Darlene Tonelli founded Inter Alia Law seven years ago. The boutique firm specializes in tech, media and entertainment law. She also co-hosts Lawyer Life Podcast, which explores the personal, political and professional lives of lawyers. We spoke with Tonelli about her journey into law and feminism.
LiisBeth: How did you get into law?
I grew up in a small town, and am the first kid in my extended family of many, many, many, people to go to law school or any kind of professional school. I was a figure skater in my youth, which was a good training ground for competition; individual sports helped shape my discipline and sort of going after things that I was interested in doing. I went through political science at the University of Calgary (1994-1998), and most of my work there [was] on feminist issues. I wrote almost every single paper on the looming dangers of pornography to women and the movement. It wasn’t a very popular position at the time, but I certainly wish I had kept working on it because it’s now an epidemic. But it wasn’t clear then what a big thing it was going to become. When I went to law school, I just took a big corporate job to pay off my student debt.
LiisBeth: How did you come to create your own law firm?
I did work in a traditional law firm setting for two summers and three years. It wasn’t a structure that made sense to me for the things that I wanted to have in my life. I wanted freedom over my time—I didn’t mind working long hours, but I didn’t want to be in a position where I couldn’t call my own schedule for like 10 to 15 years, which is the model and how it works. I was also lucky to get on a file early on that was really on the wrong side of my principles. Working for a big corporate law firm, I would not be able to honour my own values all the time. You have to work on what you’re given, and that that wasn’t something that I was cool with.
I transitioned through [working] in house at a record label, which I loved. Through that experience, I realized that [I didn’t want to] work for these big organisations where I was just a cog in the wheel. [I wanted] to create my own organisation where I could really shape the culture, the people, the projects that we took on, the approach that we take. So when I started Inter Alia law, I was really just trying to make a law firm that I wanted to work at.
There are now 10 of us, and we focus very much on creating a real sustainable life of authenticity. We focus on giving clients a level of service that comes from empathy and emotional intelligence to get better results for them.
LiisBeth: What are some of the gaps in Canadian law that you’re trying to fill?
I think there are a couple of big issues in law, and we’re addressing two of them. One is the cost of legal services, which is very, very high. There are statistics, something like 80 per cent of people who need access to lawyers don’t have it for financial or other reasons, so we try to make our services pretty accessible.
We’re also very affordable in a range of other things, which is facilitated by the type of model we run, which is a low overhead where everyone has a predictable share of revenues. So a normal model is a partnership where you buy in and you get to work your way up the ranks, and the higher up you are, the more business you bring in, the more money you make. We definitely reward in our model; for example, high performance is something that’s rewarded, but we don’t set it up so that, if you’re not a partner, the way you make money is by oppressing other people. That’s a very standard feature of the current legal landscape.
The second thing is we’re very focused on taking an educational approach with our clients. So, we don’t talk to them like they don’t know what they’re doing and we’re the gurus; we talk to them about what their needs are, what they would like to see out of a situation. And we try to get to know them as people, to help them get a better result that actually fits with what they need. We’re sensitive to what they need in a way that I think is increasingly important, but I don’t think is yet the norm.
LiisBeth: How do you embed feminist practices in the work you’re doing?
I would say it’s not been by design, it’s been more by accident. We don’t, for example, define ourselves as a feminist law firm. We are five men, five women, very gender balanced. But I would say we have real allies on the team for feminism, who really support a different way of doing things and understand the challenges that we experience.
And as far as influences, just to give a little bit of a shout out to some of the stuff that LiisBeth publisher PK Mutch and feminist author CV Harquail are doing, in educating women about being part of a bigger ecosystem of entrepreneurs. I built Inter Alia on my own and then I encountered CV and PK maybe a year ago and I thought, ‘Oh, [Inter Alia] is a feminist business.’ I didn’t realize that prior to meeting them. I think there are a lot of us out here doing what we do, just understanding that things are still quite oppressive in the workforce for a lot of people. And I think that the women who are building businesses from scratch are taking a really different approach—it might not be the one that you read about a lot in the press, but we’re out here.
I also think the general feedback that you get from people in traditional business models is that feminist business is not about profit maximizing. My answer is that feminist business is profitable, but not to the exclusion of people. I don’t want to make my profit by hurting other people, and I think that a lot of women share that approach.
If we want to create a gender and eco-just inclusive world, we need to be able to grow sustainable social enterprises. Supporting startup co-operatives are part of the answer. Are today’s startup ecosystems up to the task?