Bertha Wilson and the Creation of the Discipline of Legal Research

I hope that my friend Maurice Coombs will forgive me reproducing a tribute to the late Justice Bertha Wilson, which has some interesting insights into how Osler established the first legal research practice area in Canada – and I would suspect the world. It comes from the OBA’s Briefly Speaking but deserves a wider readership.

With the death of Bertha Wilson we have lost a superb lawyer, a wonderful woman, and a great Canadian.

I first met her in the fall of 1971 when I interviewed with her for the position of associate lawyer in the research practice she had created at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. On that autumn day I was ushered into her office in the building at the corner of King and Yonge Streets in Toronto (where the firm then had its chambers). There I met a woman wearing a severe grey suit, speaking in a light Scottish accent and boasting a warm and encouraging smile. Within half an hour it was apparent that here was one of the best legal minds I have ever encountered. Bertha played a significant and prominent role in the history and growth of Osler — she was the first woman lawyer to practise with the firm, and the first woman partner. A partner of the firm since 1968, she had founded a unique practice — forming the firm’s research department — and she wished to expand it. Under her leadership, Osler pioneered research as a distinct practice specialty. In subsequent years most major firms saw the value of this initiative and followed suit.

Bertha played a key role in many major matters in which Osler was involved in the 1960s and 70s. One, for example, was the firm’s successful defence of Texas Gulf Sulphur in the landmark litigation over title to the major copper mining property located at Timmins. She seems to have developed a recognized practice that included research as a main component sometime around 1962 — it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when — although she also did other things such as conducting a trusts and estates practice. The earliest research memoranda authored by her and identified as research sources in Osler’s files are dated late 1958 and early 1959. There were several reasons why tasks that required intensive reading of law migrated to her; she was really very good at it, others in the firm were not or were too busy doing other lawyering tasks, and she would give her assistance readily and discreetly to those who were in need of legal research support in the development and advancement of their own practices.

Her skill at reading and interpreting law was recognized early in her time with the firm. Bertha not only showed a facility for reading law but, also, she demonstrated superior legal judgment in the application of the legal principles her research disclosed to the practical problems of the firm’s clients. Important senior members of the firm became used to enhancing their own work product by seeking her assistance and input.

Eventually, many clients of Osler and lawyers at other firms came to recognize her unique contributions. She was aware that lawyering is an art, not a science, and tried to make a masterpiece of every brief and opinion on which she worked.

Bertha was no stranger to hard work. She knew that achieving excellence in the law requires continuous and meticulous thought.

In addition to putting in the usual long hours required by the practice, she was incredibly conscientious. At home late one night, and about to retire, she was thinking over an opinion she had drafted earlier that day. Concerned that she might have missed a point, she dutifully dressed again and, accompanied by her husband John, drove to the office and reviewed the applicable law into the small hours of the morning. The opinion as originally drafted was correct, but now she knew that all relevant issues had been addressed.

Bertha also revelled in doing what she called “the people thing”. This involved working with young lawyers, encouraging them, guiding them and looking out for their interests in the partnership. She also provided a sympathetic ear and wise advice to older partners struggling with the modernization of legal practice throughout the sixties and seventies. When she left the firm to go to the Court of Appeal, it was these humane characteristics and her generosity of spirit that were most sorely missed.
The wisdom, compassion and legal brilliance that characterized Bertha’s professional life will long be remembered by those who knew her and worked with her. We shall never forget her.

Bertha Wilson
1959 – Called to the Bar in Ontario
1968 – Named first female partner of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt
1975 – Appointed to Ontario Court of Appeal
1982 – First woman appointed to Supreme Court of Canada
1988 – Morgentaler decision on abortion
1990 – Lavallee decision on battered women’s syndrome

“In her unassuming and persistent way, Bertha Wilson was a trailblazer who had a profound impact on the administration of justice, the development of law in Canada. To do what Bertha Wilson did took intelligence, vision and courage, all of which this extraordinary woman possessed in exceptional measure.”

– Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin
SOURCE: Ottawa Citizen, May 9, 2007


  1. She was an interesting woman. If you want to learn more there was a good biography published 5 years ago – Judging Bertha Wilson : Law as Large as Life by Ellen Anderson