Guest Blogger, Jennifer Whately “Did It The Hard Way”, and shares the impact being a single mother had on her career as a lawyer
When my dear friend (and LiL Advisor) Jennifer Woznesensky asked me if I would be willing to contribute to Lil Blog, I was more than happy to say yes. Jen and I met on our very first day of UVic law school way back in 1998. I think we are a great example of opposites attract. Jen has always been the life of any party and an extroverted force of nature. I am decidedly not…that. Thankfully for me, Jen W took the other (far more reserved) Jen W in our first year small group under her wing, and we’ve been friends ever since. As different as we are, we also have a great deal in common. We are senior legal practitioners with families, and we are both committed to supporting young women in the practice of law at all stages of their careers.
My path to a successful legal career was not the typical one, and did not proceed as smoothly as my background might have promised. It is important to acknowledge that I come from privilege. I grew up in a household that prioritized education, and supported me at every turn. My stepfather was a criminal defence lawyer, and later became a Provincial Court Judge. Attending university was a given, and my decision to go to law school likely surprised no one in my immediate circle of friends and family.
What did come as something of a surprise, is that after some challenging life events in my mid twenties, I started law school in Victoria as a single parent of a four month old baby. After graduation, I moved to Vancouver with my preschool-aged son to start my clerkship, followed by articles at a downtown firm. Throughout my career, many people expressed surprise when they discovered how old my son was when I completed law school. Later, many (mostly women) asked how I managed the first years of practice as a single parent of a very young child. I used to downplay it, saying, “ah, it wasn’t that bad, actually!” Or, “..I just put my head down and made it work, no big deal.” Then I would change the subject.
The truth is, it was hard. Really, really hard. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to say that out loud before, when I was living it. I suspect it was because the practice of law is not particularly friendly to women, or to mothers. It is definitely not friendly to single mothers. In those early years, I was always alert to anything that might set me apart from my colleagues. I was bound and determined not to draw attention to anything that may suggest I couldn’t “hack it”. I wanted to be seen as just as competent and ambitious as the 25 year old single dude who could golf after work with the (male) partners, or work in the office until 2am on a legal opinion, or fly to Toronto on a day’s notice to meet with a client. Practically speaking, doing many of those things was impossible for me. I couldn’t go golfing (was I even invited? I doubt it…), and I could rarely partake in the informal, but oh-so-critical social aspects of firm life. But, I never turned down an assignment or a file, and I worked endlessly to ensure that the quality of my work made up for my absence at after-office happy hours.
I muscled my way through my first few years of private practice between trips to the principal’s office (my son was, shall we say, spirited). My days were long and frantic, marked by all-out sprints to get to both Supreme Court chambers and elementary school holiday concerts on time. I cannot tell you how many occasions I fought to control rising panic as I spoke to a school nurse, calling to advise that my son had thrown up or bumped his head, and could I please come pick him up immediately. It will come as no surprise to any working mother to hear that the source of my panic was not entirely due to the elementary school injury-du-jour. The reality was that on a daily basis, I was faced with 1) having to be in two places at once, and 2) constantly feeling like I was failing at being a mom, and at being a lawyer.
As time moved on, I changed firms, I met and married my husband, shifted from private practice to an in-house government position, and had a second child. Many things in life got easier, some got more difficult, but the tension between family and work never completely disappeared. These days, I have what many would consider to be a good work-life balance. I have help. Significantly, the biggest change is within myself.
I do not hide that I have responsibilities outside of work. Nor do I seek to maintain the illusion that I can manage everything that life throws at me seamlessly, without assistance or even accommodation, with nary an impact on work commitments . Does my family always comes first and is my work is always flawless? No, and no. I am a 19+ year call, with a fair bit of seniority and control over my own schedule. Regardless, juggling is still a fact of life. I still stumble, and I still make day-to-day sacrifices on both sides of my life that can feel crummy in the moment. I take my professional responsibilities seriously, and my dedication to my work is an integral part of who I am. But, so is my role as dance mom and homework checker. These days, I take note of and prioritize my mental health. When I am stretched too thin, I tell someone about it.
I am aware that this freedom is hard-earned over years of trial and error, repeated episodes of falling down and getting back up again. Like with many aspects of a legal career, as you get more experience and years under your belt, you gain confidence in your skills and judgment, and it becomes so much easier to say NO when you need to. Or when you want to.
I have always been aware of the disparity that existed in terms of informal mentorship and the career “leg-ups” that seemed to naturally filter down to male associates, as opposed to the women. More recently I have also taken care to listen to, and to actively notice the same disparity that impacts people of colour or other diverse groups in the legal profession to an even greater degree. I have been very fortunate in that I can count in my corner a few senior male lawyers who have valued my voice, and encouraged and advanced my career. What I did not have, particularly early on in my career, is a community of senior female counsel to turn to, or to share the often crushing task of balancing a family and the practice of law. Twenty years ago or so, there was a perceptible atmosphere among senior female partners that conveyed this message: “I made it the hard way. You will have to do it the hard way too.”
Throughout my career I have tried to be an advocate for my colleagues, particularly for women in the legal field. My advocacy has not always included an honest assessment of, or an open sharing of my own experiences. When I consider what else I can do to support to young women entering the practice of law, I remind myself how isolated I felt when I first started. So…I no longer tell people “it wasn’t that bad” or “I just put my head down and worked”. I am honest: I barely made it through my first five years. I am glad I did, but there were many years I was brutally unkind to myself in pursuit of an impossible-to-reach ideal of personal and professional success. I will continue to advocate (in my introverted way) for my colleagues and more generally, for women in the legal profession. I also hope that by sharing my story, another single parent somewhere, whether facing law school or those (sometimes nightmarish) first few years of practice, will not feel so alone.
About the Author
Jennifer Whately is currently the manager of Litigation in the Enforcement division of the British Columbia Securities Commission (BCSC). Jennifer has worked at the BCSC since 2010, primarily in Enforcement, prosecuting fraud, market manipulation, insider trading, unregistered trading and other financial misconduct. She later became general advice counsel for the Investigations team, while staying involved in specialized areas of litigation including appeals, reviews of exchange decisions and shareholder disputes. Prior to joining the BCSC, Jennifer worked in private practice as a civil litigator. Jennifer sits on the board of Growing Chefs, a not-for-profit society that connects chefs, kids and communities to foster systemic change towards healthy, sustainable and just food practices. In her spare time, Jennifer is a professional-grade dance mom. (no, not like the ones on TV…)