Interview With Unbound Project: Motherhood, Lawyering, & Animal Liberation

This week, Unbound Project released a profile on five female animal rights lawyers in Canada. There are some kick-ass photos and thoughts from some kick-ass women, so I hope you will check it out!

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Unbound Project. Pictured: Camille Labchuk, Lesli Bisgould, Anna Pippus

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Unbound Project. Pictured: Camille Labchuk, Lesli Bisgould, Anna Pippus

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Unbound Project. Pictured: Camille Labchuk, Sophie Gaillard, Anna Pippus, Lesli Bisgould, Alanna Devine

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Unbound Project. Pictured: Camille Labchuk, Sophie Gaillard, Anna Pippus, Lesli Bisgould, Alanna Devine

As part of that project, I was asked some questions about my career, which of course they couldn't use all or even most of. So, I'm including that writing here--I hope some of it's helpful, especially to those who aspire to balance motherhood with career. There are so few examples of lawyers who are mothers, and even fewer animal rights lawyers who are mothers.

Can you tell me a bit about your current position? What does a "typical day" look like for you? (ha ha - I know that no day is ever "typical," but I'm hoping you can give our readers a sense of some of the day-to-day work you do)

First, I'm an activist before I'm a lawyer; law is one of many tools I use in my life's mission to liberate animals, so on a daily basis I'm doing much more than lawyering. I'm also juggling motherhood as the primary caregiver of two small children, both nursing.

On a weekday, I typically get up early and squeeze in some time answering emails and planning my day before my husband goes to work. I get a lot of requests for information, advice, interviews, etc. I try to deal with anything that can be dealt with in a few minutes, and longer items go on a to-do list.

Then I spend the day doing kid stuff - playground, community centre, that kind of thing. When I have quiet moments I fit in shorter tasks, like monitoring social media for pages I admin and checking for any urgent emails (such as immediate media requests). Sometimes, if inspiration strikes me, I'll even dictate articles or blog posts into my phone while I'm on the go. I'm always trying to balance being engaged and present with my kids, with ensuring I stay on top of work.

In the evening, after the kids go to bed, I have a chance to sit and work on tasks that require longer attention, such as writing legal complaints, reports, articles, etc. The hardest thing for me to fit in to a typical weekday is phone calls, because they tend to be longer, and I can't really manage them in and around the kids. I usually schedule phone meetings for weekends, or when I know one of my parents will be available to babysit. Now that my youngest is a year old and I'm officially not on maternity leave, I'm planning to find a babysitter for a few mornings a week, which will help ease the overwhelm of life!

Although, I have to point out, the saying goes: "if you want something done, give it to a busy person." This is really true for me. I wake up and I get going. Each moment is precious and I try to use free ones for something productive. I've been forced to get organized with things like meal planning. Even downtime and personal time is a deliberate choice. I can't afford to waste time, and I have to recognize when I need to say "no" to a request. I have to prioritize. Having children has, paradoxically, made me more productive in my career than ever. I know what I'm trying to achieve and I am forced to always be reflecting on how to best do that.

When did you know you wanted to do animal law? Can you talk a bit about the trajectory you took to get where you are now?

I spent nearly four years working with women who had been sexually assaulted. I noticed that violence could often be traced back to bad laws and policies, and I found it disheartening to be putting out fires when where I really wanted to be was preventing them. Around this time my brother mentioned that he knew two animal rights lawyers--I hadn't even known that was a thing! I went to law school knowing that I could use my legal training to help reform unjust systems to create a less violent, more compassionate world, but open as to where I would best be active. I was interested in many areas of law, including refugee law, which I practiced at our law school's legal aid clinic throughout law school, and reproductive and sexual health law - I was a research assistant for our school's program in the field.

However, I believe that animals need me most. Violence against animals is so normalized. It's being perpetuated (in both behaviour and attitude) even by humans who are otherwise very progressive. Animals are suffering in the greatest numbers, and their suffering is extreme - they are being tortured, separated from their families, and killed. At the same time, there are very few people devoted to advocating for them. They need all the help they can get.

During law school I volunteered as a board member for Mercy For Animals. This turned into my first paid job after articling. I have also been employed doing non-law animal work for Vancouver Humane Society and We Animals; since my career is first and foremost about helping animals, I often do non-law work if I think I'm needed. I'm in the privileged position of not needing salary to be the deciding factor in my career trajectory; since I'm at a point in my life when motherhood is a top priority (because my children are so young), I've chosen to turn down full-time work in favour of building my career in and around my life, including while on "maternity leave." I also volunteer a lot of my time if I think it will be an effective way of helping animals, which also happens to be a great way of gaining experience and honing skills.

Have you faced challenges because you are a woman working in this field?

I think that a major struggle unique for women is juggling motherhood with career. The reality is that, no matter how equal the partnership, we are the ones who get pregnant and we are the ones who breastfeed. And we vegans tend to be empathetic to the vulnerable--we're big softies, in other words--which can often mean a very time-consuming style of parenthood. Then in the world of animal rights, where relatively fewer choose to become parents, we're dealing with people who may not relate to the challenges of parenthood, or who may even be outright hostile towards procreating. Challenges all around!

I'm often jealous that my husband gets to go to a job with an actual office, where he can close the door and concentrate on his work! I should say, though, that I couldn't do what I do without having an extremely supportive (both emotionally and practically) husband. He's up early with the kids, he works super hard during the day so he doesn't have to stay late at the office, and he doesn't hesitate to take the kids out if I need to work on something, or even if I just need a break, on evenings or weekends. He also does more than half of the housework (although I do most of the cooking, so I think it evens out). He's never complained, not once; on the contrary, he's proud of me and knows that the work I do is important. If he wasn't so invested in our family and my career, I don't think I'd be able to do what I do. This will certainly be a challenge for other women whose partners don't kick ass like mine does. :)

(He's also has an interesting and growing animal rights law practice of his own, which doesn't hurt - we can often work together and brainstorm ideas.)

What advice do you have for young people who want to do what you do?

Work really hard and do a good job. That's really all it boils down to, in my case. You have to be willing to work hard even when you don't feel like it, and you have to do your work well. It's not easy, but it is extremely rewarding. Also, if you get married and have children, make sure your partner is a true partner!

How has the field of animal law in Canada (or in a more general sense) changed since you began your career?

It's exploding right now. Cultural attention to animal issues is taking off like never before, and law is part of that. Especially in Canada, we expect our government to be active in social issues--in reality, our government has been lobbied so hard by animal-use industries over the decades, that they are largely self-regulating (although their "regulation" is mostly window dressing). Now, as the public is waking up to this, we're seeing a lot of public dissatisfaction with what's happening to animals and our government's lack of action, and the public is calling for change.

We are poised for huge things in animal law. In the U.S., this field has been growing for some time, but in Canada we haven't really begun the battle, and we're ready to. There are barriers in the U.S. that we don't face in Canada (for example, American lawyers can't get standing to be in court for animal issues, which any animal lawyer will tell you is their biggest issue; in Canada, we have public interest standing that allows non-profit organizations in the door to advocate on behalf of animals). My top career goal is to work to have existing laws to protect animals enforced and am currently plotting out some of these cases which will see animals on the docket.