Opening doors for women in a world of ‘subtle’ sexism

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Saint John lawyer¬†Nathalie Godbout¬†was pregnant with her eldest child, now 10, when she was the incoming chairwoman of the Saint John Board of Trade — the third woman to hold the post in an organization that turns 150 this year.

I can remember back then, the most popular question was ‘How are you going to do this?’” says¬†Godbout¬†who, at the time, was also a new partner with Lawson Creamer.

How does anybody do it? There are two parents in our household, not just one,” says¬†Godbout, who recently opened her own boutique firm with colleague Cathy Fawcett in a stunning historic building on Hazen Street that pre-dates the¬†Great¬†Fire of 1877.

They’re looking at you with some curiosity, but also with this profound concern — as if what you’re about to do is impossible.

Godbout, now 47, not only “did it” with her first baby -= going back to work three weeks after she was born —¬†but again three years later with her second child, nursing each for a full year while managing her busy practice, and while her husband, Jim Lawlor, cared for their daughters. Her career has flourished¬†as she¬†built¬†a reputation as a discreet and capable malpractice defence lawyer. She received the prestigious Queen’s Counsel, or Q.C. designation and a YMCA Women of Distinction Award last year.

And, on May 12, she is set to receive the Muriel Corkery-Ryan Q.C. Award, which recognizes an exceptional person who has taken¬†risks, fostered change and ultimately opened doors for female lawyers. The award, presented by the Canadian Bar Association’s New Brunswick branch, will be presented at a conference on embracing change and overcoming obstacles at the Hilton Hotel.

For Godbout, the path has not always been smooth, and while she says she has it easier than female lawyers did 50 years ago, she has experienced a subtle form of sexism faced by many professional women today.

For example, while meeting with colleagues, a bid to attract new clients may be met with skepticism by her peers, while the man sitting next to her would get full support for another pitch.

It’s subtle. You can’t put your finger on it,” she says, seated at a long table in what feels more like a dining room than a law office. “They don’t say it. It’s resistance, it’s skepticism. It’s almost as if you’re being indulged when your track record and book of business would invite none of that.

Even as more female lawyers enter the profession, they are more likely to leave it within their first 10 years for many reasons, Godbout says.

To make your way, you have to be exceptional. It has to be harder for them to do without you, than without you.

For women — and not only lawyers — who choose to have children, it may be more¬†difficult¬†to get a job, keep your job, or it’s seen as a burden on an employer, she says.

It’s born of a time that we are not supposed to be living in anymore,” Godbout says. “Those old norms still exist, whether or not people want to¬†admit¬†it — I’m convinced of it — so I think sometimes the only way to change it is to reinvent it.

That’s what led in part to the birth of her firm, which opened its doors last December. It’s a place where lawyers and staff find a balance that results in what they say is¬†great¬†client service and a lifestyle that meets their needs as professionals as well as their families at¬†home.

After years of mentoring and meeting with young female lawyers — often in places well “off the grid” — where Godbout would offer her advice, she now aims to model how a modern practice led by two women in the Maritimes can look and feel.

Cathy and I will tell you some of¬†the best¬†law briefs we’ve written, we started after 9 p.m.,” she says. “As lawyers, you’re just as productive if not more so than any of our peers. The work was getting done and didn’t have to be done in a traditional way. That fluidity and flexibility is a huge piece of what we do here.

And the “proof is in the pudding,” Godbout says. A comparison of hours and productivity against other firms demonstrates they are measuring up “in spades.

This new generation of lawyers is looking for that flexibility, trust and accountability.

Godbout, the third of four children growing up in Grand Falls, remembers being the kid who was sent in to negotiate a deal with the adults, what she now practises as “interest-based negotiations.

I¬†loved¬†it – I thrived in that environment,” says Godbout, who moved as a teen with her family to Saint John, and¬†attended St. Thomas University for an arts degree before pursuing law at the University of New Brunswick. “Everybody would be¬†happy¬†with the final decision, whatever it was. That’s always been my personality.

Godbout articled at Stewart McKelvey in Saint John before joining Gilbert McGloan Gillis for 12 years, six of those as partner. When she “parachuted” into Lawson Creamer as a partner, she was six months pregnant, she says. The team was “tremendously supportive” over her decade at the firm.

The move to open Godbout Fawcett was the dream she never knew she had, she says, resulting in a design that “feels better” than a traditional law firm.

Along with her advocacy for female lawyers, Godbout has also become a voice for those facing domestic¬†violence¬†after overhearing¬†abuse¬†in a hotel and writing a poignant editorial in the Telegraph-Journal last year. The story, addressed to the “Woman in Room 805,” went viral, leading to a flood of messages from women who have reached out to her to say, after reading her piece, they had the courage to get out. To this day, she is still haunted by what she heard and hopes the woman in the room is OK.

An entire demographic now knows there is someone who can hear them on the other side of the door, and doesn’t know what to do, and is profoundly worried about them – I think a lot of them have felt for a very long time that nobody cared,” she says.

That seems to be the mantle I’m wearing now because so many of these individuals are saying to me: ‘You saved my life. I got out.’ It allowed them to see there are people to help if they committed to leaving. I’m very grateful.

As appeared in the Telegraph-Journal May 12, 2017.