A Pioneer on the Bench

The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin shares stories of her journey to the Canadian Supreme Court.

As she sat fireside at the 39th Annual Pepperdine School of Law Dinner in February, Canadian Supreme Court chief justice Beverley McLachlin took a moment to reflect. In the company of the Pepperdine Law dean Deanell Reece Tacha and the Honourable Allen M. Linden, Chief Justice McLachlin was being honored with the Robert H. Jackson Award for contributions as a pioneer in law.

In the audience that evening were more than 600 guests, many of whom were law students eagerly awaiting her advice and guidance. Her success from humble beginnings offered hope in a trying time for new graduates entering a tough economy and even tougher job market. She advised law students to remain optimistic despite obstacles that may lie ahead.

"The law is a service profession and lawyers are the connection, the vital link, between the people who need justice and getting justice." ~ The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin

“It’s a difficult time that we are going through, and what does one do?” she asked. “I would say be persistent. I think there will always be a need for lawyers and legal thinking. I think it’s a time when people have to try new approaches rather than relying solely on the mainstream, big-city law firms.” She continued, “The law is a service profession, and lawyers are the connection,the vital link, between the people who need justice and getting justice. This applies universally. As a lawyer, the most important thing that you have is your reputation. That’s all you have. In tough times you have to be particularly careful to protect that important commodity, which you are going to trade on for the rest of your life.”

During her visit to Malibu, Chief Justice McLachlin interacted regularly with students at the School of Law, including presiding over the 38th annual Vincent S. Dalsimer Moot Court Competition alongside Dean Tacha and the Honorable Robert Henry, president of Oklahoma City University and retired judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Chief Justice McLachlin congratulated competitors Karissa Hurst (’09), Amie Vague, Ardy Pirnia, and Andrew Quist for their professionalism.

“They remained poised and their arguments were technical and strong,” she said. She continued, noting her overall reaction to Pepperdine Law, “My encounters with the students have been among the best that I’ve ever had,” she said. “I found the level of questions and discussions that I encountered to be very mature. I was enormously impressed.”

Paving the Way

Chief Justice McLachlin herself had never planned on becoming a lawyer. A lack of confidence was her biggest adversary. When she was appointed as the 17th chief justice of Canada’s Supreme Court in January 2000, the first woman to hold the position, she found herself feeling more obligated than ever to make decisions based on integrity to uphold the rule of law.

Her academic career began near her hometown of Pincher Creek at the University of Alberta in northwestern Canada. Her plan was to teach philosophy.

“I wasn’t sure about it at all,” Chief Justice McLachlin said. “Things hadn’t worked out quite how I had wanted. I wasn’t excited about it. Someone said why don’t you consider a law degree, which I had never considered. So I thought about it. I wasn’t convinced. I wrote over the summer for information from the law dean, and he wrote back and said ‘You’re accepted.’ So I thought I would give it a try.”

That was the fall of 1964. There weren’t many women practicing law at the time. Of the approximately 65 students that entered her law school class at the University of Alberta, only nine were women. Of those, approximately half completed their degree.

“It was lonely,” she said. “I’ve always been fortunate as a woman in the law. The men I’ve encountered have always been fair-minded people who have helped me in my career. But there were obviously situations where you weren’t chosen for something for whatever reason. And there were always people that didn’t have great attitudes toward women in the profession. But I always just worked around that.”

Chief Justice McLachlin’s background in philosophy helped strengthen her studies as a law student.

“Philosophy teaches analytical thinking and the development of arguments,” she noted. “So you have to think very clearly. You have to think analytically. You have to think persuasively. When you think about it, in addition to all the ideas and principles that you study, you are actually learning analytical technique, which I think provides a good background for law.”

In addition to completing her LLB in law, Chief Justice McLachlin earned a master’s degree in philosophy, further developing the analytical skills she held in high regard. But she lacked confidence in terms of becoming a successful lawyer. She found guidance from professors and professional mentors.

Justice McLachlin's swearing-in to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989.

“They made me think I could do it,” she said. “My main challenge was always confidence. ‘How can I do this? I don’t think I am up to this.’ These people saw that I could when I didn’t believe in myself. And then gradually I realized that I could.”

Chief Justice McLachlin was called to the Bar of Alberta in 1969 and to the Bar of British Columbia in 1971. She held dual roles as a practicing lawyer and as a professor at the University of British Columbia until 1981, when she was appointed to the County Court of Vancouver and then to the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
In 1985, she was appointed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal before taking the role of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1988. Her career as a justice with the Supreme Court of Canada began in March 1989.

Chief Justice McLachlin joined some of Canada’s most historical figures in becoming the first woman appointed as chief justice. Agnes MacPhail was elected the first member of the Canadian parliament in 1921, just three years after women received voting rights in Canada. Cairine Wilson was the first Canadian woman elected into the Senate in 1930. Bertha Wilson became the first woman justice of the Canadian Supreme Court in 1982.

Chief Justice McLachlin signing the oath with Prime Minister Chretien for her swearing-in as chief justice in 2000.

“The main contribution we all want to make is in helping people find justice,” Chief Justice McLachlin said. “Whether you are a man or a woman, the goal is the same. I think women bring different insights and their different cultural experiences and social experiences, which is really important to the law. So much of the law is concerned with family, children, and criminal justice issues. It is about how people are expected to live and women have a great understanding and experience in those areas. I think the feminine perspective is important in general.”

Addressing Chief Justice McLachlin’s career, Dean Tacha says, “She has risen meteorically and is held in high respect throughout the world.”

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