One of the (many) things that I love about this series is seeing how every lawyer's career path is unique. Some paths are winding, some straight as an arrow, and some with lengthy detours. Today's blog post features Elliot Spears who has been successful in climbing the corporate/legal ladder to a top role of General Counsel of the Law Society of Ontario.
Elliot was brought to my attention by Sandra Adams who works with Elliot at the LSO. In an email to me Sandra had so many wonderful things to say about her "boss" and suggested I profile Elliot as she "definitely qualifies as an amazing woman doing some amazing things in law". Read on to learn more about these amazing things and Elliot's important advice on being true to yourself as a lawyer and how to go after what you want for your legal career:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business:
I work for the Law Society of Ontario. I am its General Counsel and I am a member of the Law Society’s Senior Management Executive. As a member of the Law Society’s Senior Management Executive, I am responsible for contributing to the successful operation of the Law Society by providing strategic legal and other advice. As General Counsel, I am responsible for providing the organization with any legal services that it may need (outside of legal services connected with the regulatory operations of the Law Society). These legal services can range from litigation services to opinion work in a variety of areas of law to contract review and drafting to employment and labour law advice to legislative drafting services to legal and policy research services, to name a few. These legal services are provided either by the counsel that work in the Office of General Counsel or by external counsel that the Office retains. In the Office of General Counsel, I have the privilege of working with a team of very talented and dedicated individuals. Together, they possess a wide range of legal knowledge and skills which serve the Law Society well. The Law Society is also fortunate for all the external counsel who assist it from time to time. These counsel give to the profession. In return, they are handed an always interesting and challenging brief. Needless to say, as the overseer of all this work, I consider myself fortunate to have so many opportunities to deal with a variety of complex and engaging matters.
2. Why did you go to law school?
When I was nearing the end of my undergraduate studies (I was working towards a B.Sc. in Psychology (with a minor in English)), I knew that I wasn’t quite finished with academic learning. I thought that I would go on to graduate school to study Clinical Psychology. At what was probably the very last moment to start the application process for law school (if I wanted to start right after receiving my B.Sc. degree), I was lured by the intellectual challenges that present themselves in law. So I sat the last writing of the LSAT that academic year (little to no preparation), applied to all the law schools in the country and ended up at Osgoode Hall Law School that Fall. Maybe I did it on a whim. Or, maybe, as often happens with my life choices, I let my unconscious self (which knows me better than anyone else) drive my conscious decisions.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
I started working at the Law Society very shortly after my Call to the Bar, first on a few project specific contracts, then as back fill for a lawyer who had taken a leave of absence to pursue graduate studies, before joining as permanent staff. I like to say that I “grew up” at the Law Society, because my entire career to date has been spent there. I have had some great mentors and role models there, many of whom probably were never aware that they had a significant impact on me. I spent some ten years working as policy counsel, research counsel, legislative counsel and legal counsel before becoming a “manager”. It was probably that transition to management that was the beginning of the journey to where I am today.
When I think back to that transition, I can’t help but recall a particular moment in time when I wasn’t happy about how a situation was unfolding and I was more expressive (than I was ever known to be in the workplace) about my unhappiness. Someone who was in a senior position at the time invited me to lunch and asked me what it was that I wanted. I was pretty clear in my answer that I wanted to be in a position to lead certain situations; in other words, I was no longer content to be a “doer” only. I received a lot of advice about how to get what I wanted. As is my tendency, I assessed the advice and followed the portion of it that resonated with me. Shortly thereafter, I got what I asked for – that first management position. This new role brought me exposure to new issues and challenges and opportunities to showcase skills that I hadn’t yet had a chance to use. I grew personally, opportunities to grow professionally followed and here I am: the Law Society’s General Counsel. Is any or all of that design? Or chance? It’s hard for me to say. I have made conscious choices in my life. I have worked hard to acquire the knowledge and skills that I have. I have also worked hard to understand myself – what motivates me, what challenges me, what makes me happy. Mentors and role models (known and unknown) have helped me tremendously in both areas. One thing that I’ve learned about myself is that I embrace living in the present. If opportunities arise that work well with who I am, then I will go for it. I think it’s the combination of these things that have brought me to where I am today.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
During my time at the Law Society, I have had the privilege of contributing work to many interesting projects and issues. A few examples include the overhaul of the Law Society Act in the late 1990s that modernized the Law Society as a regulator and, for a very long time, served as an innovative example of a regulatory framework and the overhaul of the Law Society Act at the beginning of the 2000s that saw the Law Society become the regulator of legal services providers other than lawyers. While I consider some of my work on these types of projects as some of my most significant achievements, other than myself and a few other people knowing about my specific contributions, there is nothing to publicly identify my role. This is part and parcel of working for an organization with a voice like that of the Law Society. Many individuals contribute to develop its message and those contributions often represent significant personal achievements, but those individual contributions and achievements are, in the end, subsumed by the whole. I would say that those who work in such situations are often motivated by the projects, issues or challenges themselves; it is about creating something or doing something interesting. This certainly describes me.
Putting aside these “hidden” achievements, a recent professional achievement that I am proud of is the bringing together of the individuals who make up the Office of General Counsel (at the Law Society).
On a more personal note, I am proud of recently taking up some activities that, until I tried them, I would have considered as being completely outside my comfort zone -- kickboxing and foil fencing. I have always identified with being an “artsy” person (pursuing all sorts of artistic endeavours) and I never would have dreamt that the day would come when I would become interested in, much less pursue, a martial art (let alone two!). But that day did come, and I am glad that it did. I have learned so much about myself (and people) that I can’t recommend highly enough the experience of stepping outside one’s comfort zone and who you think you are.
5. What are some key challenges and (more importantly) opportunities for women in law?
I think that there are many opportunities for women in law. Certainly, there has been a lot of progress in the availability of opportunities for women in law, although there is still work to be done to achieve equality. Speaking personally, I have to acknowledge that I have had many opportunities in my legal career to date. Still, a frustration for me has been the existence of stereotypes in the profession and the fact that opportunities may come attached with these stereotypes. To go back to your earlier question about achievements, one of the things that I am most proud of in my career is having become the Law Society’s General Counsel all while staying true to who I am.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Do it because you want to do it. Do everything to the best of your ability. Know yourself. Be true to who you are. Do it your way. And make sure to have something in place that will restore you after your battles, be it a family and/or friend support system or some activity outside of the legal world.
Thank you so much for participating in this series Elliot. I agree that it is important to "do it your way". If you stay true to yourself, you significantly increase your chances of being happy in your legal career!
ICYMI: Previous posts profiled Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan. Sign up to have these profiles sent directly to your email address and stay tuned for the next post soon!
The "Women Leading in Law" series focuses on good news stories and highlights amazing women succeeding in the legal profession. Each post includes the profiled lawyer's answers to six questions. Prepare to be inspired!
The series will continue until December 2018. If you have suggestions of women to be profiled please reach out.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.