Jessyca Greenwood, Criminal Lawyer

Why women are leaving criminal law

To defence lawyer Jessyca Greenwood, the answer is simple enough
To defence lawyer Jessyca Greenwood, the answer is simple enough

When Jessyca Greenwood became a criminal lawyer in 2009, she relied on senior (mostly male) lawyers for referrals. Many were happy to help. But about three years into her practice, Greenwood had her first child — and the number of referrals sent her way plummeted. “I wasn’t shunned, but my male colleagues stopped asking me about cases and asked questions like, ‘Will you be taking March Break off?’” she says. “They saw having a family as a distraction.” Her bottom line took a hit. And she considered leaving criminal law to work as a Crown prosecutor.

So far, Greenwood has stuck it out, but most women who start their legal careers doing criminal work abandon the field within 15 years, according to a recent study from the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA). Women also leave criminal law at nearly twice the rate of men, and many blame the low pay and sexism of colleagues and judges. In some cases, judges are more critical of female lawyers than their male counterparts, says Anthony Moustacalis, the president of the CLA. And it’s an open secret. “We live this reality every day,” he explains. “When it comes to sexism, the courts tend to be behind the rest of society, and society still has a way to go.”

The way out

A look at the cohort of Ontario lawyers who, back in 2000, started their careers practising criminal law — and how many are left today



Attrition Rate

Women 50 22 56%
Men 90 62 31%

Source: “The Retention of Women in the Private Practice of Criminal Law,” published by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association 2015

Cover of the Summer Issue of Precedent MagazineThis story is from our Summer 2016 issue.




Photography by Nick Wong