She recently spoke with Fenix Solutions Inc. CEO Jennifer MacKinnon, who writes a monthly column, Ottawa Women of Wonder, to profile and celebrate local women in business.
Tell me about yourself.
Looking back, I didn't have a big plan regarding my career. I finished an undergraduate degree in Montreal in 1970 in English literature, and I wanted to be an English teacher. But it seemed everyone I knew wanted to be an English Literature teacher and to do it well, you had to get a PhD. I decided to take some time to think about such a huge time commitment.
I was working in an engineering firm owned by Jack Layton's father. I grew up in the same small town in Quebec as Jack. And one day I looked at the clock on the wall, 40-plus years ago and it was 4:50 pm. I was waiting for the clock to turn to 5:00 and it hit me. I never wanted to be bored again. I never wanted to spend any part of the rest of my life waiting for 5 o'clock.
So then I had to figure out what to do. My father had always said that a profession is important. At the time the two professions I knew were medicine and law and, since I had no science, I applied to law school. The rest is history.
But I didn't have a big plan. I had no clue what I wanted to do. And, in fact, I didn't always particularly like law school. I'm not really academic, but I arrived at Gowlings to article and I loved it. I started doing things, meeting people, solving problems and fixing things and I loved it. I call it "the juice," the energy and passion for what I do.
I was lucky to have a number of wonderful people guide me along the way. They weren't always women, but they did provide guidance and mentorship throughout my career. In fact, there were only three women at Gowlings when I started. I was the first woman at Gowlings to have one child and then the first to have a second. I was the first partner to have a baby when our third son arrived.
This was so new at Gowlings that they didn't have a maternity leave policy in place. I was seven months pregnant with my son when I went to the managing partner and told him that I didn't quite know what I was supposed to do since the birth was around the corner.
You helped shape Gowlings policies in many areas.
Gordon Henderson, the senior partner, called me at home on the evening of Dec. 8, 1982, when our first son was just over three years old (and we had) another baby on the way. He offered me partnership at Gowlings that evening on the phone and the next morning our second son was born!
That speaks to your obvious capabilities and skills.
Gowlings was great to me; it was uncharted territory for them as well as myself. When I joined them there were 60 lawyers with one office and now we are an international firm.
Did you end up getting some maternity leave?
About three weeks after our first son was born I received a call about a large "class action"-type lawsuit (they didn't have class actions in those days) that required the discoveries to be completed by March of the following year (and this was early October) and I had to do them all. I had to get back to work. I don't think I had four months in total for all three of our sons.
How did you manage?
We weren't electronic back then but I was able to do some work from home and have files couriered back and forth from there to the office.
Was that good for you? Did it feel like you were trying to manage too much?
Hundreds of people have asked me how I did it and the only answer I have is this: you just do it. You do whatever it takes. I only had a nanny for two years after my third son was born. There is one thing I did right: I always had a cleaning lady. She came every week. That was one smart thing I did for myself and the family. I recommend this for all women who are working.
Was having children something you have always wanted?
Yes, absolutely. In fact I had an eight-year-old and a five-year-old when our third came along. We always wanted at least three. We have three wonderful sons: Adam, Greg and Dave.
You said you never had a plan, yet you were driven to apply to law school.
I had the same attitude that I share with friends and young people which is this: law school is a great education. It is a good analytical perspective and way of approaching problems. These are generic skills you can use either in law or in many other experiences in life and work.
For the first 15 years, I did litigation in all areas: commercial, family law (which I didn't particularly like), property, banking and some medical cases.
In 1988, right after our third son was born, I was given the opportunity to take on general counsel work in the medical group. This was intended to mean far less travel than I was doing in litigation. With three boys, I knew I couldn't continue to travel as much and felt this was a happy compromise. It involved the same issues and skills and still involved cases but I was not required to stay up all night preparing for trials.
I said yes to this opportunity and I have never looked back. Since 1997, I have been the responsible partner for the team that does the general counsel work at Gowlings. It means we make sure there are great lawyers on the ground from coast to coast to help doctors whenever they intersect with the legal system. I am always learning, there is always something new that I haven't seen before and time flies when I am working. Now when I look at the clock it's "oh s**t it's already five o'clock," versus waiting for the end of the day to arrive.
How did you make partner at Gowlings, given the few number of women partners at the time?
There is no substitute for hard work and I was expected to deliver. I participated in management. I became very involved in professional organizations. The resumes of the lawyers today are outstanding; the slackers of the bunch speak three languages. But there is still some barrier. Having a family makes it difficult for women to spend the hours needed at work or take on more responsibility and tasks. The law society and many firms are now working hard to address this.
But the real deal is this: you have to deliver. If you become known as the person who makes a meaningful contribution and does the work you will get noticed and you will create opportunities for yourself that can be very rewarding.
Is the myth that lawyers work all night true?
It can be. It's more typical of litigation and lawyers working on large transactions. There were some crazy times when the kids were sick all night and I had to be in court the next morning. But the good thing about the general counsel work was that if you were efficient in your day, and really put in your time at the office, you could bring things home to work on in the evening once the kids were in bed. We have a lot of reading in this profession and I could read at night, after dinner with the family and once the kids were in bed.
Tell me about that - are you still working full time?
Yes, I work full time. I have a plan someday to reduce my hours and it's not too far off, but I haven't gotten there yet. There are things I'd like to do, such as travel with my husband. We did go to Australia and New Zealand last fall, which was wonderful. I like to garden; it's relaxing and I enjoy it. I also love to read, ski, play tennis and I walk almost every morning.
You look very healthy; it doesn't look like you sit at a desk all day.
My husband is retired now and he keeps an eye on me and the hours that I work. He puts on the brakes when we need it, like saying we are going to the cottage and ensuring I have down time.
Where is your cottage?
It's just past Wakefield. We call it Ross Mountain. One of the women in the firm I became friends with early on - she was the godmother of our second son - died of cancer. She left me and my husband a small generous gift and we put it away for something special. We used the money she left to buy the land and, over time, we built the cottage. We are currently renovating it with an addition now that the boys are older and our family is growing.
Your husband sounds like he is a nice complement to you.
When we got engaged I called my mother and I told her "we are never going to be rich, but we'll laugh a lot." And that's true; he's very funny and has a great sense of humour. Despite also being a lawyer he has a good balance in his life.
Do you have grandkids yet?
Not yet. One of our sons is getting married this December. I won't put pressure on them, but I am looking forward to having grandchildren. Most of my friends have them and I am excited to have them too.
Do your sons understand what you have accomplished?
It's funny actually. When I was named one of the The Women's Executive Network's "100 Most Powerful Women" I thought it was nice but remember telling a colleague, "Would someone tell the boys?"
But in all honesty they are great; I always get flowers and phone calls and one of our sons was able to be at the ceremony when I was presented with the award.
Will they follow you and your husband into law?
No, they each have their own interests and passions and they don't include law. One works at a mobile technology company, one is a chef and the other works in the environmental field.
What was your parenting style?
I'd like to say very similar to my mother's. She only worked outside the home once we all went off to school and therefore I always expected her to be home; it's where she always was. She was one of five kids and the only child who was unable to go to university and might have been somewhat self-conscious of that. She compensated for that by always telling us we could do whatever we wanted to in life. I tried to do it as much like she did as I could, with the exception of not being home full-time. We always went on holiday, went camping, read books and ate dinner together.
What words of wisdom do you have for today's youth on the cusp of their careers?
If I had to offer a message regarding what worked for me, it was having a job I enjoyed. There is an old saying: "Find something you love and someone will pay you to do it." You work for a very long time and you need to get satisfaction out of it. I am eternally grateful for my career because it really worked for me. But if you hate what you do, you must find something you love. I can't imagine living like that. I have always encouraged our boys to be keen, if not passionate, about what they do. I would also say surround yourself with really smart and wonderful people; they will make all the difference. Get the best and the brightest and give them enough autonomy to shine and it's wonderful to see what happens.
What does it mean to be one of Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women?
One of the best parts is the mentoring project. I have a protégée whom I mentor and I take this role very seriously. It also means I have to pass on experiences and give something back.
1) One of my goals is to become more proficient at French
2) If I am fortunate enough to ever become a grandmother, I will cherish this role.