How I Made It

Nasha Nijhawan, Lawyer

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Nasha Nijhawan headshot

(Photo: NxN Photography)

Nasha Nijhawan; Halifax; @nmbarristers

Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

My partner Kelly and I run a two-woman boutique litigation law firm in Halifax, Nijhawan McMillan Barristers, which we started in January 2016. We identify strongly as feminists both in our lives and in our practice, and so we have a special interest in litigation advancing equality rights for women, and try to always have one project on the go in that area.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

Nasha graduated from Dalhousie Law School, where she was awarded the Muriel Duckworth Award for raising consciousness of feminism in the legal community. Before law school she earned an honours bachelor of science degree from the University of Toronto.

Kelly earned her common law and civil law degrees at McGill, where she graduated with the Elizabeth Torrance Gold Medal. Before studying law, she received a bachelor of social sciences in international development from the University of Ottawa.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

Nasha worked for a litigation boutique firm in Toronto for several years. Kelly completed a one-year judicial clerkship for Justice Anne Mactavish of the Federal Court in Ottawa.

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

While we were associates at another firm in Halifax, we got involved in a pro bono project with a group of reproductive rights activists trying to challenge the PEI government’s long-standing (since 1982!) policy not to provide abortions on the Island. When we opened our own firm, a legal challenge to the policy was our first case. We were thrilled when the government decided to change their policy in the face of our threatened litigation, and so proud when the first abortion clinic on PEI opened its doors in January 2017 and performed the first procedure in 35 years. We consider it our big break because it is the case that brought us together as a team and showed us how complementary our personal and professional strengths were. It also was proof that we could join our activist goals with our professional ones.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

We definitely felt proud to make it through our first year, and every month we gain confidence that we made the right decision to strike out on our own!

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date? How did you bounce back?

At various points over the years, in different workplaces and for different reasons, we both struggled with whether private practice was the right thing. It’s not unusual for female associates to leave litigation in their first five years of practice. It’s a hard thing to do for a living, especially if you have a young family (or any interest in work-life balance!). We are both proud to have stuck through the hard times and figured out ways to make this profession work for us, because we love what we do.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

Working hard and pushing against your comfort zone always pays off.

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

To do something, or to keep doing something, that you know isn’t right for you.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

One major challenge in litigation is the perception that traditional male aggressiveness is a virtue. This is a double-edged sword: assertive women are not rewarded in the same way as men who display the same behaviour, and women who use other effective approaches in advocacy are not always recognized for their skills. We have experienced both sides of that. But we like to think that being underestimated can be a good thing (it’s certainly sometimes fun).

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it?

That’s a tricky question, since there are so many reasons that legal work can be unpaid or underpaid, including because we choose to do pro bono or legal aid work. We are certainly lucky to make a living doing something we love, taking on cases we believe in, working for ourselves and still making a good income.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

That work-life balance is important to us (as if that’s a bad thing). And that our generation doesn’t know how to work hard.

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