Amanda Fowler on how she balances her sports law practice and legal role at Aviva Canada

Fowler will speak about empowering women in law at the Women in Law Summit in April
Amanda Fowler on how she balances her sports law practice and legal role at Aviva Canada

Photo: Amanda Fowler

Amanda Fowler is a sports lawyer and corporate counsel at Aviva Canada. For our CL Talk podcast, she spoke to us about balancing a sports law practice with her in-house role at Aviva, overcoming barriers in male-dominated fields, the importance of self-advocacy, and advice to young lawyers.

Fowler will also be appearing at Canadian Lawyer’s upcoming Women in Law Summit in Toronto in April, where she will speak about strategies to empower women in law and how they can take charge of their career path.

Listen to our full podcast episode here:

You can also find this episode on our CL Talk podcast homepage with links to follow CL Talk in all the major podcast providers.

Below is a summary of the conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Tell me about your role at Aviva Canada, your sports law practice, and how you designed a career with both elements.

They developed simultaneously and without much intent. I knew I wanted to have a sports law practice, and when I started my career, I would work on some pro bono cases alongside my regular job. Over time, I developed my sport law practice, and now they exist in tandem.

For my role at Aviva, I started in the litigation department in what is called Aviva Trial Lawyers. I then migrated into the corporate law department. Credit to Aviva, they've allowed me to have my sports practice for the entire time.

How have you navigated and overcome traditional barriers and biases in these male-dominated fields?

The examples of gender bias that I've experienced aren't as common as I've carried on in my law career, which is nice. But I did notice it often at the beginning of my career.

I was subjected to workplace harassment at the time, and I think it happened frequently enough that I never really thought much of it. I honestly thought it was part of the practice. So, it didn't bother me much as I believe I normalized it, whether that was a good thing or not.

But as I progressed in my career, I noticed that that happened less. But occasionally, I am either perceived as too nice or told I'm too aggressive if I choose to take a hardline stance on something. Getting those labels can be frustrating because I don't see that with my male counterparts. I feel like I’m never enough in one category or the other.

But by and large, the law profession has been good to me. So, I have been lucky.

Tell me about a precedent-setting decision in sports law that you have worked on.

I recently represented a Gymnastics Canada athlete in a safe sport matter. It was against her coach, Elvira Saadi. It was considered precedent setting because it's the first safe sport decision in Canada that provides a pretty serious sanction to a coach because of maltreatment that's not sexual. Sexual assault cases tend to get more attention.

Many sport organizations have been put on notice, and everyone is now paying attention. This has caused people to reflect more on how their organization is operating and the people they are hiring. I was proud of that decision, and representing that athlete was a pleasure.

Tell me about a mentor who significantly impacted your journey.

One that stands out is someone I've known since I was a law student, and I still consider a mentor, even though we are now colleagues. My law school professor, Dr. Emir Crowne, took a chance on me as a student and brought me into a sports law case. At that time, I had no experience with it; he was just generous enough to want to pass along some knowledge, bring me on board, and give me that exposure. Those types of opportunities in sport law don't come around every day. So, for him to be generous enough to do that was great.

Throughout our mentor-mentee relationship, he also taught me the importance of ethics, practising the right way, and always being respectful.

Self-advocacy is a powerful tool for career progression. How have you done that in your career?

One time I did this well was when I transitioned from the litigation to the corporate department at Aviva. When someone looks at it on a resume or LinkedIn, it doesn't look like much; it simply looks like I've made a transition, but a lot of work went into that.

At Aviva Trial Lawyers I was given exposure to other business areas. I used that opportunity to ask work in the corporate legal department because I wanted to expand my skill set and get more exposure to other areas of law.

Over two years, before I even moved over to the corporate legal department, I was building relationships there and doing piecemeal work. That transition occurred only because I advocated for myself. I made a pretty bold request and then made good on it by not squandering the opportunity. I maintained a relationship with the chief legal officer and did good work whenever possible.

When there is something that I want, I tend to advocate quite strongly for it, and I tend to pull away from opportunities when I realize that I'm not that interested.

In addition to your two practices, you also teach. How do you balance it all?

It does sound like a lot when people say it back to me. There are certainly busier times of the year. February to April is probably the busiest time of the year for me.

I try my best to set priorities ahead of time. It will either be a week or a month ahead. I try only to commit so much within a particular day or week. When that week or day is filled, I cap it off and don't take on anything more.

I think, for the most part, that has been working for me, but this is a work in progress. It is something that I struggle with on occasion. As much as I can be a high performer, every day is imperfect. I have days when I feel like my “balance is out of whack.”

Especially during busier times when something is going on at work, I always want to ensure I still have quality time with my family. Adjustments have been made since having my son because my priorities have shifted.

Work-life balance isn't necessarily always 50/50. But I think as long as you're feeling like you're getting fulfillment out of both sides of your life, then you're doing something right.

I don't think I can necessarily impose on someone to do it a certain way because, for me, it might work, and for them, it might work a little bit differently. So, grace is something I should also extend to others.

Saying no to ensure you have balance can be difficult. How did you navigate that?

I'm an eight-year call now, but I wouldn't say no to things when I first started. That is partly why I have this dual practice. I knew that building a sport practice was essential to me. And so, I wouldn't say no to opportunities, especially in sport, because they don't come around very often.

I think I'm in a different place in my career, where I feel I already have built this reputation. So, my priorities are shifting now that I have a family.

You teach sports law. What advice do you give young lawyers in that role?

I teach a sports law course at Western and the Sport Solution Clinic, supervising students working on legal matters from athletes.

I try to incorporate a practical element. In addition to teaching general negotiation and advocacy skills, the most important thing I try to teach students is how to be a good lawyer. I also teach them that reputation is everything. I remember at my call to the bar ceremony, there was a judge who said, “You'll spend your whole career building it up, and it only takes one thing to bring it all down.” That resonated with me. Acting ethically is essential.

I always want people to have an experience with me where they think I am a good person. I may have been a tough negotiator or a strong advocate, but I also respected the process and everyone involved.

How do you stay abreast of changes in the law in your roles?

At Aviva, we have quite a few lawyers in the corporate department, and I think we do an excellent job of sharing information. There are a few specialists in our department. We often attend CLEs together, so that's a great way to get updated on new legal concepts.

The Women in Law Summit is also a great place to learn how to evolve your practice, team, and culture.

How do you see the role of women in law changing, and what steps need to happen for true gender equality?

This is my personal view, not necessarily reflective of Aviva or Western.

There are a lot of women entering the profession, and there is essentially gender parity at the law school level, but I do notice that there are still a lot of men holding top leadership roles in firms and legal roles at companies.

What needs to change to have more women stay in the profession is flexible billing models and working hours. In my experience, COVID helped me balance many things because we were at home, and you had a lot more time to yourself and to do other things.

I would like to see an emphasis on lawyers who are also mothers getting into decision-making roles. Those types of women are essential to have at the table. I think the real issue is that women who have children are forced to make a choice sometimes between taking a lesser role in their career or adjusting their job in some way to accommodate this new element of their life.

Having more people who understand that and adjust within a firm or company and the legal profession, in general, will go a long way to retaining those women and influencing policy.