To Be or Not to Be? Totally Up to Her

Author: Valerie Akujobi Guest Blogger

There’s nothing quite like streaming clips of our American colleagues pitching for clients. Talk about free entertainment! You’ll see lawyers dragging flaming hammers through the ground or drug dealers thanking their counsel for past services as they move on to the next deal. Above all, you’ll hear screaming. Tons of it. You begin to imagine that the Law Society is on to something about refraining from advertising that brings the profession into disrepute. Indeed, the ads are brash, sassy, cheeky—pick your adjective. The underlying subtext of course is that Joe Smith, or whoever, is tough and aggressive, your ride or die buddy. But don’t be fooled. Should Canadian colleagues ever care to borrow a page from their neighbours down south, female lawyers will likely find themselves uninvited to the party.

Why? Well, because ladies just don’t sound like that. That meaning aggressive, self-promoting, assertive etc. Sure we live vicariously through Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife and Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. But were Ms. Florrick to step one Gucci-clad foot out of the screen into a Canadian metropolis, she might not be so comfortable tooting her horn or wagging flaming hammers to bring clients onside. There’s a double standard at work: ladies, don’t be cocky and can you please keep your emotions passions in check?

Lawyer advertising in Canada is no joke. LSUC’s advertising rules don’t permit lawyers to call themselves aggressive or make “emotional” appeals. Michael Lerner, an LSUC Bencher and partner at Lerners LLP bemoaned the misleading nature of flat rate advertising in real estate and the dreaded “ambulance chasing,” in personal injury law, saying they demean the profession. As expressed in the Law Times, he would rather “rein it back” to the good old days where advertising content was rather anemic—picture firm names plastered in bold black against a sparkling white background. You could add your address to spice things up and a glorious headshot of your partners would be the showstopper. In spite of what Mr. Lerner suggests, Canadian advertising is rather milquetoast. Picture lawyers speaking in monotone against a pale wall in dialogue peppered with catchphrases like “we get results”, or “depend on us”. That sounds well, and good and quite boring. Cue the American alternative, decidedly hilarious and mostly male-dominated. Canada might not be there yet, and if Mr. Lerner ever had his way never will be. But there is every reason to believe it’s coming.

Imagine edgier, consumer driven ads designed for a generation with an insatiable appetite for unique expression. As baby boomer lawyers retire and throngs of YouTubers graduate from Canadian law schools, expect to see the envelope on advertising being pushed. This is even more likely where declining firm retention rates are forcing many new calls to consider the sole practitioner’s life.

The female lawyer trying to make her place in the world faces several paradoxes. She is expected to attract clients but not rock the boat (fashioned and built by males from a previous generation). She must work zealously for her clients, yet not be too, well, loud. Just ask Hillary Clinton whose every word must be perfectly modulated so that she doesn’t sound shrill. Is it any wonder that lawyers and jurists still gown in shapeless black where splashes of colour might add life and zest? Let’s face it—the legal profession was conceived and lived out by men long before women were ever let in the club. Though women can now participate, they must do so according to terms dictated by the law’s masculine past and rather sexist views of women.

A woman should be free to advertise to clients what she wants about herself, without trying to appease her peers. If she must shriek, jump or roll, let her. Once the Law Society’s Victorian-style control of lawyer advertising becomes a thing of the past, every woman should feel free to advertise herself as stoically or unreservedly as she thinks her practice requires.

Let’s dispense with arguments that the profession does not place such constraints on women. Female lawyers fret when there is an unplanned pregnancy. They squirm when they need time off to care for ailing family members because, you guessed it, women are still the de-facto caregivers of our society. Women in law will often say they need to dress modestly and many firms back this up with dress codes that bar short sleeves, spaghetti strap outfits, or fitted attire.

Yes, the law is increasingly diverse, we’re making progress in how we see each other. As Justin Trudeau quipped, he filled exactly half of his cabinet positions with women “because it’s 2015.” But letting us in isn’t enough…how about letting us be. It’s our club too.


Valerie Akujobi is wrapping up her law degree at the University of Ottawa this spring. She can’t wait till she finishes law school, passes the bar, and transitions to life as a litigator somewhere awesome in Ottawa. Several moons ago, Valerie worked in communications as a federal public servant. She’s a grad of Carleton University’s Journalism program and loves reading great fiction on her e-reader whenever possible.



  1. Very well said. About half of the lawyers I deal with daily are female. They are frequently more competent and better prepared than the male lawyers I deal with. Yet they often feel constrained in their dress or their attitude in a manner that my male colleagues and I do not. The recent Toronto Star and Toronto Life profiles on Marie Heinen underscored the flaw in our thinking on this issue. The media couldn’t help but mention her shoe collection or her style of dress, not that any of that was relevant to a profile about her courtroom acumen. While there have clearly been tremendous improvements in the attitude of the clients and the profession towards women from when I started 23 years ago, true equality will not exist until we stop thinking about the gender of the lawyer, and focusing instead on the quality of the lawyer.