Anyone who believes you can’t have it all might want to spend a day with Hamilton lawyer Liza Sheard.
She has somehow become one of the top estates and trusts lawyers in the country while raising a family, maintaining a vibrant marriage, and fostering her passion for music. Plus, she finds time to give back to her profession, recently finishing a stint as president of the Hamilton Law Association.
Not a small feat for someone practising in one of the highest-tension areas of law, where many days are filled trying to referee deep-rooted family squabbles.
To be fair, Sheard’s pedigree may help her juggle a legal career better than most. She grew up in the Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto, where her father, Joe Sheard, was a judge. She says it didn’t take long for her father’s dinnertime stories about clients to grab her attention.
“What I knew from a very young age was that I wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to be a litigation lawyer,” says Sheard. Her father’s stories, she says, “whetted an appetite that is still in me about other people and their interesting legal problems, and their life problems.”
Sheard, 50, articled at the Toronto firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, where she secretly dated fellow articling student Mark Sazio, whom she later married. The couple practised at the Toronto firm for a couple years before moving to Hamilton, and Ross & McBride LLP, to raise their family.
Sheard is now at Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP, while Sazio is in-house counsel at John Deere.
Sheard and Sazio have been “happily married” for 23 years, she says, and have three children, aged 17, 18, and 19.
Asked what the secret might be to the lasting marriage, Sheard responds, “My husband would say that it’s because he’s a saint. But the truth of it is that we both consciously decided . . . about what we would do with our careers in order to always be home for dinner, which we’ve always, pretty much, eaten dinner as a family.”
It also helps that, until Sazio went to John Deere, their offices were in the same building, and that their commute to work was a mere 10 minutes. The couple also has always set aside one week each year to go on a vacation together, without the kids.
“I think those really funda-mental things have helped,” says Sheard.
In terms of her practice, Sheard has always been heavily interested in estate litigation. Starting in 1991, she began working on a high volume of cases from the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee, and for two years worked almost exclusively on such matters.
“That really gave me the education I needed to carry on with the practice I have today, which is probably 60-40 estate litigation and defending lawyers against claims, LawPro work,” she says.
Sheard says its been beneficial to balance the estate litigation work - which can be highly contentious and stressful - with her other work.
“It’s really oftentimes like family law, but the main litigant is dead,” she says. “The kinds of problems often have their roots in family disputes, or family hurts. It’s very common for an estate dispute to have in it one or more of a parent who has favoured one child, or a parent who has raised their family to pit one child against the other.
“You find a lot of underlying emotional issues, family issues, and it takes a lot of energy on the part of a lawyer.”
Sheard says one of the highlights of her career was a case in which members of a severed family reunited to rewrite a will that favoured some siblings over others.
“At the end of it, this really broken family were all at the courthouse to watch this - and it was all on consent - really cathartic moment,” says Sheard. “That, to this day, really stands out as a highlight of the good lawyers can do. Lawyers are so often hated and criticized, but the good we can do is often never seen in a public way. But that really stands out.”
Her time as a trustee and eventual president of the law association also means a lot to Sheard, who finished her term last year.
“I’m certainly proud of how the association grew in those years, and pleased with the contribution I was able to make,” says Sheard, who was voted by her peers as one of the top estates and trusts and legal malpractice lawyers in the 2006 edition of the Best Lawyers in Canada.
Sheard also takes pride in the work she and some colleagues have done in organizing a series of successful continuing legal education seminars on estates and trusts.
Sheard - who also served as president of the Estate Planners’ Council of Hamilton - admits that her decision to dedicate many of the few extra hours she has to law organizations owes as much to her personal ambition as to giving back to the profession.
“The truth is, really and truly, I enjoy it,” she says. “I got good advice from another lawyer in town, and she said, ‘If you don’t enjoy it, do something else.’ If I hadn’t enjoyed the law association, I wouldn’t have done it. I got so much from it.”
Aside from the law, Sheard has a serious passion for music. For at least 12 years she has been a member of Hamilton’s Bach Elgar Choir. The community choir of 80 to 100 voices performs big choral works, and has allowed Sheard to perform in the National Academy Orchestra of Canada’s Brott Music Festival.
She also sings in the St. Joseph’s Church Choir.
“I very much enjoy that kind of singing,” says Sheard, who is also an avid gardener.
Her vocal talents have landed her the honour of being the cantor at Hamilton’s fall Red Mass.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” she enthuses. “It’s a big deal to me. It’s exciting and fun.”
Looking forward in her career, Sheard hopes to start doing a lot more mediation work, after recently completing a course that has allowed her to mediate a number of cases in Hamilton, as well as a recent case in Toronto.
“What you find is, even in Toronto it’s a relatively small bar, and they don’t want their peer mediating them,” she says. “It’s nice to have an out-of-town mediator.”
With her stint at the law association now behind her, Sheard has signed on to become part of the Ontario Bar Association’s estates and trusts section. Of course, you can’t have it all unless you’re always giving a little back to your profession.
This is the second story in our new Women in Law series that will be running in Law Times this summer, featuring profiles of female lawyers from around the province.