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Sex & Low Beach
Margaret Canby graduated from Barnard College in 1984 and New York University School of Law in 1990. With her passion and love for the city, she has worked on hundreds of matrimonial cases in the city’s courts and was recently honored by Sanctuary for Families, a non-profit dedicated to assisting the victims of abuse and their families, for Excellence in Pro Bono Advocacy, along with her colleague Jeremy Reiss. Melanie Jones and Canby discuss matrimonial law, women’s place in the courts, and how it’s all changing.
Have you worked with Sanctuary for Families in the past? Exactly how much pro bono work do you do?
I began working for Sanctuary for Families by taking over another attorney’s representation of someone ... which was very rewarding. I really enjoyed doing something out of my general practice area—I felt like a young lawyer again, feeling my way along and hoping that what I was preparing and submitting was the best it could be, given the very serious consequences that were at stake. I am now involved in a very contentious and complex divorce/custody case for Sanctuary which has spanned two years. I imagine that I will always have one pro bono case pending, and the total number depends on how quickly they can be resolved. It is always my hope to get these things wrapped up as quickly as possible and let people transition to their new lives.
Your focus is largely matrimonial law. Why did you choose this specialty?
I was a legal services attorney right out of law school ... for municipal employees. There were openings in housing and family law. I was very interested in human interest legal issues, and being a good matrimonial lawyer requires being somewhat of a busybody, which—I certainly am having opinions about how people should run their lives, as well as a very pronounced interest in the vagaries of human nature. So family law spanned more of those interests for me. I consider myself a bit of a life coach, helping people through what is certainly one of the major traumas of their lives. That is both challenging and rewarding. Though clients may hope never to have to see me again after the end of their cases, nevertheless, I do make friends along the way—despite how much trust and intimacy is involved.
How has the specialty changed since you became involved?
I think that there is a revolution in father’s rights, in terms of there no longer being an assumption that just because they may not have been the primarily “hands on” parent up to the point of the split, they can’t do it prospectively on their own. In the past, divorcing fathers got very little time with young children, and almost none with infants—that has changed. There is also much less “alimony” awarded as the law wrestles with the idea of whether or not a woman can become economically independent and self-supporting after a divorce or approximate the marital standard of living. ... The idea of one party being at fault can lead to the notion that the “wronged” spouse needs to be made whole economically to some extent. ... There was also a presumption of 50/50 division of assets for a while, which has now turned back around to a view that spouses can be professionally and economically independent of each other and don’t necessarily have to share everything 50/50 with their spouses. ...
One new development is that e-mail, text messages, and Web postings are coming into evidence, and the explosion of e-mail exchanges lets lawyers prove who said what with much greater ease. It is truly a place where people hang themselves. Free legal advice: If you are going to be impulsive or reactive, it’s best not to do so in writing.
Law, like medicine and advertising, used to be a de facto men’s club. Is it still like this? Are there certain hurdles that a female lawyer has to overcome, that a male lawyer wouldn’t?
The law schools are pouring out female graduates—in some cases, in greater numbers than male graduates. Yet there are still very few women at the top. There are clusters of women practitioners in areas like mine, though these areas are generally not represented in big firms. In either setting, but especially in big firms, women need good luck, talent, and the support from powerful mentors in equal measure to succeed. I’m not sure if men need quite as much good luck.
Why did you decide to go to Barnard? Did your time there significantly affect the field you decided to go into, or were you always planning to be a lawyer?
I was a women’s studies major, a fantastic multidisciplinary major that infused me with a critical thinking approach to life, work, relationships—as well as a hunger for up-to-date information in many different fields and disciplines. I suppose it was inevitable that I would go into the law, having been surrounded by that manner of thinking growing up, but I didn’t decide until late in the day, mostly to keep being able to go to school, wrestle with big ideas, and enjoy a student lifestyle in New York City.
You graduated from Barnard in 1984, a year after Columbia University became coeducational. What was the atmosphere like on Barnard’s campus? How did you and other students feel about Columbia’s decision and Barnard’s choice to remain a quasi-independent women’s college?
I and my women’s studies peers were very happy with Barnard’s decision, and I think it remains one of the premier places to get an education in the country. This is particularly true for women students—some of whom can still get overrun in other big co-ed institutions—but also for the intimate approach that it affords to Barnard students and the men and women from across the street. We all took our share of the great offerings at Columbia during our time at Barnard, and I even took some of Columbia’s Core Curriculum as a freshman, which has stood me in good stead. But my ability to think deeply was forged in small seminars, one-on-one reviews with my professors, and late at night over my typewriter at Barnard or in its dorms. I view the decision in 1983 as win/win, for Columbia College and Barnard, though there was tension at the time in some Barnard students choosing to transfer and graduate from Columbia College instead of Barnard. I put that down to growing pains: Women do not all have to be in lock step, and one size certainly does not fit all. But my heart belongs to Barnard as an all-women’s institution.
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