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Learning curve

Professional Profile
|Written By Vawn Himmelsbach
Learning curve
Ellen Desmond

Drawing a bow across the strings of a violin at the back of a children’s music class isn’t where you would expect to find the legal counsel for the New Brunswick Energy & Utilities Board. Aside from editing a provincial legal journal, being a lecturer, a member at large with the Canadian Bar Association, and being part of one of the largest energy stories in Canada — the Quebec/N.B. power deal — Ellen Desmond decided to take up the violin. 

It wasn’t a decision totally out of the blue, she found out her three children were learning it in school so decided to take up the instrument along with them. But Desmond isn’t only learning in music class; having a social justice background may seem like 180 degrees from energy law, so industry-based jargon was part of the learning curve when she moved into her role four years ago.

The energy board is an independent Crown agency established by the legislature to regulate the electricity, natural gas, and motor carrier industries and set maximum gasoline prices for the province. “I had no idea what energy law was when I first started private practice,” says Desmond. “It’s a small bar and we probably see the same eight or 10 counsel every time. For 95 per cent of the lawyers in New Brunswick, it’s just not something they’d have any familiarity with.” When Desmond went to law school, they didn’t teach an energy law course, but she always had an interest in litigation. “When I was a student I came from a social justice background and I got involved in a lot of litigation in private practice.”

In 1988, Desmond graduated from St. Thomas University in Fredericton, went on to Carleton University in Ottawa to earn her master’s in social work, and then started law school at the University of New Brunswick, finishing both her LLB and LLM around the same time. She articled at what is now Cox & Palmer and was called to the bar in 1993. And in the late 1990s she did another master’s in dispute resolution at Osgoode Hall Law School and got more involved in mediation and adjudication in private practice.

In 2000, the energy board brought Desmond on as outside counsel; she eventually became lead counsel for natural gas. In the 1990s, the board was small, but it expanded in the mid-2000s as did the issues to resolve. Ultimately the organization decided it didn’t make sense to have outside counsel and hired Desmond as in-house. “I wasn’t on the energy law track, so to speak,” says Desmond. But her experience working with the board in private practice opened up an opportunity. “You decide to take that opportunity or stay on another track, and it’s a risk because you don’t really know what you’re getting into or if you’re going to like it.” Having been at the board since 2006, she knows she made the right decision.

Desmond is the only lawyer on staff. While there are lawyers on the board itself, they’re involved as panel members and decision makers, so it’s her job to provide advice and counsel on any issues being put before the board. The Quebec/N.B. power deal, for example, has been a huge issue in Eastern Canada. “We have a role in electricity and we’re waiting to see what the government does by way of legislation and how it’s going to be changed or adapted.”

The board deals with a lot of technical information and that learning curve has been the greatest challenge of the job. Desmond works with three or four advisers who have become experts in their fields; there’s one on electricity, for example, who is familiar with the language and issues such as load factor. “Really trying to wrap your mind around some of those concepts has been challenging,” Desmond says. But it’s also what she likes best about the job. “I like the fact I’ve learned so much,” she says. “Having been in private practice for so long, you fall into a groove, doing your own thing. This really was a new opportunity and a change, and that learning curve has been rewarding.” Because she’s the only lawyer on staff, she gets a chance to be involved many different files, not just electricity or natural gas.

“Thirteen years is a long time to be invested with one firm,” says Desmond. “In private practice you’ve got a lot of your own clients and if you don’t like your new job it’s hard to go back — you’ve lost continuity with a lot of people. So it was a big decision at the time.” But this doesn’t mean she’s isolated in her current role, in fact, she’s anything but. Desmond is secretary-treasurer of the CBA’s alternative dispute resolution section, which works toward raising awareness of ADR, and a sessional lecturer at the UNB Faculty of Law. She’s also the editor of the Solicitor’s Journal, an academic journal published for lawyers in N.B.

Desmond recently became a member-at-large with the CBA’s women lawyers forum, created to address the need for programs, plans, and systems to promote the stature and influence of women in the legal profession. “I work mostly with men, so it’s nice to have that connection with what’s going on in practice for women — what the options are in terms of developing an agenda and what action items we can accomplish in the next year,” she says. The forum, for example, is looking to make international connections. This may include support for women who have come to Canada and want to practise law, but haven’t been able to meet the requirements.

Despite her busy schedule, Desmond says she is focused on her three kids, which is one reason why she bought herself a violin and decided to learn with them at school.

Desmond is still learning — not just the violin, but energy law too. With the possible amendment of the Electricity Act, the board is looking at how that will affect its mandate going forward. “We’re almost back to relearning what our role will be with the electricity sector,” she says. “That will be a challenge for 2010. It’s really developing fast, with environmental concerns that people hadn’t thought about 10 years ago. We’re going to continue to see a lot of changes in the energy law field — just keeping abreast of those changes will be a challenge.” With Desmond’s track record, it seems she’s up for that challenge.


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