Opening Doors and Cutting Paths

I recently heard The Honourable Mr. Justice Marshall Rothstein give a few remarks as he received the Manitoba Bar Association’s Distinguished Service Award. In acknowledging the award, Justice Rothstein wisely noted that our career accomplishments don’t reflect only our own achievements but also the many contributions of our mentors and teachers.

Justice Rothstein’s comments reminded me of the importance of good mentoring, particularly in the early years of a legal career but also through periods of career transition, and turned my mind to the role of mentors in my own career.

The awards presentation also included the 2013 Isabel Ross MacLean Hunt award. Isabel Ross MacLean Hunt, born in 1894, was the first woman to graduate in law from the University of Manitoba, in 1915. She was also the first woman in Manitoba to operate her own law firm, and in 1953, the first woman to be named Queen’s Counsel in Manitoba. The award in her honour recognizes the achievements of a woman lawyer who opened doors for others and encouraged or mentored women in their legal careers. This year’s award went to the Honourable Madam Justice Colleen Suche of Manitoba’s Court of Queen’s Bench.

I am fortunate to count Justice Suche among my mentors, having had the privilege to work closely with her for several years through Manitoba’s Women Lawyers Forum and in the development of The Legal Help Centre of Winnipeg.

In my early years of practice, when I was working in a small rural firm with few internal supports, Ruth McNeill was a mentor to me. Ruth is a solo practitioner and was at that time the community’s only other female lawyer. Despite juggling the demands of her own busy practice and young family, Ruth was always willing to share with me the lessons she had learned,

When I left private practice to move into the non-profit sector, Barbara Palace Churchill was a key support in that time of transition, and she continued to generously offer her encouragement, advice and support even after she left the agency where we worked together.

Like Isabel Ross MacLean Hunt, each of these three women cut a unique path in her legal career, sometimes making unconventional choices along the way, and they have in common a willingness to lend support to other women in the development of their legal careers.

As I acknowledge the contributions of these mentors, I wonder how best to honour their efforts. It seems to me that the answer is simply, this – to quietly listen, openly share, generously support and honestly advise where opportunities arise, as each of these women did for me.

How do you honour those who opened doors and cut paths for you?



  1. “How do you honour those who opened doors and cut paths for you?”

    It seems to me two other important ways of honouring our mentors are:

    (1) Acknowledging them both privately and publicly. Mentorship takes commitment and effort from both sides, and if we want to encourage even greater mentorship in the future then I think it is important to thank those who are already doing a great job of mentoring. So, thanks, Justice Steel!

    (2) In addition to the things you’ve mentioned Karen (“quietly listen, openly share, generously support and honestly advise where opportunities arise”), I also believe it is important to conduct our professional lives in a way that honours the work of those who went before us. A successful ‘mentee’ must always be a great reward for her mentor (using an appropriate definition of the word “successful” – hopefully one your mentor taught you!). I believe that by attempting to put into practice the advice we’ve received and the lessons we’ve learned from the experience of our mentors, we will attract the interest of our juniors, and continue the mentoring cycle.