“I have this dream of starting my own firm, but there’s no way I can do it,” Robin Parker said to her friend Angela Chaisson. It was 2015 and the criminal lawyer, 48 years old at the time, was chatting with Chaisson, then a fourth-year associate at defence firm Ruby & Shiller Barristers. Parker, who’d been on her own as a criminal lawyer for seven years (after more than a decade as a prosecutor), also had a demanding job at home: caring for her teenage daughter, who’s on the autism spectrum. If she wanted to build a law firm, she’d need more support.
Chaisson admitted to having the same dream, but for a different reason. “I’d always wanted to start a female-run business,” says the 32-year-old, “to show others that it’s possible.” In that moment, they both paused to imagine what it would be like to give it a shot. “Once we said it,” says Chaisson, “we couldn’t unsay it. We had to do it.”
The two women decided to start a firm together. But they wanted a third owner, so they reached out to Emma Rhodes, a solo defence lawyer who’s best known for representing youth. “I’d been on my own for more than a decade, so I was really reluctant,” recalls Rhodes, a 42-year-old single mother with a four-year-old daughter. “But being alone didn’t work for me anymore. Picking my daughter up from school and having dinner with her comes first.” So in August 2016, Rhodes, Parker and Chaisson officially opened Paradigm Law Group LLP.
Just like that, three female criminal lawyers were practising under one banner. On its face, this shouldn’t be revolutionary. But Toronto’s defence bar is largely made up of sole practitioners, most of whom are men. So Paradigm stands out.
As the three women have built their business, they’ve woven their feminist values into the fabric of the firm, hoping to serve as a model to the profession. Here’s how Paradigm is feminist through and through.
They use their law degrees to fight sexism
Chaisson often represents sex workers. “They might be experiencing police harassment,” says Chaisson, who might then tell the police department to back off. “Or they’re accused of crimes” — assault, for example — “by bad dates who don’t want to pay them.”
Outside their defence practices, Parker and Chaisson help sexual-assault complainants navigate the criminal justice system. (Many of these cases come from the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which offers free legal assistance and counselling to women experiencing violence, and where Chaisson is a long-time volunteer).
Rhodes often defends young girls who human traffickers have lured into the underground sex trade. “Then,” she says, “they get caught up in the criminal system.”
They understand how the justice system affects women
Paradigm knows that women disproportionately raise children alone, so it set aside a spare office as a playroom. “I have clients who say, ‘Oh, I can’t meet that day, or that day, or that day,’” says Chaisson. “So I’ll ask, ‘Is this a childcare issue? You can bring your child to the office. We have blocks and an Etch A Sketch — don’t worry!’”
When Rhodes defends youth, she knows the justice system puts stress not just on them, but also on their families. “I’ll connect the parents, usually the mother, with social supports,” she says. “If the mom’s not doing well, the child won’t either.”
They care about each other’s well-being
Rhodes and Parker are both single mothers, so Chaisson takes care of any after-hours calls. In turn, Rhodes will handle the firm’s new-arrest calls. And all three of them step up to cover one another’s court appearances in the event of an illness or family emergency.
The women make a conscious effort to look out for one another. “When I’m in a crisis and everything is falling apart, who do I want in my corner?” asks Parker. “Angela and Emma.”
Rhodes and Parker have Chaisson’s back, too. Just before Paradigm opened, they noticed that she had a big trial coming up in a month, and was seriously exhausted. “Emma and Robin cleared my schedule for two weeks,” says Chaisson. “They told me I was going to Jamaica or they weren’t going to talk to me anymore.”
They’re looking to hire feminist-minded lawyers
Women in law face sexism all the time. A client might make a sexualized comment. An opposing counsel might be blatantly patronizing.
“Working at Paradigm means I can come back from court and say, ‘X happened,’ and everybody goes ugh,” says Chaisson. “I don’t have to also tell them, ‘And here’s why that’s bad.’ It’s nice to have that sort of shorthand.”
So when Paradigm hires its first associate (which it hopes to do soon), the firm will be on the lookout for someone who embraces the firm’s feminist values and understands that discrimination, including sexism, pervades the justice system.
But that doesn’t mean that the associate has to be a woman. “This is not a female-only space,” says Chaisson, “but this is a no-bullshit space.”
This story is from our Spring 2017 issue.
Photography by Nick Wong