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Presser authors chapter in book about women in criminal justice

Toronto criminal lawyer Jill Presser says young females should be fully informed before following her into the tough but rewarding practice area.

Presser, principal of Presser Barristers, contributed to the recently released book Women in Criminal Justice: True Cases By and About Canadian Women and the Law, and used her chapter, entitled "Mom’s Rea: Motherhood, Criminal Defence, and Guilt," to tell a story about the competing personal and professional demands at play during one of her most significant cases.

“Some reading the chapter might find it discouraging, but that was not my intention. I feel like young women in law should know what they’re getting themselves into when they make the choice to go into criminal law,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“The answer is they are choosing something truly great, but also something very hard.”

A recent study commissioned by the Criminal Lawyers’ Association uncovered an extraordinary attrition rate for women in the field, finding they were 10 times more likely to leave the practice for government jobs.

“I wanted to be a criminal defence lawyer to fight for the underdog, be a litigator, and protect due process and the Charter, but I didn’t know what it was going to be like in terms of having a life and being someone’s life partner and mother,” Presser says. 

“I think it’s also important on a systemic level for judges to understand what women who appear before them are contending with all the time, and what it costs us as mothers and primary caregivers to remain as criminal defence lawyers,” she adds.

Presser’s chapter in the book discusses the acute case of “mommy guilt” she suffered while preparing the appeal of an HIV-positive man convicted of three counts of aggravated assault, who she believed was innocent.

She wanted to win the case, not only for her client, but “for all LGBTQ+ Canadians, and for my own child,” who identifies as queer, Presser writes. However, the case coincided with the breakup of her daughter’s first major relationship.  

“How could I prepare for my appeal and mother my hurting child properly at the same time? I struggled with massive pangs of guilt,” Presser writes, before recalling other moments when her professional and personal responsibilities have clashed during a distinguished career at the bar.

“The way it works, unfortunately, is that women usually shoulder the lion’s share of the childcare, and you end up in a catch-22 situation. My husband makes more than I do, so it makes sense for me to be the frontline parent, but then I’m limiting my ability to earn more because I’m spending more time at home,” she says.

“Legal aid is part of the problem. Funding is so poor and the margins are so slim that it interferes with your ability to make a decent living. You have to do a volume that is just punishing and ultimately incompatible with family life.”

Presser says that it was painful but “cathartic” to share her story in the book.

“People who have read it have thanked me for telling it,” she says. “I feel like I wrote it for colleagues with similar life experiences who haven't had an opportunity to tell theirs.”

But she says she couldn’t have done it without the people at the heart of the story — both of her daughters and her client, who ultimately won his appeal for a new trial. The Crown then opted not to prosecute a second time.

“It was really special that he was so willing to let me wrap my story around his,” she says. “From my daughters' perspectives too, it was also very generous and moving that they allowed me to tell the world about what it meant growing up as the children of a criminal defence lawyer.

“That’s part of why it means so much,” Presser adds.

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