We caught up with Andrea Laing to discuss how to employ archetypes in court; the benefits of getting to grips with the science of memory; and why projecting yourself as ‘the tough litigator’ isn’t always such a good idea…
“I always wanted a challenging career,” says Andrea Laing, but, she quickly adds: “I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be a lawyer!” We’re talking about Laing’s childhood years, and the type of life she envisioned for herself while growing up. Both of Laing’s parents had careers, but it was her father’s in particular that exerted the strongest influence on her. He’s a professor, and Laing tells me that she initially imagined pursuing a similar career as an academic. “I was always very bookish,” she explains, while recalling her experience as a literature undergraduate at Victoria College in the University of Toronto – the former stomping ground of Canadian literary heavyweight Margaret Atwood.
Upon graduating, Laing was faced with a difficult choice: she could either pursue a literature post-graduate programme, or take a year out to work and think her next move through. She opted for the latter, of course. After engaging in many a chat about her future, Laing decided that “life as an academic wasn’t social enough for me: it’s harder to build up those long-lasting relationships, as ultimately your class of students always moves on.” Her break from student life unfortunately coincided with the recession that took hold during the early 1990s, and so, given the tough climate, Laing thought long and hard about which path to choose.
In the end, Laing chose law, and decided to study the subject at McGill University in Montreal. “I was attracted to the fact that McGill had a bi-lingual, bi-systemic programme: it was stimulating to be studying two legal systems in two languages – in addition, the law itself was like discovering a whole new language too.” Laing hadn’t left her prior academic ambitions behind either; and for a while toyed with the idea of becoming a law professor. However, after spending a summer and an articling year at a law firm, Laing tells me that “there was no more career searching – I was hooked, and I also knew that I wanted to be a litigator.”
“It was scary to contemplate leaving a practice where I felt comfortable, and to go through the process of starting again in a new work environment, but it’s so invigorating to make a change like that.”
With these key decisions locked in place, Laing initiated a career which would see her excel within two of Canada’s leading ‘Seven Sisters’ law firms (the equivalent of London’s ‘Magic Circle’ or New York’s ‘White Shoe’ collection of top firms). She made partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, and, after thirteen happy years at the firm, hopped over to Blake, Cassels & Graydon, where she still practises today. Upon reflection, the move stands out as a career highlight for Laing, who indicates that, at the time, jumping out of her comfort zone was the best thing that she could’ve done: “It was scary to contemplate leaving a practice where I felt comfortable, and to go through the process of starting again in a new work environment, but it’s so invigorating to make a change like that, and it has been the greatest experience. I’ve grown professionally as a result.”
Over the years, Laing’s love of big, complex litigation has not diminished. Such matters, she explains, require lawyers to be very strategic, and can take years to prepare for trial. Patience, then, is vital, as Laing makes very clear: “It’s not about the battle, it’s about the war – you have to carefully work on a case over several years, to narrow it and position it so that the client can get the best possible outcome.”
Her favourite cases in recent years have been securities class actions. These combine a heady mix of intricate issues, and have very high stakes resting on them. “The legislation that has enabled plaintiffs to bring these actions only came into force at the end of 2005 in Ontario,” says Laing, “so there’s a real cutting edge element to the work: unlike the US, there’s not a lot of case law yet, and the courts are tackling these issues as they arise – a lot of the law is being made in real time.”
“The psychology of memory is incredibly interesting, and there’s a whole science to it, which sheds light on the way we presently perceive things that have long past.”
There’s also been the chance to encounter some big personalities along the way: “I’ve come across some interesting witnesses!” laughs Laing. While on the topic, she relays that interviewing witnesses is one of the most satisfying elements of her job, as it involves engaging with one of the most intangible and enigmatic aspects of the human condition: our memory. “What I do is forensic. I have to go back into memories to help witnesses reconstruct their recollection of events – events which may have happened several years ago. The psychology of memory is incredibly interesting, and there’s a whole science to it, which sheds light on the way we presently perceive things that have long past.”
It’s good to hear that Laing’s literary education has proved useful in her legal career too. She names the cases she’s working on after Shakespeare’s plays, and readily employs the rich pool of narrative structures and archetypal models that she absorbed as an undergrad: “These things are entrenched within us and we respond to them, almost instinctively – using a narrative arc which draws upon certain archetypes can be extremely useful when explaining something that has happened, or when you need to convince the court on certain points.” Laing draws the parallels between the litigator’s role and that of the storyteller’s, as well as between the courtroom and the theatre: “When we’re up there we’re like stage directors, presenting live witness evidence!” Aspiring litigators, pay attention – blending art and science often produces a winning formula, as Laing’s success in the courtroom shows.
A bit of passion can also go a long way too: for Laing, exhibiting passion has in many ways been a condition for career advancement. “When you are passionate about something then people will want to help you,” she explains: “If you’re miserable in your job then people are not going to help you perpetuate that scenario! But when they see that you love it and are always enthusiastic, then they will help you and will be willing to support you. I have two young children, and I’ve had tremendous support from my husband and parents, as well as from mentors and other colleagues.”
Did she always feel that there would be enough support for her in the profession? As a law student in the mid-90s, the optimistic atmosphere at McGill instilled a certain degree of confidence in Laing, who tells me that “many students had come out of women’s studies undergraduate programmes, and had strong feminist leanings – we all felt like the world was our oyster!” She adds: “We were all interested in women’s situations and conditions around the world, but we felt fairly confident that there wouldn’t be constraints on what we could do.”
“Women who clearly articulate what they need as professionals are far more likely to get it – sometimes just voicing it really helps.”
From her vantage point today, Laing doesn’t feel that her initial optimism was misplaced, although she does recognize that women in the legal profession face obstacles, many of which she and her classmates did not anticipate in law school. “I come from a long line of women who would have given anything to be able to do a job like mine, and if you look at the trajectory of women in the legal profession over the last 50 years, then you can see that we’ve made incredible progress.” However, Laing isn’t one for surveying the horizon in a panoramic ‘Pollyanna’ fashion, and stresses that “yes, the women who pioneered in this industry had a much tougher time of it than we do today, but we still have work to do in order to make sure that women are reaching the very top of the profession.”
“The purely mathematical adding up of women partners at Canadian law firms doesn’t tell the whole story,” Laing insists. Many would argue that progressing through the partnership, and making the leap to equity partner is still a rather opaque journey which could do with more signposts planted along the way. Simply counting the number of women in a firm’s partnership ranks does not chart women’s experiences in those positions, or how their progression through this murky tier compares with that of their male counterparts. In the US, the American Bar Association (ABA) has its Commission on Women in the Profession, which has undertaken a whole raft of research in order to identify the factors which still hinder women’s progress. It’s an approach that Laing encourages the regional Law Societies in Canada to adopt to a greater extent: “There are certainly projects and studies under way, but at the moment the research which has come out of the US is more detailed than what I’ve seen emerging in Canada, especially with respect to the experiences of women progressing through the partnership ranks in law firms – it would be interesting to see the results of more comprehensive research conducted in Canada.”
Laing also encourages women to not shy away from pushing for what they want from their careers – and especially not from articulating their expectations in the first place: “In certain situations, women should feel more comfortable about doing that,” says Laing: “In my experience, women who clearly articulate what they need as professionals are far more likely to get it – sometimes just voicing it really helps.”
“In this profession you have to be tough, but you don’t have to project ‘tough,’ and that’s a valuable lesson I have learnt.”
While Laing feels that for the most part she’s had equal opportunities in comparison to her male peers, she tells me that perceptual biases do creep through. She gives me an example of attending a client meeting with a male colleague, ten years her junior: “The client assumed that my more junior colleague would be running the meeting. However, that initial assumption changed as soon as I started speaking and took command – I didn’t see it as “discrimination”, but it was certainly evidence of perceptual bias, and I think all women experience it to some extent.”
Laing has very much sharpened her ability to detect these perceptual biases over the years, but has she been able to use them to her advantage? In short, yes she has. If anything, sensitising herself to these biases has helped Laing to become a more successful litigator: “As a female litigator, it’s not always a disadvantage to have people think you’re not as aggressive or as tough as a man. In this profession you have to be tough, but you don’t have to project ‘tough,’ and that’s a valuable lesson I have learnt. By disarming people, or by playing up to their expectation that you are unimposing, you can get them to reveal more than they intended to – which is very useful during cross-examinations.”
There’s no doubt that women still face challenges in Canada’s legal profession, but Laing is keen to take a step back and point to the bigger picture too: “In Canada, we as professionals are one of the most privileged demographics of women in the world. From this position, we all have to do our part to use our skills in order to help women in other parts of the world, who have to endure unimaginable conditions and experiences.”
“If a woman or child suffered a sexual assault in Canada, then we would expect our law enforcement officials to vigorously prosecute such a crime – there is no such expectation in these countries.”
This is precisely what Laing has been doing: since joining Blakes, she has led a team of 40 lawyers on a pro bono project which involves a Canadian charity, The Equality Effect. The charity draws upon international human rights law in order to advocate for women’s rights in various countries. Most recently, Laing and her team have been helping the equality effect to achieve justice for victims of rape in Kenya and Malawi: “These girls are subjected to the most traumatic experiences in countries where law enforcement officials revictimize them by ignoring their complaints. If a woman or child suffered a sexual assault in Canada, then we would expect our law enforcement officials to vigorously prosecute such a crime – there is no such expectation in these countries.”
Their work has led to positive changes. In May 2013, Kenya’s High Court affirmed the rights of “160 Girls” who were the complainants in the case, to have the sexual crimes against them properly investigated and prosecuted. “It was an incredible victory for these girls,” says Laing, who goes on to describe watching footage of “girls filing their claims with the court, and yelling ‘we have come for our rights!’ It was wonderful to watch, and they have been empowered by this change, but the work is far from over.” Next on the agenda is achieving a similar result for women and girls in Malawi.
How is it possible to straddle pro bono with the usual array of billable requirements? Laing stresses that if pro bono work appeals, then lawyers must seek “a supportive firm which will value what you are doing, and make it easy for you to build a team. You ideally need a firm that will treat pro bono work just the same as client files – that’s approach we take here, and it enables us to fit it all in.”
As we wrap up our chat, Laing reflects on her career and narrows her advice for female lawyers down to three key points – so take note. First, “it’s not necessary for women to try to emulate some male archetype in order to be successful – do not feel like it is you that has to change.” Second, “you do need to be passionate about what you’re doing, as that will boost the degree of support around you, and propel you up to the next level.” And finally, “you have to be articulate about what it is you feel you need in order to be successful – don’t be afraid to ask for it!”