Celebrating Canada’s Great Women in Law

Posted October 21st, 2021 by Urban Legal Recruitment

In 1992, the Government of Canada designated October as Women’s History Month, celebrating the women and girls from our past and present.

The field of law has been both a driver in, and a reflection of, this journey. Today we want to honour women who through their work and commitment, have contributed to making the practice of law, and Canada, a more diverse and inclusive place. In this article, we will introduce just a few of these strong, trailblazing women. 

Why it matters

While nearly half of practicing lawyers in Canada are women, they are still seriously underrepresented in senior leadership roles. Recent data shows that ‘Canadian women earned 93% of men’s salaries across all stages of their careers among all types of law firms and, in the largest private firms, women earned 91% of men’s salaries’. 

Law firms and in-house legal departments continue to evolve and become more inclusive and essentially more strategic to hold onto their lawyers (male and female). However female lawyers continue to leave the profession in greater numbers than their male counterparts. The Canadian Bar Association has cited three main reasons why women leave law: discrimination, carrying a heavier load of childcare and domestic duties, and a lack of work-life balance. 

“Great strides have been made in our society thanks to female lawyers who fought against the status quo, but there is no question that more needs to be done,” says Stacy Cowan, Urban Legal Recruitment’s founder. “Sometimes though, it’s helpful to look back to see how far we’ve come.” 

They made a difference

The following are just a few of the women who helped evolve the practice of law in Canada. 

Clara Brett Martin

After overcoming considerable obstacles and struggles, in 1897 she became Canada’s first woman lawyer admitted to practice law by the Law Society of Upper Canada - in fact, in the entire British Empire.

Ivy Lawrence Maynie

Born in Montreal of Trinidadian parents, she defied the barriers of discrimination, and became the first woman of colour to graduate from the U of T Law School in 1945. 

Anna (Penina) Bacon Ker

Spent the three years as the only woman University of Toronto law school. Unfortunately, law school was to be "the very best part" of her law career. In 1955, she finished second in her class but was relegated to drafting wills for a trust company and resigned when she married.

Réjane Laberge-Colas

Relentlessly promoted the rights of women with respect to equal opportunity in education, training and pay, and was the first woman to be appointed a Judge of a Superior Court in Canada. 

During the’70s, the number of women in law school  increased steadily - from about 10 percent in '73 to about 25 percent by the end of the decade. 

Rosalie Abella

This future Supreme Court Judge almost gave up when unable to secure an articling interview in 1970.  "I don't know whether it was about being Jewish or a woman, but it was tough to get an articling job. One (firm) said, ‘I hope you understand, we're just not hiring women’."

Barbara Findlay

In the 1960s, Findlay was admitted to a psychiatric ward against her will during her first year of university for admitting she was attracted to women. She began practicing law soon after Canada's decriminalization of homosexuality with a focus on LBGTQ and First Nations women. findlay is the subject of the documentary in particular, barbara findlay. 

Lorraine Weinrib

Despite being told by a classmate that she shouldn’t be taking the place of a male in class, she went on to litigate extensively in the Supreme Court and teach the Canadian Charter at U of T. "It was a male culture… in one criminal course, all the examples were rape cases and the professor talked jocularly about it - oops, Flossie got raped again." 

Roberta L. Jamieson

In 1976, she became the first Indigenous woman ever to earn a law degree in Canada, Jamieson has also been recognized for her work in developing and promoting alternative dispute resolution methods.

Kirby Chown

As a managing partner at McCarthy Tétrault, recognized the law at that time was lagging on issues focusing on women. As a mother of  twins, she advocated for flex time and more progressive policies for both maternity and paternity leaves. 

Bertha Wilson

A woman of many ‘firsts’, she was the first female associate and partner at her firm, and the first woman appointed to the Court of Appeal for Ontario. She also created the first in-firm research department in the Canadian legal industry. In 1982, she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Avvy Yao-Yao Go

A fierce advocate on behalf of immigrant and racialized communities in Canada, she founded the Metro Toronto Chinese and South East Asian Legal Clinic in 1992 to address issues important to the Chinese community. Go says racism is a constant - not only for her clients but for her as she advocates on their behalf.

Louise Arbour

A former member of the Supreme Court of Canada, Arbour was appointed by the United Nations to be a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal. She investigated war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda.

Beverley McLachlin

The first female, and longest-serving, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada from 2000 to 2017. She is considered by many to be among the finest legal minds in the history of the Supreme Court.

These, and many, many other, women in law exemplified courage in the face of societal, cultural and professional barriers, and the evolution continues. 

“We are seeing more women make it into the partnership than ever before, and more women hold  Managing Partner and General Counsel/VP of Legal positions,” according to Stacy. “We are so much further ahead than we were even 10 years ago. But regardless of position or role, I believe every woman in law deserves to be celebrated!”

Life. Career. Opportunity Awaits. If you have any questions, are considering a change, or just want to chat, we would love to hear from you. 
At Urban Legal Recruitment, we have experienced, along with our clients, the impacts of COVID-19.  We’ve made the necessary adjustments to ensure the safety of our team members and our clients.