What do you think of when you hear “head of litigation” at one of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies? Do you think of an intelligent, capable, personable lawyer with excellent people and time-management skills? Yes? Now, what does that lawyer look like? Thankfully, in 2023 that lawyer looks like a tall, striking woman of colour who revels in the complexities of the law, admits to being a “pretty nerdy adolescent,” and thought she would be a doctor or psychologist when she grew up.
Meet Kristina Milbourn. While her father prosecuted polluters as a lawyer for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, she dreamed of science. She studied psychology, biology and chemistry in her undergraduate degree, and discovered her aptitude for the law in her last year of university. “I knew I would excel in a profession that prized book smarts and intellect. My father began nudging me toward a career in law and helped me see how my STEM background could easily be applied to intellectual property law as a speciality.”
With that in mind, Kristina attended Western Law, then articled and began her career as an associate at a full-service Bay Street law firm. She litigated pharmaceutical and agricultural patents and then shifted to a practice focused on copyright, internet and technology law. “I got really great experience early on,” she says, “but looking back, I would say the early years were stressful, and I found the politics of firm life challenging. I knew I wanted to give myself the best possible start for my legal career, so I pushed myself to persist.”
Practicing on Bay Street as a female lawyer of colour was not easy though. “As proud as I was to be practicing on Bay Street, I always felt a bit conspicuous and vulnerable as a visible minority. Finding good mentors and allies helped manage some of those challenges.” When asked about the importance of those mentors and allies, Kristina says understanding is helpful, but representation is key. “Now that I have progressed in my career, I make a point to offer mentorship to others, including BIPOC lawyers, as a way to impart my limited wisdom and let them know I understand the struggle.”
Kristina leads by example, spearheading many of her company’s equity, diversity and inclusion efforts. “The social justice movements we saw in 2020 really impacted me – and though reluctant, I felt like I could lead in some way on these issues locally.” She notes that, given her position, she is uniquely placed to not only be the change she wishes she had seen, but also to help others see the changes they can help make too. She advocated at her company for the creation of a formal student program to support Law Practice Program participants, with a view “to giving learning opportunities to Black and Indigenous licensees, and licensees of colour, who we know face more challenges in landing articling roles.” The focus is on strong training and fostering connections to more senior lawyers in different areas of practice that interest the students. “We’re in our third year offering the program now, and I’m really proud of it.”
For Kristina, being in-house at a major telecom company, which impacts the lives of Canadians across the country and from every walk of life, feels like an important and worthy pursuit. “Working for a large conglomerate, you encounter as many legal issues as you would in private practice,” she notes. “The variety is incredible!” She feels lucky to work with her colleagues too. “Our legal department is not unlike working in a law firm – there are so many centres of excellence, and practitioners with specific expertise. I’m always in good company.” And of course, she exclaims with joy, “there’s no docketing! That’s the single best thing in my view!”
As part of her in-house role, she notes that every day is different, and that there, too, she has found good sponsors and strong teams. Kristina observes, “I really feel invested in the outcomes of my projects and take full ownership of my files.” And she has the room to innovate even within her corporate environment. “I created a Piracy Lab space within the company to easily demonstrate new infringing technologies to external and internal stakeholders.” Because she is in it for the long run, and because there is always something to learn, “I try not to delegate work I’m being asked to do for the first time because I recognize the learning opportunity inherent in being asked to do the work.”
And if her day job was not busy enough, Kristina still finds time to give back – to Western Law’s Young Alumni Advisory Council (which she helped found), Toronto Metropolitan University’s law and business advisory council, and the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada committees. “Volunteering with these organizations is how I express my gratitude for being a contributing member of the profession.” She notes that the student-facing work is particularly energizing, because “when I interface with students, I remember how far I’ve come, and how fortuitous my journey has been.”
Recently, Kristina completed her LLM at Columbia Law School, where she was in the top of her class. She followed that by being asked to take over a larger portfolio at work, in part because she had managed several successful litigation proceedings. “I think the company thought I could be effective in defending against our commercial claims, based on how successfully I enforced our intellectual property rights through litigation. It’s been great to work with a larger team and manage more people.” She notes that she would give her younger self and young lawyers entering the profession the same advice. “Keep going. There is a place for you in this profession. Your career may not look exactly like those who came before you or those around you, and the first few years are tough. But it will get easier, and you will write your own story.” After all, if you do not quite fit the mould, you can always build your own. And that’s what she’s done.
About the author
Amrita V. Singh is a partner at Marks & Clerk Canada, where she is co-head of the Litigation practice group. She is also chair of the OBA’s Equality Committee, and a member of OBA’s Board and on Council.