Everyone in London, Ont., knows Janet Stewart. It is here that she is the heart and soul of many community endeavours as well as being one of the most respected lawyers in her field. You can see from her curriculum vitae on the web site of Lerners LLP the extent of her interests and the many expressions of gratitude she has received, because she won’t tell you about them. You would need a degree in dentistry to extract any embellishment of her achievements from Stewart herself.
“She is a very modest woman with very little to be modest about,” states Lerners’ senior partner Earl Cherniak, who counts Stewart among his closest friends. He was one of the lawyers instrumental in nominating Stewart for her latest award. On Jan. 28, she received the Order of Ontario for her work advocating for the advancement of women in the law and for her compassion and commitment to philanthropic activities in the London area. “There was no one in Ontario more surprised than me,” says Stewart about the honour.
Stewart was born in Hartford, Conn., which accounts for her rabid and lifelong devotion to the Boston Red Sox. She moved to Waterloo, Ont., at the age of nine when it was a community of only 10,000 people. From 13, she received her higher education while boarding at St. Mildred’s College in Toronto, which she credits as being a very formative experience. After graduating in 1960, she studied history at the University of Toronto for four years and then found herself at a loss for what to do next. “I didn’t choose law for any glorious reason,” she recalls. “I had lawyers in the family but that was not determinative. I didn’t know what practising law was.”
Upon completing the bar admission course, she answered an ad tacked up on the notice board and went to the firm she is still with 40 years later. “I found that I loved practising law,” she says. “I was good at it and clients like me. It was what I was meant to do.”
On starting work, Stewart found that a woman lawyer outside the big city was something of a curiosity. “It was a new time for women in the law,” she remembers. “There were under 20 women in the bar course, many of whom went to work for the government or found positions as corporate counsel.” There was no talk of networking or mentoring at that time. “We didn’t even know the words,” she says. “All that came in during the ’80s. We were never a band of sisters. I wish there had been a woman more senior to consult.”
Cherniak confirms that when Stewart started at Lerners the private bar had a very small percentage of women. “There were none in any kind of senior position. Janet quickly established herself as a very knowledgeable and leading lawyer in commercial and estate law, which was a fairly new area for women when she started. Since then she has gained a well-deserved reputation for very sage and competent advice.”
Stewart articled under senior partner Sam Lerner, doing any kind of solicitor’s work. “I was his right-hand woman. You name it, I did it!” Later, she narrowed her focus to corporate and commercial work until her responsibilities as Lerners’ managing partner (from 1991 to 2007) made estate administration a more practical choice. “It was almost a full-time job,” she explains. “A large portion of the firm were litigators who like to do their own thing. Following corporate edicts is not in their makeup.”
Cherniak classes Stewart as a pioneer in firm management. “You would have had to search high and low at that time to find another female managing partner. She oversaw the growth of the firm from about 25 lawyers in the mid-’80s. When she gave up the reins there were well over 100 lawyers.” These days almost half of the lawyers at the firm are women, many of whom have benefited from Stewart’s influence and attention, although she downplays her contribution. “Honestly, all I’ve done is be available to people as an older person who has been around the block. I suspect that’s what they’d say, that I’ve been a good ear.” In an era when women with family commitments are leaving private practice in droves, Stewart has encouraged them to stay. “I advise them to consider their own life and find out how to balance the two.”
Her colleague notes: “She has been an inspiration and a mentor to almost two generations of largely, but not only, female lawyers, inside and outside the firm. If you talk to any female lawyer of any vintage in western Ontario, they will corroborate that in spades.” He says she has been much more than just a den mother or a technical mentor. “Janet is a good legal person.”
Stewart is adamant that she has never felt victimized as a woman. “I never thought of it as a plight — there being so few of us. I don’t think gender of itself is a deterrent for women progressing in the law. Women have kids. That’s a fact.” She has observed that these days, women lawyers usually put off having a family until their mid-30s. “They wait until they are partners and then they take time off, and I think they should. Their career path and progress are different but there is a benefit later. A lot of guys in their 50s and 60s are very tired of practising law, and it shows in their practice. A lot of women in their 50s and 60s have the kids off their hands and they are gangbusters!”
Stewart is unmarried and has no children of her own, “just everyone else’s,” she jokes. She was one of the founders of Big Sisters in London in 1974 and spent 25 years on its board. She has also made the effort to travel individually with her nieces and nephews. While she feels she would have successfully juggled a family and a career, she finds herself resentful of people who use their spouse and children as an excuse to avoid their obligations. “I am steadfast about my commitment to community organizations.”
That commitment is always played out with an infectious enthusiasm. Friends say Stewart is smart, very funny, and a fanatical golfer. Cherniak says she is the life of any party, and recalls her very raucous 40th birthday party in Waterloo, where he and his wife lined up a fake judge and held a ceremony to formally adopt her as their daughter. He also recalls her adeptness at comic skits and calls her a master of accents.
Cherniak avers that Stewart’s legal achievements are only half of what she has achieved with her life. “Her CV encompasses a huge number of commitments. Everyone who knows Janet knows that they are not just a list of names that she joined to put on her CV. She always throws herself in, body and soul. She is a major force and very active in all of them.” Her community obligations include the London Community Foundation, the London Health Sciences Foundation, and various committees that deal with everything from diocese investment to golf. She’s on the board of trustees for London’s Junior Achievement program and the board of the Greater London International Airport Authority. She says her position on the oversight committee for the London orchestra is “consuming” her life at the moment, complementing her great love of opera.
Stewart is 66 and has decided to review whether she wants to keep working when she turns 70. “They’ll probably carry me out of here in a box,” she laughs. She already looks back on a “very satisfying” professional life of 40 years. “There have been ups and downs, but I don’t dwell on them,” she says. She counts receiving the Law Society Medal in 2001 as being “very important” to her, but otherwise says she doesn’t look back much.
If she has any advice for young lawyers today, it’s to not take themselves so seriously. “People have to decide their own lives. If things are so impossible for them to deal with, they should find a professional life that they can deal with. Everyone’s responsible for their own future.”
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