On the Record: Three brazen lawyers form a feminist law firm

“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.

 

The founders of Paradigm Law at their office (from left to right): Emma Rhodes, Angela Chaisson and Robin Parker

The founders of Paradigm Law at their of ce (from left to right): Emma Rhodes, Angela Chaisson and Robin Parker

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

Making It Work: How Angela Chaisson does it

Angela Chaisson

Associate, Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan Barristers
Year of call: 2012


Although it’s still early in her career, Angela Chaisson is already an ass-kicking activist lawyer. Last April, she and her firm challenged the B.C. government’s ill-fated approval of a law school at Trinity Western University, an Evangelical school that discriminates against gay students. (The province revoked its approval in December before the lawsuit made its way to court.) She is a feminist, a foodie, a friend-feeder (she enjoys hosting dinner parties at her Annex apartment) and a fun conversationalist. At her firm’s offices in a character-filled Victorian house near Yorkville, Chaisson chats about everything from her hatred of hair-straightening irons (she’s even trimmed her hair short with elegant slanting bangs to avoid its drudgery), to how many cats it takes to be deemed a cat lady (she currently has none).

She usually works 70 hours a week, and volunteers on weekends with the Barbra Schlifer Clinic, offering legal support to women who have experienced domestic violence. But she has no fear of burning out. “Those nights when you’re up at 2 a.m. working on a Supreme Court case — you need to find that work rewarding,” she says. “In criminal law there is always a crisis, but it’s really gratifying. There’s nothing like having a client walk out of the box.”

At 30 years old, Chaisson has developed a few tactics for staying balanced. She goes into the office on Sundays and works from home one day a week. “In the summer that’s Tuesday so I can go to the farmer’s market.” She also walks to work. “It’s 25 minutes,” she says. “I adore it. It helps me focus.”

“I’m a huge introvert,” says Chaisson, and so she recharges with introvert-y activities like cooking and attending book club. “I’m a ferocious reader. I belong to the UFC — the Ultimate Fiction Club,” she says. Her vacation time is spent exploring places like Sweden, Alaska and Italy with her pals or going home to Sooke on Vancouver Island. She takes a week’s vacation at the end of the summer to visit an organic farm, where she preserves seasonal produce like peaches in Mason jars. Luckily, her firm is also full of food-appreciators: every day, the five-lawyer team goes out for lunch together. “We’ll even drive up to Markham for good Chinese,” she says. Which is to say they take food as seriously as she does. “Clay orders the spiciest thing on the menu.”


Angela ChaissonThe lowdown

Start time: 9 a.m.
End time: At 5 p.m. she goes home to cook dinner, then returns in the evening
Weekly hours: About 70
Something you’d never guess by looking at her: “I have 60 cases of Mason jars”
Lunch: Usually at an Italian place close to the office
Might get: A rescue cat. Or maybe two
Sanity-saving domestic weapon: A cleaning lady and a weekly delivery of produce from Mama Earth Organics


This story is part of The Precedent guide to getting it all done, from our Spring 2015 issue.

 

 


Photography by Daniel Ehrenworth

Making It Work: The Precedent guide to getting it all done

Precedent Spring Issue 2015 CoverLet’s face it: in order to a lawyer (and a damn good one at that), it means that you are making a commitment to a profession that demands a lot of time and energy. But that doesn’t mean you want to sacrifice the rest of your life.

So how does it all get done?

You’ve got to be resourceful. You’ve got to let some things go. And you’ve got to work hard to achieve balance.

Find out how some of Toronto’s most productive lawyers are killing it at the office and making time for their hobbies, vacations, families, fitness and even sleep. Don’t believe us? Check out the stories below:

 


Angela Chaisson

How Angela Chaisson finds time to go for lunch with her firm every day

Cornell Wright

How Cornell Wright finds a way to make it to soccer practice

Bindu Cudjoe

How Bindu Cudjoe makes time for friends, family and annual vacations

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfiltered advice from lawyers with kids

Shelby Austin

Learn from Shelby Austin’s day planner

healthy lawyer

How to keep your job from killing you

 

 

 

 

 

 


Photography by Daniel Ehrenworth

Illustration by Naila Medjidova

LSUC to decide on Trinity Western University accreditation

The Law Society of Upper Canada will vote tomorrow at Convocation to decide whether it will accredit Trinity Western University’s proposed law school. At issue is the fact that all students at Trinity Western must sign a community covenant that asks students to abstain from premarital intimacy and refuses to recognize gay marriage, effectively prohibiting same-sex intimacy.

The law society previously debated the issue at a special Convocation two weeks ago. Precedent has also spoken to Toronto lawyer Angela Chaisson about her involvement in a lawsuit against the B.C. government for having approved the school in December. TWU president Bob Kuhn also spoke to Precedent about the lawsuit, where he defended the covenant.

You can watch the debate live at lsuc.on.ca

Precedent‘s news editor, Daniel Fish, will be live-tweeting tomorrow from Convocation. Follow him at @DanielHFish

Overturning provincial approval of Trinity Western’s law school would be discriminatory, says university president in response to proposed lawsuit

A proposed lawsuit that seeks to overturn the approval of the law school at Trinity Western University, which forbids same-sex intimacy, infringes upon the school’s freedom of religion, says Bob Kuhn, the university’s president.

Trinity Western requires all of its students to sign a community covenant that asks students to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

Still, its proposed law school earned provincial approval in December (the Law Society of B.C. has not yet made a decision on whether TWU law graduates will be accredited).

Toronto lawyer Angela Chaisson is planning to sue the British Columbia government for that approval because, as she explains, when the government “accredits law schools, it has an obligation to take the Charter into account.”

Kuhn agrees that the B.C government, unlike a private university, does have to factor the Charter into its decisions, but he argues the Charter is on his side.

“The definition of marriage in a Christian context is pretty clear, historically, for thousands of years,” he says. “To suggest that the community cannot hold that view — it seems to me that that’s the height of discrimination.”

He also says that if Trinity Western, in order to have a law school, has to amend its community covenant, this would create an “impoverished view of freedom of religion.”

“Nobody can be stopped from believing what they want,” he says, “but it’s only when you act on that belief that it has any meaning.”

Moreover, Kuhn says students in same-sex relationships would not want to attend Trinity Western’s law school in the first place.

“You’ve got to look at it realistically and say, ‘How many gay couples are going to want to come to the Trinity Western law school and become part of our community?’”


Precedent profiled Angela Chaisson as the first in our series on Badass Lawyers. Following the publication of that story on lawandstyle.ca, Bob Kuhn contacted Precedent to offer a response.

Badass Lawyers: Meet the lawyer gearing up to take on Trinity Western

In December, the proposed law school at Trinity Western University earned preliminary approval from both the National Federation of Law Societies and the British Columbia government (the Law Society of B.C. has not yet made a decision).

Toronto lawyer Angela Chaisson, along with her firm, Ruby Shiller Chan Hasan Barristers, will soon launch a lawsuit against the government of British Columbia for approving the school.

At issue is the university’s community covenant that, among other things, prohibits students from engaging in “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.” That covenant, says Chaisson, violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by effectively banning gay students from the campus and, therefore, the government should not have approved the school.

Precedent spoke to Chaisson about the lawsuit and her approach to high-profile cases.


Why did you get involved in this case?

Angela Chaisson: It’s simple: it’s the right thing to do. Also, nobody else seemed to be stepping up. It’s amazing to see how the buck has gotten passed on this. Both the Federation of Law Societies and the B.C. government seem happy to look the other way and say, ‘This is out of our hands.’

It’s notable that you’re not planning to sue Trinity Western, but the B.C government. Can you walk us through that decision?

AC: First of all, I’m not saying that Trinity Western doesn’t have a right to exist. It has the right to preach intolerance and say that being gay is an abomination. That’s vile speech, but it’s protected speech.

I take issue with the B.C. government. When it accredits law schools, it has an obligation to take the Charter into account. Given that Trinity Western has said it will not back down from its covenant, its law school cannot be accredited. In approving the school, the government made the wrong decision.

If this law school does open, what would that say about the legal profession?

AC: A law school that practices discrimination is completely antithetical to both the legal tradition and Charter values. It’s like a medical school that renounces the Hippocratic oath.

You’ve also started a crowdfunding campaign to help finance the legal challenge. The goal is set at $30,000 and so far you’ve raised $13,897. How has the public responded to your case? 

AC: It’s been really heartening to see the donations come in — the $5 and $10 donations in particular. Lots of people want to help.

Lawyers are also offering to help work on the case. I got an email this morning from a lawyer saying, ‘I’ll read charter cases until my eyes bleed. I want to be able to do something about this.’

What’s it like to work on such a high-profile case?

AC: High profile or not, the job is the same: it’s about getting the best result for your client — whether there’s nobody in the courtroom or the courtroom is packed with media.


Following the publication of this story on TWU President Bob Kuhn contacted Precedent to offer a response.