Spotlights

Elizabeth Walker leaves a 23-year career at Osler to answer an inner calling

November 04, 2015

Elizabeth Walker has never been one to take the road most travelled. Instead, she opts to let her integrity—and her true values and interests—be her guide. This strategy is what’s allowed her enjoy an interesting and fulfilling career path.

Her interest in law began shortly after her interest in becoming a veterinarian faded. (“The first time I took my Bassett Hound to the vet, the nurse took out the rabies needle and I fainted,” she says. “It was then that I realized it wasn’t just about petting animals.”)

The youngest of four children—and the only girl in the family—Elizabeth idolized her eldest brother. This “hero-worship” soared to new heights when her brother decided to enter law school.

“We were an anomaly in my family,” she recalls. “Neither of my parents went to university. As I learned more about it, I decided that pursuing a career in law and combining it with the business world was very interesting to me. My hero worship led me to a career for which I couldn’t be better suited.”

For Elizabeth, the law—in its truest form—is her first love. In fact, upon the completion of law school, she opted to pursue it further with a B.C.L. (Masters in Common Law) at Oxford University. Making the decision to pursue such a theoretical degree wasn’t easy, however, especially with a prestigious clerkship at the Ontario Court of Appeal on offer.

“I went to see my tax professor to ask his advice,” she remembers. “He leaned back, as I laid my misery at his feet, and said: ‘For God’s sake, you have 40 years to specialize, go do what you want to do!’”

So she hopped on a plane and returned to her birthplace of England.

“I couldn’t resist that opportunity to be in the milieu of great thinkers. It was intimidating, but also amazing to be in a place so conscious of its history. It was a step away from the straight and narrow career path in the business world. Instead, I have this absolutely magical experience.”

The right fit
When Elizabeth returned to Canada a year later, she interviewed for a number of articling positions, eventually deciding on Osler.

“It was all because of Larry Lowenstein and Diane Walker,” she admits. “I’d interviewed with all the big firms but it ultimately came down to the people at Osler. I really liked their approach.”

She landed an articling position in Toronto, eventually moving to Ottawa as a tax law associate. While she enjoyed the experience, however, she found herself missing the business side. With no room in Osler’s business group in Ottawa, Elizabeth accepted a position as junior counsel for the National Capital Commission. An added bonus? The new General Counsel of the NCC was an Osler alumnus.

“My boss really ran the group like an Osler lawyer. It’s hard to quantify that but it made the transition in-house really easy,” she says. “I found the entire experience fascinating. I went from being a junior tax associate—a position that involved a lot of research and writing memos—to a very broad role. People would actually ask for my opinion. No one had really done that before—I wasn’t senior enough at Osler to talk to clients directly—so this gave me great confidence in dealing one-on-one with people.”

After two years cutting her teeth as a junior associate—and with her boss set to leave—Elizabeth received a call from a senior partner at Osler in Ottawa, letting her know that a position in business law had opened up. He asked her to come back.

“I wasn’t looking to leave NCC, but after thinking about it, I decided that it was the perfect time to come back. I’d done my two years, developed a broader base, and was really drawn to work with the senior partners.”

All in the family
Her return to Osler marked the beginning of a 20-year stint at the firm—a firm she still feels a strong connection with even after leaving in 2014.

“I still say ‘we’ when I talk about Osler. It was my family for my whole professional career,” she explains.

Elizabeth was heavily involved in the Osler community—experiences she says greatly shaped the lawyer, and person, she’s become. She sat on a large number of committees, committees she says broadened her management skills, appreciation for running a business and her personal maturity. But ultimately, it was working day in, day out with like-minded people—people she not only learned from, but who supported her as well—that made her time at Osler most memorable.

“I remember walking into annual partners’ meetings and getting goosebumps. It was amazing to be part of this group of lawyers—and to not only be supported but support others as well,” she says. “I really felt like I fit.”

So, when she made the decision to eventually leave, it wasn’t made lightly.

“I never wanted to practice law anywhere other than Osler. That being said, as I approached 50, I was faced with a dilemma. Did I want to keep doing what I was doing or try something completely different?”

Elizabeth opted for the latter—before she even knew what the latter was. Over an 18 month period, she started asking around, learning about different career paths, and became particularly interested in opportunities in the judicial line.

“The more senior you become as a partner, the less writing you do. I’m a complete law nerd, and I really wanted to get back into that side of things,” she explains. “So I talked to many people, became aware of available opportunities and eventually submitted an application with the Privy Council Office.”

Shortly after being granted an interview, she was offered her current position—Chair of the RCMP External Review Committee. Having never heard of the RCMP External Review Committee, she needed time to think about it, but—after meeting with the chief of staff who also happened to be an ex-Osler lawyer—she eventually accepted. Although she was excited about the next chapter in her career, saying goodbye to her old one proved quite difficult.

“I was in Toronto just after I announced I was leaving—I could hardly tell people,” she recounts. “My oldest son said ‘Mom, you don’t seem thrilled’. I had to explain to him that it was going to be an incredibly difficult transition. I was so excited to do something different, yet at the same time I was terrified. I had confidence and self-doubts. But the hardest part? I was leaving people who had been my family since I was 24 years old.”

“I know it was going to be great once I got started, but leaving a lifetime of relationships was tough.”

Onwards and upwards
Today, Elizabeth is the head of a tribunal that reviews appeals of internal RCMP labour matters. Most of the reviews are on paper, so there aren’t typically hearings. Instead, they review appeal records, staff lawyers analyze them, and Elizabeth researches the law and writes decisions.

As the head of the tribunal, she also has other responsibilities—she recently hosted a delegation from the UAE, helping them find ways to improve their policing oversight. She also represents the tribunal on Parliament Hill and had the opportunity to learn more about the RCMP at their training depot in Regina.

“I love being back in the law and I love writing decisions,” she says. “This tribunal has a critical role for the RCMP. We’re the independent oversight of their employment and labour practices, so what we do is critical to the rank and file members. Our biggest challenge is an unacceptable backlog because people are waiting for decisions for too long.”

“The RCMP is an amazing institution. It’s a workforce of 26,000–11,000 constables are on the street every day–and the vast majority of them are exemplary people who take public service to the extreme. This is a narrow niche of public service but I feel a responsibility to the Force. They mean so much to northern Canada, many municipalities and the isolated posts. It’s an honour to be here.”

Putting ‘me’ first
Elizabeth has always made an effort to truly get to know herself as a person, so she could make appropriate life decisions to make that person happy. She advises any young lawyer just starting out to do the same.

“You have to figure out who you are and what you really like to do. If you have a partner, you do that together. Sometimes there’s a balance, sometimes there’s not. But you need to go into each decision with your eyes open and make time for the things that are important to you.”

As someone who gets a lot of fulfillment out of her work, she opted to choose a busier lifestyle working in a firm. When she had her two sons, however, carving out time to be with them became a priority as well, so she spent a lot of evenings leaving work “early” when they were little, only to continue her workday at 8:30pm in her home office after they went to bed.

“If you’re going to be a lawyer in a big firm, you’re going to work hard. Make time for things you enjoy after a deal closes. It also gets easier to carve out time for your personal life once you become more senior.”

Today, Elizabeth’s favourite thing to do is watch NFL football with her sons on Sundays.

“There’s nothing better. It drives my husband crazy. He loves athletics, but he’s not a big watcher. He’s also quite the cook, so he’ll make these wonderful Sunday dinners and roll his eyes at us as we eat them while sitting on the couch, our eyes glued to the game.”

 

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