Sometimes, in life, you meet someone and you think to yourself how great it would have been if you had met them earlier just so you could have even more time to learn from them and absorb their greatness. For us, Elizabeth Shilton was a prime example of this.
When she came in for a guest lecture in our Constitutional Law class at Osgoode Law (shoutout to Dean Sossin for the class), we were instantly mesmerized by her charisma and captivating presence.
Elizabeth is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace at Queen’s, and a McMurtry Visiting Clinical Fellow at Osgoode Hall Law School. She has a doctorate in law from the University of Toronto, as well as law degrees from Dalhousie (Schulich) and Harvard. Further, she is a founding partner of Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP, which is a Toronto firm specializing in union-side labour law. Elizabeth was also a member and Vice-Chair of Ontario’s Financial Services Tribunal/Commission.
Impressive, we know. So, naturally, we had to ask her for an interview and she warmly welcomed the idea.
Do you want to truly understand why we look up to Elizabeth? Her answers will tell you:
Please tell us a bit about yourself and what influenced you to become a lawyer.
I did not expect to become a lawyer. I initially embarked on an academic career in the humanities. But the early seventies was a time of great political ferment. I was discovering feminism. And at the same time, I was discovering that the Ivy League university where I was doing my graduate work was pretty hostile to feminism; it had only begun to admit women students as undergraduates two years before I went there. I dropped out, and eventually ended up in Halifax where I became involved in union organizing. That too was a male-dominated world, and I eventually reached the conclusion that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a worker, an activist and a feminist, I needed some solid credentials. And what could be more solid than legal credentials? Hence, law school….
In your experience as an influential woman in law, what is one piece of advice that you can offer to incoming professional women in the legal field?
Don’t buy into the idea that you need to practice on Bay Street, dress like Bay Street, or work Bay Street hours to have a successful career. Find your own personal values and align your legal work with those values. Find the kind of law you’re passionate about and practice it. Find your own style and embrace it. There are many different ways to be a successful lawyer.
Given your expertise in employment and equality law, how would you describe the climate of the legal field for female lawyers, relative to other professions? Is there a certain perspective that you believe future female lawyers should be aware of prior to their practice?
Despite the very significant influx of women into legal practice over the past few decades, law continues to be a male-dominated profession. At the beginning of my career I frequently found myself the only woman at a meeting or a hearing. Even now, women lawyers are a minority in the more public and “high value” practice areas where large amounts of money are at stake. However, this doesn’t make law any different than other professions operating in the business world. And it IS changing (although faster for some women than for others). For example, there are now robing facilities for women in courtrooms across the country, and their doors do not bear the label “Lady Barristers”, as they did when I first started to practice. That’s progress, even if the podiums in courtrooms are still too high, and judges still ask us to “speak up”.
What motivates you to perform to the best of your abilities on the job?
It helps a lot that I love the law. Right from day one in law school, I found law intellectually fascinating. I hesitate to confess this, but I was one of those students who haunted the library (in the days before everything was digitized), reading not just the assigned cases, but also all the cases that were cited in the assigned cases. I loved trying to make sense of how the law both shaped and was shaped by economics and politics and social forces of all kinds. But I also love the challenge of exploring creative ways to use law as a tool for social change. Law has been very much a part of systems that create and reinforce gender inequality. But it also has great potential to help change that status quo, and I want to be part of that project.
What is the biggest challenge that you have had to face as a woman in this field, and what was your approach in overcoming it?
The biggest challenge was breaking through the confidence barrier. Women role models were hard to find when I began to practice. And when all the competent, successful people you see in your professional world are white men, it’s not easy to see where you fit in. But I took my mantra in those days from Charlotte Whitten, a first wave feminist and former mayor of Ottawa, who famously said: “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” It’s not true, of course, but it leaves a lot of wiggle room, and it always made me feel braver. While there are now more women in the profession, diversity is still a big problem – role models for women of colour, for Indigenous women are still not very visible.
If you could experience any profession for a week (other than your current career), what would it be?
I love fine music, and there are days when I fantasize about what it would be like to be a singer – a magnificent soprano like Measha Brueggergosman or Kiri Te Kanawa. It’s only a fantasy, of course – I absolutely don’t have the talent. But I like to think that I have a creative side – it helps a lot in legal practice, particularly if your career takes you down roads not usually travelled.
So, there you have it – one of our proudest Unprecedentedly Chic projects. We cannot thank you enough, Elizabeth.