Considering Intersections: Client Services and Gender Discrimination

  • October 27, 2020
  • Birute Luksenaite, Founder and Lawyer, Portfolio Estate Law

I am a new member of the OBA Women Lawyers Forum Executive and I am excited to share my first article for the WLF's article page and Section Insider. I wanted my first contribution to be something positive and inspiring for women lawyers, but a few experiences in my solo tax and estates practice (since launching it in 2019) raise certain persistent issues prevalent in our profession. A relatively recent Forbes article noted that female lawyers are still more likely than their male counterparts to be interrupted, to do more office housework and to have less access to prime job assignments.[1]  While gender discrimination in the legal workplace is a well-discussed issue addressed by various affirmative action initiatives, there may be a less-spoken-about subcategory of this discrimination that is much more difficult to challenge: older clients’ gender discrimination vis-à-vis their lawyers. And, yes, that is generally discrimination against female lawyers.

One of my most heart-wrenching experiences in this context this year was to witness the demise of a vulnerable senior who, I believe, disregarded my lifeline advice to a large extent on the basis of my gender. My advice to the individual was to replace the person they had appointed as their attorney for both property and personal care, because they had proven to be dishonest. The individual waived my advice off as baseless. Because they were understood to have capacity, the Public Guardian and Trustee was unable to help. Ultimately, the attorney left the individual in financial ruin and, contrary to their previously expressed wish to remain on life support, gave consent to cut off oxygen, assuring their death. 

In another example, an older client disregarded my advice concerning the taxability of a transaction that had been completed by a highly experienced lawyer, who happened to be male. The client disregarded my advice to seek a rectification of the transaction and ultimately incurred an additional six-figure income tax liability, which was easily avoidable. I strongly believe that my advice was not taken seriously due to my gender.

In yet another example, I helped resolve a drawn out estate dispute after several other lawyers had tried and failed to resolve it. Although I was successful, my client remained doubtful along the way on the basis that an opposing family member would never accept the guidance of a female lawyer. On several occasions, the client intentionally took actions opposite to my instructions, harming the progress of the resolution and causing me to look dishonourable to the other parties involved. I had to warn the client that I would be unable to continue to represent them if they continued to act contrary to my advice.