Sania Chaudhry is a lawyer practising in Calgary who is working to obtain her masters of law focusing on administrative law and critical race theory. The opinions expressed here are personal and don’t reflect the views of organizations of which she is a member.
This summer, as Alberta was plagued with Islamophobic attacks on women, I felt viscerally afraid of being attacked when going to the mosque. I am a Muslim woman born in Canada to immigrant parents from Pakistan. I am also a racialized, young mother from a lower socioeconomic background who is a practising lawyer. I have navigated my entire life with these intersecting points of disadvantage, experiencing microaggressions that have affected my mental health and incidents of harassment that have left me shaken.
I belong to a profession with high rates of mental-health problems and great stigma around discussing them. Racialized, disabled and LGBTQ lawyers face additional discrimination that compounds this mental-health burden. The experience of negative mental-health effects is inextricably linked to systemic disadvantage and the need for equity, diversity and inclusion, or EDI, in the legal profession.
In 2019, the Law Society of Alberta conducted a survey of articling students and new lawyers. One in three reported experiencing discrimination and harassment during recruitment, articles or both. Since then, the law society and other organizations in Alberta serving lawyers have begun incredible work on EDI awareness. However, more is needed to achieve equity in the legal profession.
What do we do, then, about this massive problem that hampers the entrance and retention of diverse lawyers in the Canadian legal profession? It is first important to understand the problem.
For me, the death by a thousand cuts through microaggressions has always been a part of my life. But the microaggressions, racism, sexism and Islamophobia became worse in higher education. I had to work twice as hard to prove myself, while pushing my mental health to its very edges.
In a sociology class about health during my undergraduate degree, we were having a discussion about doctors needing cultural competency. A classmate piped up that he was really concerned about cultural relativism because “when a Muslim father sees that his wife has had a daughter, his first instinct is to the kill the baby.” Dumbfounded, I stared at him.
Nobody in my class spoke up. After class, my friend told me the look on my face said it all. But, that cut me.
I navigated law school always feeling like the only one from a lower-income background and constantly racially othered. I was once told I must have gained entrance on a “quota” despite having a 4.33 grade point average. People often commented with surprise that I was “well-spoken” or “well-articulated,” demeaning my credentials.
After my juris doctor degree, in 2018, I articled with a small, supportive firm that stood up for me when a potential client said he didn’t want a consultation because of my race. But I was unable to ask for the help because there were no mentors with similar intersectional identities to me at the firm. There is also a stigma in the legal profession, especially while articling and hoping to get hired on, against asking for mental-health support for fear that you will be judged as not being able to handle being a lawyer.
I faced my first direct Islamophobic incident that same year on Canada Day. My mother-in-law, my mother and I were in an elevator with two other men at Calgary’s Core Shopping Centre. One of the men, seeing my mother-in-law’s hijab, began loudly swearing, saying we need to go back where we came from and punching the wall. The other stared into space, ignoring the aggressor. We looked at the floor, praying silently that he would not hit us. Thankfully, he didn’t. The elevator opened and he continued grumbling as he exited.
That year, my daughter was born and my mother passed away two months later. Dealing with everyday microaggressions, racism, a traumatic birthing experience, the death of my mother and my pre-existing predisposition for anxiety and depression, my mental health worsened.
Thankfully, I accessed counselling resources through Assist, an organization offering mental-health support and education to the Albertan legal community, and moved onto a different small firm. Again, my firm was supportive but it was difficult for me to find a sustainable structure for a young mother like me to mentally thrive. I focused on billing, marketing, and getting as many good reviews as possible, but missed my daughter dearly and could not figure out how to be there for her and also be a high-performing lawyer. The focus of the profession on the billable hour, again aggravated by microaggressions from clients and opposing counsel, proved toxic for my mental health.
Volunteering with organizations serving diverse lawyers, as well as the Canadian Bar Association’s Alberta Branch and the Law Society of Alberta, helped free me from the feelings of isolation and allowed me to connect with other racialized and female-identifying lawyers. I began working on advancing EDI in the legal profession.
Eventually, I moved to an in-house conduct counsel position with a professional regulator. The resulting work-life balance, coupled with the shielding effects of working from home – which has proven to reduce microaggressions for racialized individuals – has been incredible for my mental health.
Recently, the provincial government funded a new program in Alberta that aims to help women fight anti-Black, Islamophobic hate crimes in court. This year, the National Council of Canadian Muslims released 60 calls to action to combat Islamophobia.
All this momentum is encouraging, but we must be willing to continue to make ourselves uncomfortable and push for change. We shouldn’t merely be helping women like myself defend against hate and ignorance, but rather work to attain true equity.
To achieve true equity, the legal profession must:
– Make safe spaces, mentorship, and wellness resources accessible to all lawyers who face barriers;
– Develop more holistic methods to measure employee performance, such as assessing competence, professional development, and initiatives for bettering the firm – in addition to traditional measures of billable hours, client intakes, referrals and positive client reviews;
– CBA Alberta, and the Law Society of Alberta need to collaborate with organizations representing racialized, gender, disability, and LGBTQ communities to provide continuing education for lawyers, law school faculty, and the judiciary about racism, discrimination, microaggressions, their impact on mental health, and how to reflect on one’s own privilege;
– The Law Society of Alberta could provide an inclusive workplace manual to all employers in the legal profession and require them to choose from versions of these inclusive policies;
– Law firm leaders should be role-modelling self-care, setting appropriate work boundaries, and expressing genuine interest in their employees’ well-being so that employees feel comfortable asking for help without any stigma or judgment.
The legal profession has a long way to go to truly enact systemic change that abolishes barriers for all historically disadvantaged groups. But if this profession wants to retain diverse, exceptional talent, it is imperative that we make the effort.
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