Michelle Bain, lawyer, Legal Aid Ontario

Lean In @ LAO

At LAO, we understand that women pursuing demanding careers in law face specific challenges at home and in the workplace. Legal Aid Ontario has made a variety of efforts to create an environment that lessens barriers for women in law. Here is one woman’s story.

by Michelle Bain, lawyer, General Counsel’s Office, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO)

My journey began when I was an articling student on Bay Street. I was diligently working away in my office (building what I thought would be the foundation of my illustrious career in corporate commercial litigation) when the Honourable Patrick J. LeSage (yes, that’s the one—the former Chief Justice) walked in to my office and asked if I was busy. I immediately cleared my desk and asked him to have a seat; I may have even bowed…I don’t remember.

I belonged at Legal Aid Ontario

At the time Mr. LeSage saw in me something that I did not yet see in myself; that I belonged at LAO. He asked me to draft a memo for a client…you guessed it…LAO.

The work was complex and delicate and at stake were the rights of LAO’s vulnerable client base. Needless to say I worked my butt off on that file and when I met Sue McCaffrey, LAO’s Vice President and General Counsel, for the first time, in her yellow rain boots and killer business suit, she was nothing short of gracious and appreciative of the effort and hard work we had put in.

I found my career direction

That file changed everything. I knew then that I had found the direction my career was supposed to take. I made some tough decisions and received a lot of raised eyebrows for leaving Bay Street, but I have never looked back.

I joined Legal Aid back in 2012 as the supervisory duty counsel at the Lindsay courthouse. This was a job that I loved, even though I had to look Lindsay up on a map when I was offered the position. Currently, I am the newest addition to the General Counsel Office legal team.

Establishing a Lean In circle at LAO

A year ago, I read Lean In, Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. I was inspired by its general principals. Some of Sandberg’s key themes are:

  • the challenges women face trying to achieve work/life balance
  • the stalled Feminist movement and its impact on women’s choices
  • allowing our partners to play and equal role at work and at home and
  • the internal and external barriers that hold women back from Leaning In.

I wanted to discuss these issues, so I emailed a few colleagues and asked if they were interested in establishing LAO’s first Lean In circle.

Our original circle, including Andrea Danon, Binh Pham, Lana Strain, Lynne Campbell, Cindy Bruinsma, Sue McCaffrey, Mary-Ann Cocchetto and myself, have been meeting for over a year.

Now a grassroots movement

In that time, we have begun to open the doors to further empowerment of women at LAO. We have shared very profound moments, grown as individuals and offered each other support. We have created a community that we could all look forward to checking in with every third Friday of the month.

Out of these great discussions, we realized that many women — and men — within the organization would also want to participate. This sparked the idea to send an invitation to all LAO employees to join our group.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive: from our most senior management to our front line support staff and everyone in between.

It has come full circle

By supporting the Lean In initiative, LAO is showing its dedication to gender equality, grassroots initiatives and innovation. Legal Aid is a great place to work for women; being able to Lean In only makes it better.