Fifty-Five years ago, I graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School. You’re probably asking yourselves, what does someone who graduated fifty-five years ago have to tell me that’s relevant to my life today? I asked myself the same question. After a lot of soul-searching, I realized that there are three life lessons that guided my career path that might be of interest and helpful to you.
Lesson #1: Don’t let others define who you are or what you can do in life; you, and no one else, should define what you can be and do.
Let me share with you how I learned this early on in my career.
When I received my law degree in 1967, I was one of only six women in my graduating class of 160. I had to find an articling job in order to be called to the Bar and to practice law. I applied to the 7 largest law firms in Toronto and 3 agreed to interview me. I had sprained my ankle, was on crutches and hobbled into my first interview. The man interviewing me suggested that instead of working at their firm, “I should go on a cruise, find myself a husband and get married.” After I recovered from my astonishment, I said, “I didn’t go to law school to abandon my career before I’ve started it.” Then I left.
As I hobbled down Bay Street to my next interview, I realized that the interviewer assumed that I came from a privileged background and was a dilettante. The fact was, my parents were persons of extremely modest means; we had no hot running water or flush toilet in our home in Spiritwood, a small community of 750 people in Northern Saskatchewan. Because student loans were not widely available at the time, my parents had staked a good portion of their life savings on me to allow me to pursue this uncertain career choice for a woman at that time and were counting on me to pay them back. My challenge was to convince people that I wasn’t just a cute curiosity.
At the second law firm, before the interview got going, I said with some emotion, “I just want you to know that I’ve spent 5 years going to university getting a combined BA-LLB; I intend to practice and to use my law degree.” That was the firm that ended up offering me an articling job. I accepted and it was a good place to transition from student to practitioner because it gave me practical exposure to many different areas of law.
1967 was a major transition year for me in another respect. My status changed to that of a married woman when I married my law school sweetheart, Bobby. He had promised his father that he would return to practice law in Thunder Bay and I went with him. The firm’s plan for me was to take over their Wills and Estates practice that was really run by Miss King, an elderly secretarial assistant, who, although highly regarded, was about to retire. I was willing to learn from anyone who could teach me but I didn’t want to be restricted to doing the routine, almost administrative, kind of work that an estate practice can involve.
Because I was the only woman practicing law in all of Northwestern Ontario at the time, my arrival was considered newsworthy and the Fort William Times Journal ran a picture of me under the headline “Portia in a Mini-Skirt.” (Portia is a woman who disguises herself as a man, assumes the role of a lawyer and becomes the heroine in Shakespeare’s, Merchant of Venice so I thought the comparison was generally flattering.)
The novelty of a woman lawyer in the North opened up an unforeseen opportunity for me. Men in the process of separating chose me to represent them because they thought it would be to their advantage to have a woman acting for them; women started to call me because they felt more comfortable talking about matrimonial issues with a woman. I decided to accept their cases with the result that I expanded into a new area of practice, family law. To wrap up lesson 1 for today, use whatever is unique or special about you to help you define your career.