WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHY: ALESSIA M.

Rachel Kohut recently came back from writing her American bar exam in New York. “The border security man said to me: ‘So wait, you’re trying to tell me that you’re going to be a lawyer?’” says Kohut, a Law Needs Feminism Because (LNFB) organizer.

“I thought to myself, what is it about me that gives you the impression that I can’t be a lawyer? Are we still in a space that a lawyer is a white older man in a suit?” says the recent McGill University law graduate, who has since stepped back from LNFB to focus on her new roles with the Ilisaqsivik Society and the National Association of Women and the Law. Kohut hopes to focus her career at the intersection of gender, public health, and public legal education.

Alongside fellow law student Vanita Sachdeva, Kohut co-organized the Law Needs Feminism Because campaign that went viral in 2016. The photo campaign consisted of peoples’ portraits with the subjects writing reasons why they believe law needs feminism by hand on top of their picture. The campaign took off on social media and just a few days later, Kohut was getting interviewed by the CBC.

Rachel Kohut outside McGill University’s law faculty.

Three years later, the campaign has turned into what they call an initiative and hopefully, soon, an organization. They just wrapped their third annual national forum in Halifax where they invite various guest speakers to host workshops. The first two forums were hosted in Montreal and Ottawa respectively.

Anja-Sara Lahady, LNFB’s communications co-lead, did her first year in law school at the University of Ottawa and then transferred to Université de Montréal.

“The lack of diversity hit me when I came to UdeM from Ottawa U. The students at Ottawa U were much more racially diverse. A factor that affects this is that Ottawa U has more of a focus on social and international law whereas UdeM law is more focused on corporate,” says Lahady.

Lahady says the most pressing issue she regularly sees is the lack of diversity in corporate law.

“Seeing a black woman lawyer is incredibly rare. And without concrete role models that represent you, it’s hard to see a path for yourself,” says Lahady, whose parents are from Madagascar. The Université de Montréal law student wants to go into business law, with a particular interest in startups, emerging tech, and intellectual property.

Anja-Sara Lahady at Université de Montréal’s law faculty.

The UdeM law faculty and student associations invite lawyers from corporate firms for conferences and cocktails throughout the year. This is to prepare students to apply for the competitive bar internships.

“The cocktails are already a very intimidating thing, especially if you don’t grow up learning to socialize like that, which girls of colour mostly don’t,” says Lahady. “It’s already intimidating to approach and speak with the guest lawyers. Senior lawyers and partners in these firms are often men and when they are women, they are mostly white. And so if none of them look like you, and you can’t relate to them, and they can’t relate to you, then it’s even more intimidating. There’s no common small talk. They are skiing or playing tennis on weekends and you’re working at McDonalds.”

“Women, and women of colour especially, don’t have role models in corporate law, so we imagine we aren’t cut out for it and we opt out”

“All of these factors make it that women, and women of colour especially, don’t have role models in corporate law, so we imagine we aren’t cut out for it and we opt out and look to pursue a different legal field.”

Lahady says that imposter syndrome is present for everyone, but even more so for women in this field and then some for non-white women. “We internalize a lot of self-doubt and limit ourselves much more.”

When comparing her job application confidence levels to that of her guy friends in the program, Lahady will notice that they feel confident to apply everywhere, with an easy-going confidence, whereas Lahady will only apply to firms that she has assured she would fit in and that she has 100 per cent of the criteria necessary to even apply.

“That’s something that women generally often do,” Lahady says, speaking to the confidence gap between men and women. “We are overly humble and downplay our accomplishments. I see women in the program do this all the time and I never observed the men do this.”

The UdeM student says that she rarely ever sees women at all in her specific area of interest: intellectual property law. She says this strikes her every time she goes home after networking events and adds the lawyers she met on LinkedIn and realizes she is only ever adding men.

LNFB’s campaigns and events help address the misconception that the main and most important issues facing women in law is their struggle for ‘work family balance’ and pay equity, which narrow the public’s view of feminist challenges, says Lahady.

She says those issues are of course real, but LNFB equally wants to address all the other intersectional issues that women might face, forcing people to see multiple women’s diverse experiences and perspectives.

“Most of my professors are mostly white and mostly men, so these topics don’t get addressed by them. When women students do bring it up, the answers are always evasive and broad. From faculty to industry professionals, they rarely ever address the topic of diversity and inclusivity in any concrete way.”

Lahady says that LNFB is working to expand and do more than just campaigns and forums but get concrete engagement, like funding for scholarships.

Souhila Baba, LNFB’s logistics co-lead and McGill law student, says she wants the initiative and forums to bring not just women but men and non-binary people together as well to discuss this issue.

Souhila Baba at the McGill University law faculty. 

When asked how often she’s faced with moments where she thinks to herself, this is where law needs feminism, Baba says that it’s a daily occurrence.

“It’s all the time. Any time you read cases, even recent, post-2016 (Me Too movement) cases. Some cases are unfortunate on a lot of levels. And some are a reflection of the evidence presented. But they rarely adequately portray the experience of being a minority, a woman, or a woman from a minority,” says Baba, who is Algerian born and wants to pursue a career in patient advocacy and health law.

“Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious and sometimes it’s more subtle, but the lack of perspective is definitely often present.”

When asked what type of gendered or racial comments Baba has received or heard, she says the comments she hears the most are about sartorial appearance.

“It’s always astounding to me the comments I’ve heard from people in this field on what looks like a lawyer and what doesn’t look like a lawyer,” says Baba. “Anyone who doesn’t show up in a slick expensive suit or heels doesn’t look like a lawyer to most people. And while I’m still a student, I never show up looking like that. I expect that I’ll often have to prove that I’m a lawyer no matter how I appear.”