, we have failed to confront the very fundamental ways in which access to economic opportunities and resources perpetuates inequality for many women. While we have made enormous progress in achieving formal equality, we have not ensured that the conditions necessary for women and other marginalized groups to fully enjoy those rights are met. Not all Canadians have equitable access to health, housing and education – and there is no social consensus that these are even equality issues.
Q: Which living person do you most admire?
My spouse’s mother, who worked as a Children’s Aid social worker in Winnipeg in the 1950s and 60s, raised six children (four of them daughters) and has been a staunch advocate for reproductive rights and equality for as long as I have known her. She is a person of immense energy and grace, who has just celebrated her 94th birthday and is always surprised when she looks in the mirror and sees, as she puts it, “a little old lady.” I would like to be just like her when I grow up.
Q: How has equality and diversity in the legal profession changed since you first started law school?
I started law school at the University of Toronto in 1984. As I recall, women represented no more than 40 per cent of the student population and members of visible minorities were few and far between. In my class, there was one other South Asian woman. Representation of other visible minority groups and aboriginal people was minimal. I had no female professors in first year and never had a class with a non-white professor. When I worked at downtown firms, representation of these groups was even lower. However, over the course of my teaching career, first at U of T and then at UBC, from 1989 to 1997, both the student body and faculty became significantly more diverse, and issues relating to equality were debated much more openly, sometimes leading to conflict. As a practicing lawyer, I have seen a great influx of women into the legal profession and increasing representation of minority groups, but the success of these individuals, particularly in large firms, seems to depend on how closely they conform to traditional norms of legal practice and legal business development. This is so, even though many clients have made significant changes in their work norms. For example, large firms do accommodate women who have small children by reducing billable hours expectations, but this is not available to men. I hear more and more from lawyers in their 30s that they do not want to become partners because they want a better balance of work and personal life.
Q: When and why did you get involved with West Coast LEAF?
I had been involved with LEAF National in Toronto when I was a law student. It was a very exciting time, as s. 15 of the Charter was coming into force and the first equality cases were being litigated. Over time, I disagreed with LEAF’s response to differences between women, particularly in relation to diversity issues and volunteered elsewhere. In 2003, I got to know the staff of West Coast LEAF. The organization was dynamic, diverse and committed to meaningful engagement with women of all backgrounds and to working in coalition with different groups of women in litigation, law reform efforts and in education. I joined the Board in 2005 and have also had the privilege of litigating cases on reproductive rights and family law on behalf of the organization.
Q: How has West Coast LEAF’s focus changed since you first became involved in West Coast LEAF?
Both LEAF and West Coast LEAF have struggled with diversity issues and respecting differences between women and I think this challenge will continue. At the time I became involved with West Coast LEAF, its Board had become much more diverse and, perhaps more importantly, was actively addressing how to work collaboratively with women who are not legally trained, and to discuss legal issues with them without assuming the superiority of a legal perspective or legal kinds of arguments over those grounded in community and direct experience. Over time, I have seen West Coast LEAF build a strong network of relationships with community groups across B.C., working together on a broad range of equality issues.
Q: What can members of the CBABC do to support West Coast LEAF?
We are always looking for volunteers to sit on our fundraising, litigation, law reform, and legal education committees, and to work on specific projects in these areas. To be blunt, we also need money. Like many other non-profit associations, we have suffered along with the economy and public sources of funding are scarce. While we can apply for grants for specific projects, we also need non-targeted funds to run the office and pay the staff. Any contribution would be much appreciated!
Q: What is your motto?”
As a lawyer, “Do more good than harm.”
Family Lawyer Christine Murray practises at Berge Hart Cassels LLP.
This article was published in the October 2011 issue of BarTalk. © 2011 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.