Justice Abella At Queen’s Law: On Success, Stereotypes and Empowerment
On Friday, November 18, 2016, Supreme Court of Canada’s Justice Rosalie Abella delivered an inspirational talk to Queens Law students.
Justice Abella said she knew she wanted to be a lawyer from the young age of 4, as a result of her father not being able to practice law in Canada. Her family immigrated in the 1950s and her first memory was her father being told by the Law Society of Upper Canada that he was not allowed to practice law in Canada because he was not a Canadian citizen.
Justice Abella went to law school at a time when there were 5 women in a class of 150 students. She said the big theme then was “how to get women into law school classrooms”. Within 10 to 20 years, there were 50% women in classrooms, Abella commented. She thinks this is because as soon as women knew that law school was an option available to them, enrollment rates of women in law schools skyrocketed.
The current issue is how to keep women in the legal profession. She said that when she was a young lawyer, women had the decision of whether they wanted to be a lawyer or a mother. She was one of the only women at the time who was both! She even jokes about how there were no maternity clothes for women at the time and that she wore hot pants to a criminal trial.
In 1976, she was appointed to a family court bench and attributed her appointment in part to being one of the only female lawyers at the time that was also a mother. At the time she was only 29 and also seven months’ pregnant – making her one of the youngest judges ever appointed in Canada, and also the first pregnant judge. Justice Abella was later appointed to the Court of Appeal in 1992, and then appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2004.
How did she get appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada? Justice Abella was refreshingly modest and said, she never in a million years would have expected to be appointed to the SCC. She says her route to the Court was not a straight path. Her philosophy was just to “say yes” to every opportunity she was offered, even when people she trusted cautioned her not to.
What is her advice for young lawyers? Justice Abella says:
“In law school, everyone is so worried about getting their last job, first”, implying that we all need to relax a little and just focus on doing what we enjoy because she says we will do a better job if we are focusing on the areas of law that really make us “buzz”.
She says, “You have to do what you like. Ignore anyone’s advice that is contrary to what you want to do. Go after stuff that really makes you buzz and enjoy the ride!”
Justice Abella shared a story of many years ago, she was reading a book called, “If I were a bus driver” to her three-year-old son. At the end of the story, her son said, “Mommy, I want to be a bus driver”. She asked, “Why not a judge?” He replied, “Because only women are judges.” Justice Abella realized that since she was the only judge her son knew, he assumed that being a judge was a career only available to women, even though only 33% of SCC judges are female. She shared this story as a way to illustrate how stereotypes are formed.
Justice Abella attributes a lot of her success to constantly challenging the status quo, saying, “I don’t accept the status quo as the answer, but rather as the start of the conversation.”
Kelly Watson (2L) is a Staff Writer for Juris Diction.