Accountability

No, this is not about the Panama Papers. It’s a little smaller.

I am prone to making sort of vague plans for myself or my kids and bailing on them.

Things like going for a hike or making a new recipe. Or doing a science experiment with the boys. But because the plans are only in my head, generally, no one knows how frequently I totally whiff on the follow-through.

So as I was cleaning up my million Pinterest boards of recipes and art projects and science experiments and feeling a little guilty about the rate at which these things pile up without me actually trying any of them, and decided that forcing myself to increase my innovation and productivity outside work is as good a use as any of my effectively-abandoned blog that nobody reads but me anyway.

I will be doing my best to post about at least one project, structured activity, or recipe a week.

For my first trick, I tried to make Mac and grilled cheese tomato soup. To be fair, I a) used a shortcut and b) screwed up the recipe, but the results were… Not delicious.

This recipe is effectively a cheesy tomato bisque with macaroni in it and topped with home made croutons to approximate a grilled cheese sandwich.

I should note that I heart grilled cheese and tomato soup. I heart it so much that back when I lived in a college residence, my friends would call me in the morning when it was grilled cheese and tomato soup day in dining hall, just because I was ridiculously excited about it. Every time.

I have limited time and willingness to wash dishes in my life, so when I was at the grocery store picking up ingredients and spotted a bag of cheddar bacon croutons, I smelled a shortcut. The error came in when I accidentally added 2 cups of shredded cheese and  2 cups of Greek yogurt to the tomato soup base, rather than 2 cups of shredded cheese and 1 cup of Greek yogurt. The immediate colour change in the pot signalled something was very wrong. That said, it would have made little difference. It turns out that I love grilled cheese. I love tomato soup. I love them paired. But I don’t like them puréed together.

Now I have 3 litres of soup-I-don’t-really-like in my fridge.

Yay accountability!

Because it’s 2015.

All day, every time I think about the new federal cabinet, I grin. It’s a little weird to grin to yourself in the midst of whatever unrelated task you’re working on, but here we are. I was a little afraid that all of the white man editorial hand-wringing about merit (you know who you are, boys) would ruin this for me. But it turns out that there is not a thing in the world that can ruin the fact that none of the women sworn in this morning can even remotely be considered unqualified for their positions. This is the thought, the intentional effort to adjust for structural inequality, that I lamented my own employer’s lack of in my last post.

This is how we help women. Not by promoting people who don’t deserve it, but by recognizing that pretty much any time you go to hire or promote, there is more than one person who is qualified for the job, and choosing between those people is a matter of judgment. Making diversity part of that judgment call is perfectly valid – after all, what use is a decision-making group that contains only one viewpoint?

For me personally, the announcement couldn’t come at a better time, as my week has been a study of both triumph and a recognition of how much further we have to go to achieve equality in the workplace.

First, the important bit: I am a motherfucking BOSS this week. After months of varying between not enough work to do and some really boring work to do, a bunch of high-profile matters have been handed to me by different partners, I am playing legal pundit on the radio tomorrow morning, and my billables for October were actually acceptable. Oh, and I get to go watch a file that I worked on get argued in the Supreme Court next week. I don’t get to sit at the table, because the leave application happened while I was on maternity leave, so another associate took it on, but I’m taking a few vacation days to go see it. And I am hyped!

Yesterday, in the midst of all my being-a-motherfucking-BOSS-ing, I accidentally discovered that my billable rate was apparently only increased for inflation last year, not for my call year. Effectively, after two maternity leaves I am now a 2011 call being billed out as a 2012 call and paid as a 2013 call. No one had mentioned this to me, of course, and it’s possible that it is an error. But I don’t really think that it is, and as I need to start thinking about partnership, it’s a bit… disconcerting.

But this week is a glorious week, and no one will take it from me. I am a boss and people are starting to remember it. Women are being allowed to be bosses in Ottawa, and we won’t let anyone forget it.

Because it’s 2015, motherfuckers!

On being a Law Mom (or, why law and maternity leave don’t mix)

First, an obligatory disclaimer. I am not identifying my employer in this post, but the internet being what it is, I fully recognize that with very little effort, you could figure it out. I ask, gentle-and-likely-wholly-imaginary reader, that you don’t. With very few exceptions, the problems that I am outlining are not specific to my firm, but form part of the landscape at many or most small to medium firms. My experience is not unique; my firm is not either.

And now the blunt: I am just back from maternity leave. And it sucks.

I’m a fifth year litigation associate at a mid-size local firm. Not a big national, but also not the kind of place anyone would describe as a “boutique”. I have two kids, aged 4 and 1, with each of whom I spent a full year of maternity leave, recognizing that I would never get another opportunity to be there for them completely in that way, and that spending an extended bonding period with a parent is a good foundation for any child.

After my first maternity leave, I returned to the office to find that a lateral hire was occupying my old office, and that my new office was not even in the litigation department. Instead, I was seated between corporate and real estate. My next door neighbour? An office that housed only a computer somehow related to SEDAR filings. I spent the first six weeks drinking litres of tea daily, just so that I had an excuse to walk through litigation on my way to and from the kitchen, reminding everyone that I was there. I didn’t have enough work to do. It was scary.

After the first six weeks, an associate two years senior to me moved away. Barely had the email announcing her impending departure been sent before I laid claim to her office, in litigation. I also inherited a lot of her files, and thus started to be busy again, albeit busy in an area of the law that was not exactly my first love. Another associate had, naturally, filled the little niche that I had created for myself prior to my departure, so I had to try and carve out a new one. Over time, I was able to once again work with some (but not all) of the partners whose work I had enjoyed doing before my first-born had interrupted things.

Then I had another baby. On purpose, for the record. And yeah, I’m sure there are people out there who are already thinking that any career issues I’m having are my own fault for not making my job my number one priority. I’ll ask another favour, gentle-and-likely-wholly-imaginary reader: reserve your judgment for the end.

This time around, I was a bit more senior. I had files of my own, which I duly transferred to my colleagues, parceling them out to the most appropriate level, with an eye to matching my clients’ personalities to my co-workers’ style of practice. And I went on leave.

I will note at this point that, although lots of women disappear when on leave, that’s not really my style. I instead joke about being difficult to get rid of. I checked my work email regularly, showed up at office social events, and occasionally dropped by, baby in tow, just to say hello. After all, I like the people I work with.

But as my return to work date approached, I started to feel apprehensive. This time, the whole office had moved, although there was an office in litigation reserved for me – it even had a nameplate on the door.

As I headed in on my first day back, I hoped, even while realizing it was likely in vain, that there might be something, some small project, sitting on my chair waiting for my arrival. A reporting letter. A research memo. Something to show that someone knew I was coming and thought of me.

Alas, my desk and chair were empty. And were also not mine – it seems someone else had claimed my office furniture during the move. The only way to describe my office is as a jumble of reject furniture. My chair had no arms. My keyboard skipped strokes. My desk was the wrong-hand-side for the office it was set up in.

But more crucially, there was no work. And as I went back to my previous tried-and-tested method of walking around making sure I was seen, a lot of the partners seemed slightly surprised – if pleasantly so – to see me.

But there was still no work. And on the occasions when there was work, it was frankly a bit junior for me. Because here’s the thing: I’m a fifth year associate. I shouldn’t be dealing with small claims files. Or writing reporting letters, in which you basically just summarize the contents of reams of documents. Not because I’m too good for them, but because it’s not economically reasonable to have someone do that kind of work at my hourly rate.

Unlike the first time around, I’m not junior enough anymore to just go with the flow and do whatever work comes in the door. To this point, I’ve been a generalist, largely out of necessity. But if I want to make partner, I need to start specializing. There are a couple of areas where I have experience and would like to focus on, but I now need to break back into them again, ingratiate myself with the right partners, displace the other highly competent people who are now doing the work that I used to do, because in a shop like mine, most of the good work, the meaty, brief-heavy, written-advocacy work that I really like and, not to toot my own horn, am quite good at, is generated by the partners.

I have also been surprised by the attitude of some of my mid-level colleagues, who have resisted returning my files to me, even if no or very little progress has been made in the matter. When I handed files off, I did so with a basic letter to the client: As you know, I will be commencing my maternity leave in the next few weeks. I have asked X to assume carriage of your file while i am out of the office. Of course you will not be billed for any time that he/she spends getting up to speed etc etc.

In order to transfer the file back to me, which seems just as straight-forward, it is apparently necessary to set up a joint call with the client to make sure that they understand what is happening and that they won’t be billed for transfer time, or that because an opinion (echoing the same one that I gave a year ago) has just been provided, X really thinks that he/she should stay on the file. I am feeling a little betrayed by these machinations, and I’m not sure that’s totally unreasonable.

I could afford to take some time and slowly build back if it were not for the ever-loving billable hour. In case you don’t know, most lawyers charge clients on the basis of the amount of time, counted in six-minute increments, they spend working on that client’s file. Associates are expected to bill a given number of hours annually. No work means no billing, and no billing means bad things at review time. It also means that time spent sitting at your desk twiddling your thumbs while you wait for work to come back doesn’t count for anything at all – you might as well have stayed in bed. Or, say, played with your kids.

So here I am, a month into my triumphant return. My billables are horrific. My files are being hoarded. What little work finds its way to me is not the kind of stuff I want to do. I know that I’m going to get lectured about my poor billing at the end of the year by the associates committee, but I’m not in a position to fix the problem.

On top of all that, I’m underpaid. My firm, and I don’t know if this is universal, takes the position that while you’re on maternity leave, you’re not entitled to any raises. So after two leaves, I’m being billed out as a fifth year associate, but my salary is on par with the third years. If I were to leave and go to another firm, any other firm, I would immediately see a raise in the order of ten thousand or more, as no new employer would, effectively, hold my leaves against me for the rest of my career. I am taking a significant pay cut merely for the privilege of remaining at my present place of employment.

No wonder women with kids, or even women thinking about having kids, are exiting the profession in droves! I started my career as a high-flier. I clerked with an appellate court, and worked almost immediately with senior partners on big files. After my first leave, some of those partners never asked me to do anything again. I don’t think anyone had bad motives, but as a woman with a child who might have more, I think there’s a subconscious risk calculation. What if I’m not there when the matter is ready for trial? Now, after two leaves, I feel like damaged goods. And I know I’m not the only one.

Enough with the doom and gloom. I like to think of myself as a problem-solver, rather than merely a whiner. And I think that most of the problems I have identified are things that firms can fix without too much trouble. But in order to fix them, in order to stop mid-level female associates from fleeing to the hills (or fleeing to the in-house jobs), the Powers That Be need to actively assist women in transitioning into and out of maternity leave. The career interruptions that come with kids create structural inequalities that cannot be fixed by vaguely benevolent neglect.

Before a female associate returns to work, there should be a plan in place for getting her back to capacity. That could be as simple as sending around an email soliciting some work to be ready for her on her return. Make her feel like she hasn’t been forgotten, and like she has something to contribute. I know it’s small, but showing up to a gutted office with equipment that didn’t work and no work to do made me feel distinctly unwanted.

A more formal mentorship structure, which exists at large firms, would be of great assistance to women trying to get their groove back. I know what kind of work I want to do, but supporting me in getting that work and attracting clients in those areas isn’t anyone’s “problem”. If I had a mentor, I could go to that person to talk about how to build a practice of my own, to tag along on marketing ventures, and start doing the junior work for the big clients that we would plan for me to someday take over.

Compensation-wise, each firm has its own approach, but setting up a system in which your female associates with kids would be better off financially in literally any other job on the market makes no sense. At all.

Over the past few weeks, as I have explained to friends and family how my return to work is going, I keep making excuses for my employer. There’s no malice here, they’re just… thoughtless. And that’s the crux of it – it’s not rocket science. Re-integrating women after maternity leaves requires thought, and small to medium firms just don’t manage it well because it’s not a priority. If we want to stop the bleed from the law, however, we need to make it one.

The Accent

Let me tell you about The Accent. The Accent is a tricky piece of identity politics with conflicting implications both inside its circle and beyond.

Newfoundland, by virtue of a couple of centuries of relative isolation, is a hotbed of linguistic diversity totally unrelated to the rest of Canada. English (and French, occasionally) evolved on its own in some kind of wacky ways.

If you’re familiar with the existence of The Accent at all, you probably know about b’ys, a short form of boys, used as a catch-all pronoun, much like other people (called Mainlanders, for reference) would use guys, or Texans would use y’all.

But The Accent is not a single weird word or phrase, like how Saskachewaners call hooded sweaters “bunny-hugs”. In its purest form, it’s an entirely different dialect, with cadences, words, construction, and phrases so foreign to most North Americans that television shows often use subtitles to explain it to mystified viewers. I have been known to compare it to Brad Pitt’s “piker’ character in Snatch. I understood him without a lot of difficulty.

The “purest form” however, is where the trick comes in. Although Canadians tend to think that all Newfoundlanders are completely incomprehensible (and often think that The Accent is either hilarious or adorable), generally only people from outports (small fishing villages) are first-language Newfs*. Most of us are a bit of a mix, and the degree of mix is a social and economic signifier.

Broadly speaking, Newfoundlanders often see a divide between Townies (from St. John’s), and Baymen (from “beyond the overpass”). Historically, the former were merchant class, the latter mostly fisherfolk, although this is of course an oversimplification.

To a Newf, hearing a strong accent is a cue that the speaker is either from an outport or not far removed from it. That has economic and social class implications. Most Townies have a less noticeable accent, although it still varies. Like any other cue, The Accent means something to the people who understand the context. It’s not definitive, of course, but it forms part of a first impression. In either direction, there are positives and negatives. Urban politicians often play up their slight accents to connect more with voters in the rural areas that hold a disproportionate number of seats.

So that’s all fine and good. Newfoundlanders communicate pretty effectively through The Accent, and although we may make some judgments about each other based on its strength, we all kind of get how that works.

It does result in some class policing. For example, I come from an old St. John’s family. The line on both sides has been in town for generations and is largely merchant class. It says something that both my grandmothers hold graduate degrees (including having studied “abroad” in Canada before Confederation in 1949) in an age where that was definitely not the norm. Both of my own parents are lawyers. Neither has a noticeable accent – you can hear it if you know what to listen for, but it certainly would not be evident to the average Mainlander. I was accordingly raised in an environment where The Accent was generally minimal. When I came home from Grade 1 spelling words with “haych” instead of “aitch”, I remember being told that “we do not speak that way in this house”.

Take a Newf off the island, however, and it’s a whole new situation.

As I noted before, Mainlanders have very definite ideas about what Newfoundlanders sound like. Often those ideas are very wrong – Jim Carrey attempted to do a Newfie accent in A Series of Unfortunate Events and it bears no resemblance to The Accent whatsoever. But crucially, those ideas are pretty monolithic. Similarly monolithic ideas abound about Newfoundlanders being fishermen, stupid or uneducated, poor and on welfare, and extremely friendly.+

As a Newfoundlander with very little accent, I don’t fit. When I tell people that I’m from Newfoundland, I’m often asked what happened to my accent. Or “where” my accent is. Other people tell me I don’t sound like a “real Newfie”. As far as the asker is concerned, this is a natural question, maybe a little joke about how long I’ve lived away. The intent is either neutral or complimentary, although occasionally people are disappointed that I don’t sound “interesting”.

For me, however, this kind of question is an identity minefield. I am proud of being a Newfoundlander, and bristle a little at any suggestion that I’m not a “real” one. At the same time, I recognize the back-handed compliment about my diction and vocabulary. I have to imagine that the internal war on this is somewhat similar to what Black individuals feel when told that they don’t “sound Black”. I’m pleased to “pass” as a mainlander, but wonder whether I’ve betrayed my roots, while at the same time recognizing that this is a bit foolish – my thoroughly Newfoundland roots don’t really include The Accent at all.

This internal tug-of-way is only exacerbated by the occasional request to “do” The Accent. Because it’s not my natural way of speaking, I’m extremely uncomfortable with putting it on – it’s inevitably a caricature of the way that some people speak, and feels both disrespectful of those people and like I’m indulging the asker in a gleeful exercise of exoticizing Newfoundlanders. In short, it’s icky. I think this is why I am similarly sensitive about other accents – when cast in a musical that had me singing a parody of “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, my first reaction was to refuse to put on any mock Caribbean accent. It felt similarly icky.

None of this is to suggest that I do not have my own spin on The Accent. Even after nine years away, I still occasionally confuse people in Calgary by using a word or phrase that I haven’t realized isn’t “normal”. Additionally, although I can’t “lapse” into The Accent because it’s not my normal way of speaking, but I do slip into it in some situations. Lawrence Hill’s comments in Black Berry, Sweet Juice, about how his father, a Black American, changed his speaking style when socializing with other Black people resonated for me.

When drunk or angry, my vowels broaden (which my Mainlander husband thinks is hilarious, winning him few points if he is the object of my ire when it happens). I also use The Accent casually, almost as an endearment, with other insiders. My brothers and I, in particular, communicate this way, and I constantly catch myself calling my boys “some sweet” and “right handsome”.

The Accent is only part of a rich and often misunderstood cultural heritage, and I think many Newfoundlanders who live away struggle with reconciling their relationship with it.

* I use “Newf” as an insider signifier. “Newfie” tends to be an outsider term and, like The Accent itself, is loaded with all sorts of significance. Probably worthy of its own post.

+ In case you were wondering why my mother was so keen to make sure I didn’t pick up The Accent, she explained when I was an adult that it was largely so that I could control the application of the latter stereotypes. “There will be situations,” she noted, “where revealing that you are a Newfoundlander will not be to your advantage. I want you to be able to choose whether to tell people where you are from, rather than have it be obvious the moment you open your mouth.”

Rights and How to Use Them – Part I (of probably a million)

As I have noted before, I occasionally have thoughts that exceed 140 characters. Or that are a little complex and I need to work out – I usually find writing is useful for that.

Obviously, the big news of the week is the shootings at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in Paris known for publishing comics that push the envelope, particularly when it comes to mocking Islam and the Prophet Mohammed.

The attack struck at the core of free speech. So let’s talk for a minute about what that means.

The right to freedom of speech or expression is enshrined in the constitutions of most liberal democracies. In the United States, it’s the basis of the First Amendment. In Canada, Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides for freedom of expression. In Britain, it’s part of the fuzzy cloud of unwritten constitutional principles – but it’s definitely there.

Freedom of speech in these contexts protects you from exactly one thing: government interference with your speech (censorship). With very few exceptions (such as uttering threats or inciting violence) the government can’t arrest you for what you write or say. And since the government holds a monopoly on legal imprisonment, neither can anyone else.

Non-governmental actors, however, are perfectly free to punish you for your speech, within the bounds of law. If you make anti-Semitic rants on your company’s website, your employer is entitled to decide that you are not a good spokesperson for the company and fire you. If you express an opinion on the internet, other people can call you out on it. That’s not censorship – it’s the social consequence of your speech. The law does not protect you from criticism.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an example of a non-governmental reaction to speech so extreme as to become a form of censorship. The objective of this kind of attack is to make people afraid to exercise their right of free speech and shut down discussion completely.

It is fundamentally and unequivocally wrong.

Unfortunately, that point –  the fact that silencing anyone with violence or threats of violence is unconscionable and unexcusable – has gotten a little entangled with content. That is a grave error, but an easy one to make in the heat of the moment.

Charlie Hebdo’s readers and supporters say that the magazine belongs to a long and venerable tradition of satirical magazines in France, a tradition that North Americans simply don’t understand. They say that Charlie Hebdo is not xenophobic or racist, but fundamentally anti-religion, mocking all religions equally.

That doesn’t jive with what little I’ve seen from the magazine, with which I was admittedly unfamiliar only two weeks ago. Even if Charlie Hebdo targeted all religions (and I understand from some sources that Christian-focused cartoons have been rejected as being likely to cause outcry), it relies on racist stereotypes and caricatures to represent those religions. Additionally, some non-religious cartoons are also offensive, depicting Boko Haram-abducted women as pregnant welfare queens, or Black politicians as monkeys.

Let me be clear. I find those types of images offensive, racist, and in extremely poor taste. But I completely support Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish them without fear of violence.

In fact, this precise situation makes Charlie Hebdo an excellent test for support of free speech rights, especially from the left. If you do not support the right of people whose views you abhor to express those views, you do not believe in free speech. It’s that simple.

When someone says something that is wrong, offensive, or just plain stupid, the proper response is to use more speech to oppose it. I wouldn’t buy Charlie Hebdo. And as I have already demonstrated, I’ll criticize its content. But I will “defend to the death” their right to publish idiocy, if they so desire.

On a broader basis, it seems to me that there is little value in attempting to ban the expression of any idea, barring fairly clear incitements to violence or threats. Even hate speech laws, for all they intend to protect minorities, may actually do the opposite. Racism, sexism, and all the other -isms and -phobias exist in the people’s minds. When those opinions are illegal, they don’t go away, but are simply driven underground. Their proponents can paint themselves as an oppressed minority, whose “truth” is being hidden by the powers that be. It seems far more effective to let people spout stupid ideas and then tell them they’re wrong. Let the marketplace of ideas sort it out.

There is one caveat to this approach. Critical thinking is necessary for individuals to consider and assess the ideas floating around the marketplace. The modern education system, however, does not spend nearly enough time and energy cultivating this skill in young minds, so that the populace is capable of navigating the marketplace of ideas without getting lost or falling prey to charismatic charlatans.

That’s my “cold take”.

Calling Bluffs – AKA You Can’t Win ‘Em All

My smallest munchkin, Rory, had his half-birthday this week. His big brother Ben and I baked a half-birthday cake and then Rory grinned toothlessly at us while the rest of us ate it.

This baby is punctual. He arrived approximately 36 hours prior to his planned caesarean and, with one notable exception which I will probably write about some day, has been meeting developmental milestones right on target ever since. So it came as no major surprise that on the morning after his half-birthday, he started gumming up a storm and a tooth was suddenly in evidence, although not yet quite through.

He’s been having a tough go of it, so we’ve been medicating for pain. On Saturday evening, Ryan and I were due out at a New Year’s dinner thrown by a friend with a January birthday who likes parties but not talking about his age. We got dressed to go and gave Rory a dose of infant Tylenol. Ben was sitting at the kitchen counter eating dinner, and watched with great interest as I measured out the medication.

“I am not feeling vewy well,” he announced.

I internally rolled my eyes. Children’s Tylenol has so much sweetener in it that it’s like drinking Purity syrup (which any non-Newfs will need to look up). Ben’s pretty keen on it. And he certainly hadn’t mentioned feeling off earlier in the day.

“Oh,” I replied with slightly exaggerated concern. “If you don’t feel well, maybe you should go get in bed with Blankie – a little sleep should help you feel better.” It was nearly an hour before bedtime. Usually the suggestion of a nap as a route to anything is roundly denounced, and I fully expected that Ben would suddenly feel just fine.

“Ok, I think I will do that,” answered the munchkin. And off he went.

He hadn’t had a proper nap, so I was surprised but not concerned. Ryan and I headed out for our dinner, leaving him in the capable hands of the nanny.

Lo and behold, he slept for 16 hours and woke up with a fever of 39.6. So much for calling his bluff – I felt terrible for effectively ignoring his oncoming illness. He was a sad little boy all day on Sunday, and took today off from school because his temperature wasn’t quite back to normal, but seems to be bouncing back nicely.

Moral of the story: The kiddies are tricky creatures. Just when you think you’ve got them all figured out…

2015: The Year Kate Learns New Shit

This is the story of how we got here.

I am human: ergo, I suck at resolutions.

I have tried instituting daily to-do lists before, but I end up finding it demoralizing when I don’t get all my items checked off every day, which of course I don’t – see above re: human. I should get back to running, but it’s really bloody cold out and everyone else has decided to go to the gym. I need to eat better, but my house is still full of Christmas chocolate.

In an effort to avoid discouragement, this year’s resolutions are more aspirational. Run. Write. Learn French.

I was hoping an app would let me set my resolutions up sort of like daily affirmations, maybe attached to my alarm clock, so that I could be reminded of them without feeling guilty about my inevitable failings. But I wasn’t able to find one.

I will note at this stage that technology hates me. In fact, if my computer doesn’t manage to eat this post it will be something of a miracle. Nevertheless, I blithely thought I should just write the app that I wanted. That concept lasted all of about twelve seconds, seeing as I can’t program.

But during that twelve seconds, I came across Ladies Who Code, who are hosting a WordPress workshop in late January, and decided to seize the moment.

With that, I have re-oriented my resolutions within a larger theme of trying new things and learning new skills. So far, I have started a French conversation class, and I look forward to learning more about WordPress so that I can combine my resolution to write with gaining some website skills.

It’s going to be a good year.