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  • Writer's pictureJolanta Bula

Intersectionality in Law - Reflecting on my Personal Experiences as a Lawyer

There is a big movement in society to acknowledge and educate others about the struggles that women and minorities face in their workplace. We have legal seminars and workshops about inclusion, diversity, and making the work environment equitable for all. With everyone sharing their stories, it pushes me to reflect on my own experiences as a female immigrant lawyer.

Overall, I am in a privileged position since I am not a visible minority and I am not often subject to racist comments and outward discrimination. That being said, I do experience the intersectionality of being a woman in law, an immigrant, and someone with an accent. There is a form of less obvious exclusion and a lack of appreciation felt by someone in my position.

On one hand, I have become a well established lawyer in Niagara and the challenges I’ve faced throughout my career have shaped me into a better professional. This alone makes it difficult for me to figure out where I fit into these discussions about diversity and inclusion because ultimately, I have achieved my goal of practising law and making a good living. Do I really have something to complain about when I know there are countless people who have it much worse?

When opening my business over 24 years ago, I was one of the very few female sole practitioners in Niagara, and today I am thrilled to see more women starting their own firms and opening women-run businesses. As much as this fact in and of itself demonstrates how women are feeling more empowered to take on more leadership roles, I cannot help but think back to when many women were driven out of large firms and left because they were dissatisfied with the quality of their work environment. In my personal experience, I had no choice but to start my own firm; I was fresh out of law school, I just completed my articling position, and I was not the one the firm chose to re-hire.

And so I began my journey as a sole practitioner and quickly learned to love the freedom associated with owning my own business. I am a strong believer that everything happens for a reason, so I consider myself blessed that I had the opportunity to begin my legal career on my own terms and find my own way in the legal community.

Overall, considering that every single lawyer has their ups and downs, I don’t think that my status as a female immigrant severely impacted my career in a negative way - I still acquired an impressive list of clients, met plenty of amazing legal professionals whom I now consider my close friends, and I get to help my community every time I step into my office.

That being said, I can’t deny the fact that having a Polish accent has been the source of extra scrutiny from other lawyers and clients. I feel like I am more closely watched to see whether I make a mistake in how I speak or write. Everyone makes occasional mistakes in speaking or typos, even if English is their first language; however, when I make a mistake, people begin to make assumptions about my intelligence or English proficiency.

I can’t tell you how many times I have read briefs submitted by opposing counsel that are riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes - and it is never pointed out in court. Yet, if I have a typo in one of my document submissions you can almost always guarantee that someone will point it out in court, publicly, and in front of a judge.

All in all, it’s difficult to explain this feeling of being observed under a magnifying glass. When experiencing scrutiny and exclusion in such a subtle way, it becomes complicated. When this type of discrimination occurs, you constantly question whether that unpleasant experience was truly meant to be offensive. It becomes a mind game that oftentimes causes you to doubt yourself. It takes a lot of energy to brush these little micro-aggressions off and not dwell on them - and they happen every day.

As I enter my 24th year of practice I find myself reflecting on how my experiences have changed over the years, and how grateful I am to continue working in my dream job. I suppose others are seeing me in a more experienced light, which is why I am referred to as “senior counsel” more and more frequently (which still makes me cringe every time). It’s interesting, now that the legal community is acknowledging my “maturity” in the profession, instead of feeling honoured, I feel intimidated. I feel like I am just getting started and yet my friends are asking me about my retirement plans. Rest assured, I am not going anywhere in the near future.

That being said, I think there is an element of intimidation associated with not being new in the profession anymore. Every time I go to court I see fresh faces beginning their legal careers and being thrown into the ocean to learn how to swim. As much as there is privilege associated with attaining the status of senior counsel, I can also feel the unpleasant sting of being considered “old” by some, and people watching to see how long I can last in my profession. Again, I feel watched to see whether I can keep up with the new lawyers in the community and whether I can keep up my usual working pace. As someone who feels 30 at heart, this is definitely a new feeling I’ve had to accept!

Intersectionality describes the unique experience of barriers that a person may face because of their characteristics. The subtle exclusion and barriers that I feel are not the result of a single characteristic. Instead, it is a complex intersection of the experiences I face as a woman, an immigrant, and someone with an accent. So why do I feel compelled to talk about my struggles and intersectionality? Though the unique problems I go through in addition to the standard difficulty of being a lawyer cause me extra stress on the daily, I am still living my childhood dream of being a lawyer. I have managed to overcome these barriers, work around them, or otherwise power through them. I am used to doing this; but I want to share my experiences since I know there are other lawyers or law students who will face these same barriers. There are also many lawyers and future lawyers who will face the added difficulty of being a visual minority in law. This is why I encourage everyone to reflect on their own experiences and position in life: by contributing to the conversation, we can raise awareness of issues and let people know they are not alone. We can be advocates for change so that new professionals entering the legal community can feel supported and thrive in diverse settings!

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