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Hope Isn't a Strategy, But It Helps!

Hope Isn’t A Strategy, But It Helps!

We often hear people say things like “hope isn’t a strategy.” This can apply to situations where students fail to start studying for final exams early enough, so they bring their lucky charm to the exam or someone nearing retirement age who has not planned an income stream for their post-working life, so they buy lottery tickets. It is generally true—hope, by itself, does not lead to meaningful change.

But hope is an important concept in our well-being. Research shows that individuals dealing with challenges such as depression, anorexia nervosa, and schizophrenia have better outcomes when they have hope. Hope helps people see that things can get better and that there is a path that can guide their recovery.

In addition to depression, anorexia nervosa and schizophrenia, research has shown the positive impact of hope in addiction, trauma and anxiety.

Hope may not be a strategy in and of itself, but it seems to make a difference to recovery rates.

This makes sense—if you don’t think you can achieve a result, you may not bother to try. And even though lawyers (and students) tend to take on challenges more readily, perhaps, than some other population groups, we still like to believe that we have a chance of getting a favourable result for our clients or in our personal lives before we start applying elbow grease. This is why our Code of Conduct permits lawyers to withdraw when there is a loss of confidence between lawyer and client. Rule 3.7- reads:

If there has been a serious loss of confidence between the lawyer and the client, the lawyer may withdraw.

You don’t have to continue to act for a client who wants you to take a matter to trial when you know there is no hope of success (subject, of course, to the Code in its entirety)! You can learn more about withdrawing from representation in the Legal Practice Course.

So, we know that hope plays an important role in healing. And I believe that hope can be part of strategy for healing the legal profession.

Last week, I wrote about our profession’s seemingly glacial progress in eradicating sexual. Sexual harassment primarily impacts women but can impact anyone of any gender who is subject to a power imbalance in the workplace. In spite of the fact that lawyers, students and others continue to experience harassment in legal workplaces, I still have hope that we can ban harassment—and discrimination—in our profession.

I have hope because I have worked in workplaces where harassment was not tolerated, where employees were trained in respectful interactions, and where reporting of respectful workplace policies was confidential and effective. As the lawyer responsible for overseeing anti-harassment and respectful workplace policies, I saw all reports and provided legal advice on each situation, and I saw peaks in reporting and valleys in different parts of the organization and at different times.

I have hope that our profession will accept lawyers of different backgrounds because I have seen positive change during my tenure (almost thirty-seven years since I commenced my articles.) When I was an articling student, a female student at another firm was removed from working on a file because the client said it didn’t want a woman on their legal team. This caused shock and quite a stir in my little corner of the practice—and we asked if business realities (the client gets what the client wants) outweighed equal opportunities for all students and lawyers. Thankfully, I only heard that story once, meaning that most firms embraced the latter instead of the former.

I have hope because I saw women lawyers who became judges—like Madam Justice Mary Hetherington, the first female Court of Appeal Justice in Alberta. I had the fortune of articling at the Court of Appeal, and in spite of incidents of harassment and discrimination that I experienced in my subsequent legal career, I could remember that other women achieved success in our profession. If they could summon the gumption to carry on anyway, then so could I.

And I have hope because gender is just one area where our profession has improved. I have watched lawyers of colour enter law, without role models to inspire them, and they became role models to the next generation.

My generation of lawyers—we graduated in the mid-80s—were not mentored. I’m not sure the word was even used. I found a hockey stick graph showing how the term’s use was very flat from the 1800s until about 1980 when it gained popularity in corporate training programs. I don’t know when the concept entered the legal community which was quite traditional and not quick to adopt pop culture concepts. As young lawyers, we were expected to pick up what we needed to know by observing other lawyers and tolerating negative criticism when we made mistakes, which was inevitable. I didn’t have one person who assumed responsibility for me or who undertook my professional development. It just wasn’t a thing. And I am sure that the legal profession lost good people who did not feel fully welcome or supported, which is our loss.

Justice Hetherington did not mentor the other female articling student and me. She treated us just like she treated our male peers because that was the way women lawyers were socialized in our profession at that time. But having a woman on the Court of Appeal was inspirational for me. She didn’t have to take me under her wings, but she had risen to the top of our profession which meant other women could, too.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day next week, let’s contemplate this year’s theme: Inspire Inclusion. Women have earned their place at the legal community’s boardroom tables, but not all women are having the same experience. Let’s remember that there were women who inspired us and helped us achieve where we are now, and work together to ensure that everyone feels that they are welcome at the table, too.

I would go one step further and suggest that we combine our hope that things can get better in our profession with the inspiration we have found from people who were “like us,” whatever that means to us. Here are some suggestions of activities to consider:

  • Write a note of gratitude to someone who made you feel welcome or included in the legal profession. We don’t always know how to find people who have retired or moved away, but the action of expressing gratitude is a powerful resilience-builder. It is an added bonus if you are able to send your note but don’t let not having current contact information stop you from writing the note.
  • Think about how people included you when you felt “other.” How can you pay it forward and do the same thing for a newcomer? This is an act of kindness, when we consciously engage in helping someone else, and it is good for both the recipient and the donor. What is one concrete action you could take next week?
  • Tell someone who doesn’t look like our traditional stereotype of a lawyer how glad you are that they are in our profession (without being patronizing!)
  • Share inspirational stories with younger members of our profession. Even people who look like stereotypical lawyers may be experiencing feelings of otherness or internal distress. One person reaching out can have a profound impact. Remember that not all differences are visible!
  • Are there younger people in your midst who may be contemplating a career in law or going to law school? Can you share that the profession is challenging but that there are also good people who will provide support and encouragement?

Several years ago, a group of women lawyers in Edmonton created a book of inspirational stories by Alberta women lawyers targeted towards younger women and girls titled Truth Be Told: An Anthology of Inspirational Stories by Women in Law. The book features short stories from 114 women on a wide range of topics and from diverse perspectives. I haven’t read Beverly McLachlin’s recent book with a similar title, called Truth Be Told, which shares her story from childhood to the Supreme Court of Canada. It is probably inspirational as well!

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s find inspiration from lawyers of all genders and diverse backgrounds who have made our profession better. And let’s employ our capacity to have hope that conditions can continue to improve to help us take meaningful action.