Visions of leaders past and future

Visions of leaders past and future
On May 25, I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend a special session of Convocation of the Law Society of Upper Canada during which it granted the Law Society Medal to some of the profession’s inspired leaders, including Ron Slaght, Alfred Mamo, and Cynthia Petersen. In addition to the LSM, two other awards were presented: the Lincoln Alexander Award and the Laura Legge Award.
The Laura Legge Award is a relatively new addition to the honorifics bestowed by the LSUC on its brightest and best leaders. It was created in 2007 for the purpose of recognizing women lawyers from Ontario who have exemplified leadership within the profession. It commemorates Legge’s exemplary (60-plus-year) career, mentorship of other lawyers, her long-standing service to the law society (as its first female bencher and first female treasurer), and for her community service. This year’s recipient of the award was my colleague and longtime friend, Fay Brunning of Ottawa.

I can think of no one more deserving of this award, and I am proud and honoured to be counted among her friends and enthusiasts. The following is an edited version of Brunning’s acceptance speech, which she kindly agreed to share with a wider audience, at my request:

I am very grateful and inspired to receive this award, which honours Laura Legge, a woman who provided tremendous leadership to our profession for many decades. As this award in her name demonstrates, her legacy will continue to be an inspiration to the women who have followed her. I feel bashful to be in the midst of the honourees and of our benchers tonight, and am a bit puzzled as to why I was chosen for this recognition. There are many accomplished women lawyers in this province. Laurie Pawlitza advised me that the LSUC wanted to recognize a woman who is regarded as a leader, who is [in] the middle of her career, doing many things, and providing mentoring and inspiration to those around her. So, on that premise, I would particularly like to thank the LSUC for this recognition, on behalf of all the middle-aged women lawyers, who are self-employed in private practice, serving the public, and raising our families.

I feel privileged to be a lawyer. To me, it is an honour to have and to be able to apply the skills I have learned to serve the public, and to be able to use the law to contribute to the proper functioning of our democracy.

Laura Legge was a genuine leader of our profession throughout her career, and she served as an excellent role model for women in the practice of law today. But what is leadership? Do women provide different leadership?

Many people I have worked for are great leaders, who have generously mentored me and shared their wisdom: in Saskatchewan, Queen’s law, Ottawa legal community, Advocates’ Society, Scott & Aylen, Borden Ladner Gervais, and now Sack Goldblatt Mitchell. I have been very fortunate to have had access to inspiring leaders.

Twenty-five years ago, I started in the private practice of law as a woman litigator. In Ottawa, there were very few women lawyers. I saw successful men in law, and observed their tried and true paths to success, but I could not simply replicate what men do, nor did I want to. I wanted some of my own female values and dreams and characteristics to be part of what I was becoming and part of what I believed the profession could become.

I have found inspiration in the five Canadian women from the prairies, who in 1929 went all the way to England to have the highest court in the British Empire declare something that now appears obvious: “Women are persons.” That case gave birth to human rights entitlements for the entire Commonwealth legal system. Those five Canadian women, now historically known as the Famous Five, used the law to effect social reform. They took a specific legal issue through the courts because the political arm of our democracy did not have the wisdom or will to evolve. It was one legal issue, but its long-term impact on where we are as a nation is interesting to consider.

These five women leaders, if you look at what they did individually, brought in reforms such as the Dowry Act, Minimum Wage Act for Women, child protection legislation, and started organizations such as the Victorian Order of Nurses, YWCA. These were significant changes which all helped to reshape our society in one generation and to improve life for the disadvantaged. Not everything they did in their time deserves praise, but not one of them became a senator as a result of the Persons case, so personal gain was not the outcome of their individual or collective efforts.

Nellie McClung, one of the Famous Five, once said: “No nation rises higher than its women.” If we look around Canada and the world today, almost 100 years later, that still holds true, and there is still a lot to be done. Louise McKinney, another of the Five said: “What after all, is the purpose of a woman’s life? The purpose is the same as the purpose of a man’s life: that she make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.” These are still inspiring words to live by.

Along the way, I have discovered that women generally are more comfortable to contribute and lead in ways that differ from men. Men and women are different and have different strengths. Nothing is wrong with that. Working together, in our firms and in our legal community, contributing the best way we can as men and women, with our respective different styles of leadership, we can collectively accomplish more for our system of justice. 

What is leadership? I believe that in Canada, leadership is a gift of trust from one to another, earned over time. Leaders are trusted by those they represent to lead on their behalf on issues that are within their sphere of influence. If a person displays passion, interest, energy, aptitude, and integrity around an issue or within a firm or organization, the gift of leadership is given.

I observe that many women are more comfortable with the “inside out” form of leadership rather than “top down.” From within our firms, from within our communities, from within our profession, women work hard to support others and ideas, and thereby earn their trust. Women are often worker bees and the first ones to raise their hands to volunteer for the “soft” work that it takes to bring things to fruition. The health and well-being of our workplaces, legal communities, firms, and profession attract our natural instincts.

However, it has also been my experience that women do not generally have the same desire or confidence as men to step into the political arena where the democratic power is at play. We now know that firms, communities, organizations, and our legal system function better when both men and women are working together in ways that they can contribute their best. We need to find ways to properly value those different forms of contributions within our legal profession. We need to ensure that women and men of substance and integrity who are ready to lead are given the support they need to take that step. I am proud to be part of a firm that does provide those opportunities and support and I encourage every other law firm to do the same. 

In closing, I would like to again thank Tom Conway and the Ottawa legal community, as well as the LSUC and its current Treasurer, Laurie Pawlitza. I am indebted to all of you for this recognition.

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