VANCOUVER -- More than two dozen young lawyers and articling students are urging the Canadian Bar Association to cancel a Vancouver-based seminar focussed on how women dress in the legal profession, but the group has rejected that request.

Titled “Empowerment Through Presentation: Dressing with More Intention," the online seminar’s speakers include a lawyer who started a fashion line, a celebrity stylist, and a class action lawyer who represented several women in a landmark sexual harassment case against the RCMP. 

“We understand that personal appearances are an important component of public-facing professions, and would not object if the CBA felt it important to hold an inclusive 'Dress for Success' event for all law students and young lawyers who are new to the legal profession,” reads a letter dated Apr. 9 and signed by 30 professionals in the legal field. “If needed, the CBA could also hold such an event for the legal profession at large. However, presenting to only women in the legal profession on how to dress is not only inappropriate, but also damaging."

The letter, which was obtained by CTV News Vancouver, goes on to suggest hosting such an event "perpetuates a harmful binary that 'women' will be interested in creating a 'distinctly female voice' through style."

One of the signatories emphasized how important it is that women speak up on this issue.

“The last thing female lawyers need is another conversation on what we should be wearing,” said Christie McLeod, an articled student at Miller Thompson LLP and co-author of the letter. “We need to rise up against these harmful ideas—instead of perpetuating them—and focus on the real problems that lead to us earning less pay and having less power than our male colleagues.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, the Canadian Bar Association acknowledged the letter, which was arranged through the Women Lawyer's Forum. Rose Keith, chair of the forum, first responded to concerns in an online post where she doubled-down on the event, insisting it addressed a significant issue for new lawyers.

CTV News has reached out to the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association for comment on the seminar, which was arranged through the Women Lawyer's Forum. Rose Keith, chair of the Women Lawyer's Forum, has since responded to concerns by doubling down on the event in an online post.

"Younger members often ask their mentors about what they should wear in this conservative profession," wrote Rose Keith, who also pointed to other events and seminars focussed on feminist issues and career advancement. "It is also true that there are many issues of interest to WLF members and we don't all have the same interests or weigh them as equally important. WLF has provided, and will continue to provide a broad range of programming."

The seminar will continue as planned on Wednesday, Apr. 14 with 100 members expected to attend.

Keith spoke with CTV News on the matter in detail, insisting that the event wasn't gender specific and more geared toward helping students transition from an academic environment, to a professional one with its inherent compexities.

“This isn’t a session about what to wear, that’s not what it is ever intended to be, and it’s very clear for our members navigating this they're trying to determine 'how do I keep my personality and creativity and carry it into this really conservative profession?" said the longtime workplace lawyer and QC.

"This was never meant to be 'wear a black suit, wear a white shirt,' -- it’s not meant to be that kind of talk. It’s a talk about how to be intentional about carrying your personality forward and the reason we’re doing is because it’s really clear for young lawyers and our membership it’s an issue and it’s something they want help with.”

A generational divide?

“Your personal style is a powerful form of self-expression. You can use it to present yourself with confidence and authority,” reads the event description. “Do you need to dress how people expect a lawyer should dress, or is there room for more self-expression?”

The letter calling for the cancellation of the event is signed by associates, consultants and articling students from a number of firms and includes men and non-binary legal professionals among the 30 named signatories.

“By planning and promoting an event that draws further attention to how women dress in the legal profession, we feel that the WLF contributes to the age-old and patriarchal idea that such matters are a necessary and pivotal variable for professional success in our profession,” write the signatories, who cite systemic barriers for women in the legal industry as well as the wage gap that they allege sees their male colleagues still being paid more for similar positions and performance.

"The (Women Lawyers Forum) is pretending to be progressive in all of these ways but an event like this isn’t actually progressive," insisted letter co-author Shawnee Monchalin. "It is still within the construct of a patriarchal society that says we have to care about our looks and that is detrimental to how we succeed in the legal profession.”

Even veterans voice frustrations

While the letter's signatories are early on in their careers, whether students or novice lawyers, CTV News has been contacted by several experienced lawyers who voiced similar frustrations with the event and its description.

“I’m extremely disappointed by this, I think it sends a very harmful and damaging message, particularly for young women starting out in the legal profession,” said Sarah Leamon, who established her own firm and the Women's Association of Criminal Lawyers in B.C.

"It’s marketed specifically to women and it kind of sends the message that women are the only people who are going to be held to a particular standard with respect to their appearance and have to put extra effort into looking in a presentable manner.”

Several lawyers noted that the expectation of what's respectable can vary with the area of law they practice and the setting: a boardroom meeting with a technology company might vary considerably from expectations in a courtroom. The expectations for both men and women, and those who identify as non-binary, can be a landmine for young workers to navigate.

The letter-writers in particular note that with limited seminars available, they would've preferred more time be spent on other issues.

“It is particularly disheartening that WLF has chosen for its Education Committee event to focus on fashion instead of educating female lawyers about navigating structural and leadership problems,” it goes on to say. “WLF’s ability to make meaningful change in the lives of women in the legal profession is diminished when resources are instead used to drive the conversation about fashion rather than meaningful support.”

Not an 'either or' scenario

There is a general consensus, however, that a lawyer doesn't have to choose style over substance, and that they can even use sartorial choices to make a statement.

Keith referenced high-profile lawyer Marie Henein's sharp style and keen legal mind go hand in hand. 

"I bet you she does it intentionally," said Keith. "She just exudes power."

Leamon cautioned clients and observers to avoid equating a lawyer's style with their abilities.

"At the end of the day it’s ok to be interested in fashion, but I just think it’s harmful for us to link that interest to any particular sex or gender role," she said. "It’s even more harmful to link it somehow to job performance or your value in the workplace, particularly if you’re a woman.”