In Conversation with Gillian Hnatiw, Principal of Gillian Hnatiw & Co.

In conjunction with the Toronto Lawyers’ Association Honsberger Award presentation in Toronto on March 5, 2020, Evan Thompson spoke with Gillian Hnatiw, Principal of Gillian Hnatiw & Co. and this year’s Award recipient.

T.L.A. What initially attracted you to the legal profession?

G.H. I spent the third year of my undergrad degree at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, blissfully unconcerned for my future. When I returned to Queen’s the following September to start the fourth year of a history degree, there was suddenly all this pressure to come up with ‘a plan’ for after graduation. A number of my friends were preparing to write their LSATs and apply to law school, so I followed their lead. I had always tossed around the idea of law, in part because it’s an easy response to the ‘what are you going to do’ question, but it wasn’t the only career path I was considering. However, when I secured an offer of early admission to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, it became a bit of a foregone conclusion that I would go. At the time – 1999 – tuition was still reasonable, which meant I had the freedom to enrol even though I was unsure of whether I would ever practice.

T.L.A. Can you share some moments in your career that brought you great satisfaction?

G.H. Successfully resolving cases on behalf of sexual assault and abuse survivors brings me tremendous satisfaction. Being able to provide them with a sense of justice and empowerment, in addition to financial compensation, is incredibly rewarding.

In terms of specific cases, I am extremely proud of my advocacy for the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund in R. v. Jarvis, a voyeurism case against a high school teacher caught surreptitiously videotaping his students’ cleavage with a pen camera. The Court of Appeal acquitted him on the basis that the students were not “in circumstances giving rise to reasonable expectations of privacy” at the time the videos were taken. LEAF urged the court to recognize that the underlying purpose of the provision was to protect the sexual integrity and bodily autonomy of the vulnerable, particularly women, and to adopt a flexible, contextual definition of privacy in line with technological realities. Although it was not my first time arguing before the Supreme Court, it was the first time I was there to raise issues of gender equality and advocate for a decidedly feminist position. Ultimately, the court articulated a very robust, progressive definition of “privacy” that will afford women real protections in the digital age.

T.L.A. Can you share some moments that tested your resolve to become (and remain) a litigation lawyer?

G.H. My first year studying law was very disorienting, in part because I arrived with no clear idea of my professional goals. I was among the youngest in my class and chafed against the pressure to get on the conveyer belt to Bay Street. I felt a lot of anxiety about my lack of direction and envied my peers, who all seemed to have a clear idea of what they were working towards. I had always responded to stories and narratives, as opposed to theoretical learning. The law only began making sense to me when I started working at Downtown Legal Services, the University of Toronto’s legal clinic, and I began using it to solve the real-life problems of my real-life clients. I finally started to understand the power of the law to affect real change in people’s lives. That passion for pursuing ‘justice’ for individuals has tethered me to the profession ever since.

T.L.A. When you see or hear disturbing evidence of brutality, do you ever feel anger or frustration? How do you manage those feelings?

G.H. I can still feel great empathy for my clients but do my very best to keep my anger in check. I admit that I’ve probably become a bit numb to stories of trauma and that there is very little that shocks me anymore. However, I certainly feel frustration, particularly when I have to deal with opposing counsel who advance deeply gendered arguments about sexual misconduct. I do feel a responsibility to never show this frustration to my clients, as they count on me to maintain my professionalism and composure. Good lawyers bring part of their humanity into the courtroom, but still have to wear armour in order to do their job. I have a therapist and have had one for years. I think it is incredibly important to take the time to invest in your mental health. I also try to avoid crime shows and stories built around violence towards women – I see these horrors take place in real-life and don’t need to watch them for “entertainment” on the weekend.

T.L.A. What personal strengths do you believe successful litigators share?

G.H. Authenticity and adaptability. Successful litigators need to be able to effectively communicate with both their clients and the courts, which entails treating others with candour, integrity and respect. You must also be able to lose, or “fail”, in public and not be crushed by the result, no matter how frustrating or devastating it feels in the moment. Ultimately, I have learned significantly more from my “misses” than my “hits” over the course of my career.

With that said, I think it is equally important for lawyers to recognize that there are many different definitions of “success” and multiple paths to achieving it. Clients are often better served by creative solutions than trials. The same is true about career success; it can come in different forms. I never thought I would end up opening my own firm, but I came to realize that success, for me, meant having agency and autonomy over my work while practicing in an environment that aligned with my personal values.

T.L.A How has social media changed the way lawyers grow their practice?

G.H. Social media is upsetting the power imbalance within the profession. It allows younger lawyers to interact directly with more senior members of the bar and to build networks beyond what the cocktail circuit would allow. Social media can also facilitate connections with lawyers in other areas of practice and help them build profiles independent of their firms. However, it’s not as straight-forward as simply creating a twitter profile and sharing random thoughts. Authentic professional brands flow from the individual. Before jumping into social media, lawyers should give careful thought to what kind of practice they are trying to build and whether that practice is well served by an on-line presence.

T.L.A. Do you have any advice for aspiring litigation lawyers about how to navigate their journey?

G.H. I get a lot of inquiries from law students and young lawyers, particularly young women. I do my best to respond to all of them, even though I still fight against imposter syndrome myself. My first piece of advice to them is to take the long view. It can be hard to see beyond the first six to eight years, when everyone is jockeying for professional space and trying to pay down their student debt, but if you find yourself on a path and realize you don’t like where it’s headed, you need to take the time to reset your direction, even if it feels like a step backwards in the short term.

My second piece of advice is to safeguard your personal goals and interests. Don’t neglect your friendships and relationships. Don’t compromise your life choices. If you want children, have them. My heart breaks a little when I hear young women lawyers talk about declining to have families – or putting them off for a decade – in order to further their careers. It’s one thing if you simply don’t want children, but it’s another if you feel like you won’t be able to have the career you aspire to if you do. Men don’t grapple with these choices. The truth is, my children have taught me a ton about listening and communicating – skills that a lot of litigators often lack. And they have made me a killer multi-tasker.

Finally, for women, there has been a lot of talk about “leaning in” to our careers in recent years, but I would encourage young lawyers to pay attention to what they are leaning into. Are you building someone else’s business for them? Is your shoulder being used to prop up their enterprise? Do they respect and value your contribution? In the early years of your career, you will usually be supporting someone else’s practice. But don’t get so invested in making them look good that you forget to look after yourself. Make sure you are afforded reasonable opportunities to build your own practice as well. The more ownership you can take over your practice and your clients, the better prepared you will be to weather the challenges and opportunities your career may bring.

T.L.A. Who are some people who have helped guide you in your career?

G.H. Jasmine Akbarali – now Justice Akbarali – who taught me a ton about advocacy, standing up for what you believe in, and the importance of charting a career that is true to who you are. And Jane Southren, my former partner turned amazing business development coach, who has been an invaluable source of advice and encouragement. Both of these women really modelled “shine theory” for me, which says that when you meet a smart woman, befriend her instead of feeling threatened by her. View her as a collaborator, not a competitor, because you will be more powerful together than you are apart.

Join us to celebrate Gillian Hnatiw's outstanding contribution to the legal profession!

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