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Kirby Chown 1965

Advancing the Ontario Legal Profession and serving as a Role Model for Women Practitioners

A passionate advocate for women in the legal profession, Kirby has dedicated her 30 years in the industry to advancing the Ontario legal profession and to acting as a strong role model and fierce spokesperson for female practitioners everywhere.

What I will always remember about Kirby Chown is that she threw me into the deep end. It was the week following my call to the bar. She came in to my office and requested that I “junior” on a medical malpractice trial. As she was leaving my office she said with a smile “By the way, it is a jury trial and you’ll do five witnesses”. Six weeks later, I was on my feet in my gown, examining and cross-examining witnesses in front of a six-member jury.

I recall observing Kirby at one point during an examination. She was furiously writing what I thought were notes on the testimony of the witness. Later, when I asked for feedback, Kirby pulled out those same notes. She wasn’t writing notes on the testimony; she had been writing suggestions for me – and in red pen! That was the first, but by no means the last, time that Kirby gave me an opportunity to grow as a litigator and as a professional.

Much has been written about the plight of women in the legal profession generally, and Bay Street law firms in particular. Women are still far more likely to leave the profession than men, and they are under-represented in the senior and management ranks of many firms. There is a consensus in the community that one of the primary reasons for the exodus of women is the shortage of role models – women practitioners who not only set an example themselves, but also take an interest in the careers of the young women who follow.

And for that reason, the legal profession has much to be grateful for in Kirby. Called to the bar in 1981, Kirby’s nearly 30-year career as a litigator specializing in family law and medical malpractice is, in and of itself, inspiring. She has appeared as counsel on motions, trials and appeals before Ontario Courts and Tribunals. Practice highlights include her role as co-counsel for physicians on the Grange Inquiry into the deaths at Sick Children Hospital in 1984, co-commission counsel on the Dubin Inquiry into drugs in sport in 1988 and currently, acting as one of five committee members on the Canadian Judicial Council Inquiry into the conduct of the Honourable Justice Cosgrove. Kirby’s reputation as counsel is as a firm, but fair litigator. She assists her clients to find a resolution, if possible, but does not hesitate to go the distance through trial and appeal, if necessary to protect her clients’ rights and achieve their goals.

But it is her broader contribution to the professional development of lawyers, particularly women, which will no doubt be Kirby’s legacy. Prior to being called to the bar in Ontario, Kirby taught high school. She brought with her to the practice of law a keen interest in better training and professional advancement opportunities for lawyers. As an associate at McCarthy Tétrault in the 1980s, she became involved with the firm’s summer-and-articling-student program. By the end of that decade, she had assumed the co-leadership of the program. In 1994, she assumed the role of Professional Development Partner for the Toronto office, which position she held until 2000. In this role, she initiated significant improvements to the associate review process and established a more transparent partnership admission process.

In 2002, Kirby was appointed Ontario’s Regional Managing Partner of McCarthy Tétrault, demonstrating that women can advance into partnership and rise to the highest ranks of law firm management. Under her leadership, the firm identified improving gender diversity among its top strategic goals. The publication of women as a strategic priority sent a message to women lawyers that they are viewed as an asset to the firm and offered the promise of enhanced efforts to nurture their development. Kirby was instrumental in the firm’s retainer of Catalyst Canada Inc., a leading research and advisory organization working with businesses and professions to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women. Kirby convinced senior management at the firm to allow Catalyst to conduct an internal firm study on diversity and equity issues. This was a brave decision for any firm. The 2006 report of Catalyst helped to galvanize the firm’s efforts to establish initiatives to create a work environment that develops and promotes women to partnership.

One such initiative was Kirby’s Women’s Initiatives Network (“WIN”). Established first in the Toronto office and then rolled out across the firm, the purpose of WIN was to promote discussion of issues of particular interest to women and to initiate programming to address those matters. Essentially, the network invites women to be the change they want to see in the firm. Groups of women lawyers are invited to tackle issues such as mentoring, maternity leaves, flexible-work arrangements and the creation of better business development opportunities for women. The network does not exclude men–it simply enables women to develop solutions to the problems that women identify. And, with the Managing Partner giving the go-ahead to be creative (and a budget to back it up), the network is limited only by the imagination of the lawyers who participate. These initiatives have had a profound impact on the culture of the firm, creating a stronger community for women within the firm, giving women the courage to ask for the opportunities they deserve and encouraging management to reward partners who assist in the promotion of women.

Because of Kirby’s bold leadership, McCarthy Tétrault is now seen as a role model for how firms can improve the professional lives of women and Kirby has assumed a mentor-role to other firms wishing to initiate similar programs. She has spoken broadly about her experiences to other members of the profession at conferences and seminars. Recently, Kirby sat on the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Expert Advisory Group to the Retention of Women in Private Practice. This group prepared a landmark report identifying best practices to promote the retention and advancement of women in private practice. On May 22, 2008, the benchers of the Law Society of Upper Canada voted in support of its recommendations.

Kirby is a quintessential example of the well-known saying, “those who say it can’t happen are usually interrupted by others doing it”. She absolutely refuses defeat; failure is simply answered with reflection and then another assault. I once asked Kirby whether she ever becomes discouraged and inclined to give up. She stared at me blankly, as if the concept was foreign to her! She has an extraordinary combination of optimism and realism, combined with superior administrative skills and impressive political savvy. Make no mistake, Kirby can be tough as nails. I have seen her crush her opposition in the courtroom with ferocious advocacy and witnessed her make ostensibly hard-hearted management decisions. But she is always motivated by a desire to build a stronger, more equitable and diverse profession.

To state that Kirby is the very role model that women in law so desperately need is almost trite. In 2005, Kirby was selected by the Faculty of Law at University of Toronto as one of 20 prominent women graduates. In 2006, she was selected by the Women’s Executive Network as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada. In April of this year, Kirby was awarded the Law Society Medal, the most significant honour a lawyer can receive for making a unique contribution to the legal profession in Ontario. And then in May, she was awarded the 2008 President’s Award by the Women’s Law Association of Ontario, the organization’s highest honour. These are awards that Kirby, no doubt, feels honoured to have received. But, knowing her, I suspect she receives the most pleasure when she witnesses just one young woman advance confidently in the profession, motivating her to find another to assist.

At Havergal’s candlelight service, the poem To Those Who Follow is still read. It is a poem about the passing of the torch. Kirby has given much to those who follow and in December 2008, she will retire from active practice. The profession has been made stronger by Kirby’s membership. She now passes the torch to the many women who have benefitted from her vision and her resolve. I for one shudder at the responsibility of upholding her legacy – but I can’t let Kirby see that or she might get out the red pen and give me some more feedback!

Written by Jane Langford 1988