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Saturday October 30, 2010

First woman to head Ontario's Law Society was a tough but quiet barrier breaker

Laura Legge was 'competent, tough, devoted, and not the least bit radical'

smartin@globeandmail.com

Nobody ever called Laura Legge a cheerleader for feminism. Yet, the family lawyer scaled many barriers in the male-dominated legal profession in Ontario and has been heralded, however unwillingly, as a role model for a younger generation of female lawyers.

In 1983 she became the first woman to head the Law Society of Upper Canada, the self-governing body for lawyers in Ontario that dates back to 1797. "It's a great honour," she told The Globe, after she was elected Treasurer, but, no, she didn't think she had stormed a male bastion because she had never "encountered discrimination in the law." As for whether she would encourage other women to follow in her stride as treasurer, she said, "No I just want people of ability and dedication."

Legge was 60, had been practising law for 35 years and was a married mother of three. Industrious, intelligent and conservative, she had no time for affirmative action programs or complicated formulas devised to determine equal pay for something as arcane as work of equal value. All women needed to do was to work harder and more efficiently than their male counterparts, as she had done, if they wanted to succeed.

Like many of the professions, the law was very slow to welcome women," admitted lawyer Clayton Ruby. But when the law society did begin opening up, she was the "perfect" woman for them to accept as one of their own - "competent, tough, devoted, and not the least bit radical." Legge was not only the first female Treasurer of the law society, she was the first woman bencher (officer), having won election on a secret ballot in 1975, at a time when there were only about 300 female lawyers in the province.

Fast forward 35 years to June 2010: Women represented 52 per cent of lawyers called to the bar in Ontario, a shift that Legge had predicted would come with time and patience.

Legge was a role model, despite her protestations, said Susan Elliott, a Kingston lawyer, who served as the second female Treasurer of the law society from 1995-97. "Change has to happen incrementally, but without somebody willing to be the first, it won't happen." Legge made some compromises, said Elliott, because she knew you can't have it all, but her legacy is a testament that if you are prepared to work hard, you can be both a leader and a complete person.

As a young feminist, lawyer Constance Backhouse, now a legal historian at the University of Ottawa, admits she was "impatient" with Legge. She thought Legge was too dismissive of the "stand up and be counted" actions that many of the younger generation of women lawyers were taking in the 1970s and 1980s. But as time passed and Backhouse did more historical research into the legal profession, she changed her mind.

Women like Ontario's Clara Brett Martin, who, in 1897, became the first woman lawyer in the British Empire, and Legge, who entered the profession 50 years later, were awash in discrimination, says Backhouse. "To label, let alone complain about the way they were treated, was both futile and foolhardy because there were so few of them," she said. Legge had worked too hard to run the risk of being dismissed as a token in the profession. That's probably why she denounced employment equity targets and insisted that excellence must trump gender and race in law school admissions and hiring policies.

"It is not that they were unsupportive," says Backhouse, "it is that they had come through a time with a very different context and working conditions and they had to adopt very different strategies. I think Laura was as proud of women in the legal profession as any of us were, and as anxious to see women achieve equal status."

Legge was sort of like a "stealth bomber," says her daughter Elizabeth Legge, an art historian at the University of Toronto. She wasn't ideological, but she cared about the profession and she impressed her fellow lawyers -emphasis on the fellow - because she was "fair, she was just, she was sharp, intellectually and she tended to shy away from overriding positions ... She had a very common law model of the mind: everything is a precedent and that is how you move forward - by setting precedents."

She also had "a good heart," according to Ruby. "Very right wing politics, unfortunately, but a good heart. If you were an ordinary person, wanting the old fashioned family lawyer, you couldn't do better than Laura Legge in this world." Describing her "utter devotion" to her clients, Ruby said no problem was too small for her to tackle. "If it was causing you pain, she would find a way to solve it and it didn't matter how many hours of your time it took," he said with a laugh remembering how often she had called him on behalf of a client "with no money but a big problem - and I want you to help."

Besides being a public role model, Legge quietly and discreetly offered advice, encouragement and help to younger female lawyers. There were "many sides to her," says Backhouse. "I admired her enormously: She went into practice, she raised a family and she stayed in practice until [almost] the day she died" of cancer, at age 86, on October 5, 2010.

Laura Louise Legge was the middle of seven children born to James and Lucy (nee Down) Pratt. Her parents, who had both emigrated from Cornwall in England, owned and operated a dairy farm near the town of Courtland in what was once the tobacco belt in southwestern, Ontario. That's where she was born on January 27, 1923.

Times were tough, especially during the Depression, but the Pratts always had food to put on the table and to share with less fortunate neighbours. Her father was fascinated by politics and history, while her mother was an avid reader of fiction, two passions that Laura acquired as if by osmosis.

"I grew up in an atmosphere of discussion," she told Elspeth Cameron in a 1985 profile in Chatelaine magazine. "My parents read two newspapers a day and all kinds of books. They also listened to radio reports. We discussed world affairs at the dinner table. I took it for granted, just as I took for granted the puritanical aversion to drinking, swearing and smoking that was characteristic of our churchgoing community."

Like many rural kids in that era, she went to a one room schoolhouse. Far from being a deprivation, being squeezed into the same classroom as older students at Courtland Public School was actually a boon because it allowed her to eavesdrop on their lessons, especially Latin and Greek. Wisely, her teachers let her work at her own pace.

In those days, education was an escape route from poverty for smart boys and a smaller number of girls, and Laura was one of those super achievers. There was another, sadder spur. Her older brother John went out too far into the lake at a church picnic when he was 21, and drowned in front of his family. This was emotionally scarring for all of them, but it had a profound effect on his younger sister, Laura. "In many ways, a lot of what she tried to do in her life was to make it up to John for the fact that she was still alive," says her daughter Elizabeth.

After Courtland, Laura went to Tillsonburg High School, graduating with the Governor-General's medal and a scholarship to the University of Western Ontario in London. She was so poor that she had only one pair of shoes, a humiliation that she tried to hide in what was even then, a well-heeled student body.

Commuting to classes from an aunt's house in nearby St. Mary's, she crammed three years of courses into two, although a university administrator suggested such an accelerated program would cast aspersions on the university's academic standards. She graduated with an Honours B.A. in 1944, at age 21, and immediately went into nursing at the Toronto General Hospital, where she graduated at the top of her class.

Nursing was never her vocational goal; instead it was a way to earn money to finance her real ambition to become a lawyer. While working part-time at two jobs - she also worked in the tobacco fields - she completed her LLB in 1948 at Osgoode Hall, taking lectures from legal giants such as Bora Laskin. At the time, fewer than 100 women were practising law in Ontario.

After her call to the bar in 1948, she went to work in the Ontario Ministry of Health, drafting legal regulations. Two years later, on July 21, 1950, she married a fellow student, Bruce Legge, a veteran, four years her senior. According to a family story, she took one look at this "living skeleton," and decided "he was the one." By 1955, they had three children: Elizabeth, John and Bruce.

Legge, who took five or six months off after the birth of each child, had a full-time housekeeper. In a routine that seems unthinkable for an ambitious lawyer today, she went home for lunch every day and left the office at 5 p.m. to have dinner with her children, a habit she kept up until they were university age.

"She wanted flexibility," her daughter said, about her mother's decision to forgo criminal for family law. That's why she resigned from the Ministry of Health in 1955 and opened a general practice in a small Toronto office, close enough to walk to and from home. She founded Legge and Legge, in partnership with her late husband Bruce (who died in 2006 and had been mostly a silent partner) and later worked with her elder son John.

An efficient and intelligent woman, she worked her way up in the profession, earning the designation Queen's Counsel in 1966, winning her barrier-breaking elections as bencher in 1975, and Treasurer in 1983. In that contest, she defeated Pierre Genest from the Bay Street firm, Cassels Brock, by a margin of almost two to one in a secret ballot cast by fellow benchers. She was returned for a second one year term in 1984 and became interim treasurer in 1988 when the serving officer, William Daniel Chilcott, was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

A traditionalist to the core, Legge argued in the early 1980s against letting lawyers advertise their services, derided the Ontario government's decision to abandon the QC designation for senior lawyers - "absolute effrontery," in the mid-1980s and protested the move in the 1990s to allow paralegals to handle straightforward legal undertakings.

Active in the community as well as the profession, Legge received many awards and honours, including the Order of Ontario in 2003. The Law Society unveiled a bronze bust of her in 1987 and created a medal in her name in 2007 to honour a female lawyer who has exemplified leadership in the profession.

At the age of 86, she went through six harrowing months of cancer surgery and chemotherapy, only to have the disease come back a few months later. "I thought I was invulnerable," she said ruefully to her daughter, when her health began to fail. "She was busy, she had things to do, said Elizabeth. "She was really disappointed to be dying."

Laura Legge leaves her three children, eight grandchildren, two siblings and her extended family.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

CORRECTION

In 1988, W. Daniel Chilcott became a judge of the Supreme Court of Ontario, not the Supreme Court of Canada, as stated on Saturday. Incorrect information was supplied by the Law Society of Upper Canada.

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