These three women will make you regret every lawyer joke you ever told

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Lawyers take on international criminals, sexual violence in conflict zones, Indigenous rights

Every year, as International Women's Day rolls around again, organizations puzzle over how to mark the event.

For 2014, Google's animated doodle will show an 80-second video showing more than 100 women from around the world  from Malala Yousafzai to Dora the Explorer  offering "Happy International Women's Day" in a variety of languages.

The United Nations has assembled an array of dignitaries including Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, John W. Ashe, President of the UN General Assembly and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former United States Secretary of State. 

Across the University of Toronto, the week leading up to March 8 has seen a number of events including a celebration of First Nations women and a look back at the milestones for women in sport and physical education at the university.

U of T News is pleased to share an article from the Faculty of Law that takes a look at three graduates who are inspiring change in the world with their remarkable careers: Danika Billie Littlechild, Karen Naimer and Fabia Wong.

For Danika Billie Littlechild, a regular workday can easily begin in a hotel room far from her Alberta home, sometimes at the crack of dawn. Littlechild, who is Cree from the Ermineskin Cree Nation, became the first woman lawyer from her nation when she graduated law school in 2000. Since then, she has crisscrossed the globe as a champion of Indigenous rights, and an expert consultant in the laws that affect First Nations people.

Littlechild, 39, grew up on the reserve in Maskwacis, formerly Hobbema, some 70 kilometres south of Edmonton. Her parents were survivors of residential schools and while her mother pursued a career as an artist, her late father spent much of his life working to promote his and other First Nations.

Littlechild drew her much of her inspiration from her parents and from her uncle, Wilton Littlechild, who in 1974 became the first Indigenous person from Treaty No. 6 to earn a law degree. He went on to serve in Parliament and has spent much of his life tirelessly promoting and advocating for Indigenous peoples around the world.

"When I was growing up, I saw the trajectory of his career," his niece says. “I saw him and people like him being such strong advocates for our treaty relationship and our treaty rights."

(Photo below: Littlechild's grandmother, Justine Littlechild, with her father Chief  Dan Minde; image courtesy Ermineskin Cree Nation)

photo of Littlechild's grandmother with her father, Chief Dan MindeLittlechild also saw something else. Her people were having to quickly adapt to a new way of life and a new reality but were overwhelmed by rules and regulations that were cumbersome and often foreign to them. She decided to pursue a law degree as well, to figure out how to navigate the complex puzzle that governs her life and the lives of everyone in her immediate and extended community.

"Our lives are so entirely regulated, it's quite unbelievable," Littlechild says. "If Canadians could understand how regulated our daily lives are I think they'd be quite shocked."

Today, she divides her time between her solo practice in Maskwacis and an avalanche of external commitments and responsibilities.

"I'd have to say that one of my most active areas of work has been around governance," Littlechild says. "I've tried to be as creative and innovative as possible to really allow Indigenous people to fully express their identity."

Littlechild also acts as consulting legal counsel for the International Indian Treaty Council and works with a host of First Nations and Indigenous organizations, representing them and their causes at the United Nations and other international forums. She is the deputy vice-chair of the board of the North South Institute, and has developed a special interest in all matters relating to water and its spiritual and material roles in the lives of Indigenous peoples. It's a full and demanding life, but Littlechild is clearly up to the challenge.

"I'm very pleased and privileged that over the course of my career I've been able to work so extensively with Indigenous peoples on such a wide variety of issues," she says. "I'm so appreciative of everything I've learned."

In addition to her conventional job description, it's tempting to add magician to Karen Naimer's resume. The 40-year-old lawyer and human rights trailblazer is also a married mother of two young children, and spends more than a third of every year traveling overseas from her Boston home to run programs and meet with funders in Africa and Europe. Since 2011, Naimer has worked for U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights, as founder and director of its program on sexual violence in conflict zones.

Along the way, the Montreal native earned an LLM and taught at New York University, clerked for the president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, worked as an associate at a New York law firm, and served as deputy counsel at the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United National Oil-For-Food Programme, also known as the Volcker Commission. During that time, Naimer played a key role in collecting evidence and uncovering an intricate web of corruption and deceit among officials and contractors involved in the $64-billion program, administered in Iraq.

It's a breathtaking career path that Naimer says she carved with no blueprint to follow.

"I was very interested in international criminal law (at law school) but that didn't really exist at the time," she says. "As I was emerging as a young professional, so was the realm of law that I was interested in."

So new was the field, that U of T only offered its first course in international criminal law at the start of Naimer's second year as a law student.

"There was no jurisprudence to teach us," she remembers. "The Yugoslavia tribunal existed but barely had a case come out of it. That December, the Rwanda tribunal issued its first major decision."

Today, Naimer runs a burgeoning program that brings together doctors, nurses, lawyers, police and judges in East and Central Africa and Syria, teaching them how to work together in local and international cases involving sexual violence. She and her staff train participants on the best and most effective ways of collecting, documenting and preserving evidence to support successful prosecutions.They've even piloted a mobile application to help clinicians perform these tasks more efficiently. While she doesn't have any formal data yet on whether the program has led to a higher conviction rate, she is firmly convinced of its initial success.

"What we have done already is we've changed the way doctors, nurses, police, lawyers and judges work together and respect each other," Naimer says. "This ultimately helps survivors who dare to come forward and seek justice through the formal legal systems in their countries."

Naimer has also accomplished something personal, but just as important: She has proven to herself and others that you don't need a map in order to find your way.

"Follow what's really interesting to you," she urges current and prospective law students. "Because even if it doesn't exist yet, the world is changing quickly. We have to open up our minds and imaginations to think about all the different possibilities."

Fabia Wong is a long way from the Toronto suburb of Scarborough where she grew up. The daughter of Hong Kong immigrants, Wong has been living in the Netherlands since 2011 with the Dutch husband she met in Canada. It's an international life that seemed to sprout organically from her open-eyed upbringing in a household that Wong describes as very socially conscious.

"My decision to go to law school was influenced by my father," she says. "He was involved in community activism, in particular race relations. He was a big inspiration for me to pursue a career in law."

Fuelled by an interest in social justice and equality, Wong was drawn to the law school by its International Human Rights Program. And after four years as a commercial litigator in Toronto, she decided to follow her husband back to the Netherlands and pursue her own aspirations in international law.

She began working as an unpaid intern at the Special Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia based in the Hague and soon after joined the prosecution in the trial of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. For the past year and a half, Wong has been attached to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon where she is involved in another notorious case: the 2005 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon that killed the country's former prime minister along with 22 others, and injured hundreds of Lebanese. The five accused have absconded. They're being tried in absentia.

"A law degree is an incredibly empowering tool that you can use to pursue any number of different careers," Wong says. "That's what I took most from my experience at U of T. And while it might seem at times that there is pressure to pursue a particular career path, there really is no limit."

Now 31, Wong hopes to carve out her own path in international criminal law or humanitarian law, using the skills and experience she's acquiring now and also drawing on her training at U of T and as a commercial litigator.

"Get your litigation skills domestically first," she advises current law students who aim for international careers.  "It's a great foundation. It teaches you what you need to know about prosecuting extremely complex cases."

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