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Better a lawyer than an actuary

|Written By Robert Todd

Torys LLP partner Patricia Jackson will receive the Law Society Medal this year, but if not for some tough advice from her father, the legal profession may not have been blessed with her presence.

Patricia Jackson is most proud of her work on freedom of expression issues.

Jackson describes her dad - Syd Jackson, who was trained as an actuary and became president and CEO of Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. - as the person who most influenced her decision to become a lawyer.

But it wasn’t because of a push toward the legal profession, but away from his own, that had the biggest impact. Jackson says she had an aptitude for mathematics as a child and near her high school graduation asked her dad about the prospect of becoming an actuary.

“He wasn’t particularly encouraging - and on the whole he was an extremely encouraging father,” she says.

Jackson says her dad was concerned that the punishing work hours of an actuary would be at odds with her family ambitions. But he was forced to reconsider that advice when she chose to become a lawyer.

“He said: ‘You know, at the time I assumed you’d get a degree and get a job and it would be an interesting job, but I also thought you would probably get married and have children (both of which I’ve done) and that whatever job you had would require you to work 9 to 5, or even lesser hours once you had children. I knew that you couldn’t do that and be an actuary,’” says Jackson.

She says he jokingly added, “If I’d known you were going to be a lawyer!”

Following her father’s counsel, Jackson began her university studies in chemistry at Queen’s University, before switching to math and political science after discovering her aversion to life in a laboratory.

After graduating, she translated her political science acumen into a gig at Queen’s Park as a researcher for a special commission into the legislature struck by Bill Davis’ Progressive Conservative government.

When that stint ended, she recalls being “slightly interested” in a career in law. The idea first hit her as she wrapped up her undergraduate studies. She recalls being referred to the woman law student at Queen’s law faculty for advice, but put it off to spend some time in the workforce.

“At the end of this two-year period [at Queen’s Park], I thought, let’s try out this law school thing,” says Jackson.

She went on to attend the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, and was called to the bar in 1988.

Jackson says, in hindsight, her father’s advice against becoming an actuary was fortuitous. She now knows she was meant to be a lawyer.

“It is one of those professions that allows you to specialize in different kinds of things, to think broadly in policy and advocacy terms about a whole range of subjects,” she says. “All of those things were always of interest to me.”

Yet Jackson never envisioned herself practising for as long as she has. Not to mention spending her entire career at the same firm.

“When I graduated I assumed I would qualify as a lawyer, and that I would article and maybe practise for a little while,” she says.

Yet she’s created a diverse and successful litigation practice, putting her stamp on some of Canada’s most important legal battles.

Jackson has appeared before every level of court in the province, as well as the Federal Court and Supreme Court of Canada.

She has also been counsel at various administrative tribunals, and worked on government commissions, such as the inquiry into the Kingston Prison for Women, led by then-Ontario Court of Appeal justice Louise Arbour, who released her report on the matter in 1996.

Jackson has amassed an impressive list of contributions to legal organizations and institutions. She has lectured at the Law Society of Upper Canada, Canadian Bar Association, American Bar Association, and at law schools.

She has long been a part of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, currently serving as its vice president. She’s a former director of The Advocates’ Society and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund Foundation, as well as a past member of the Ontario Judicial Council.

 Jackson suggests the profession’s ability to offer a varied work environment - both at the office and away from it - has kept her interested.

“Particularly as a litigation lawyer, the cases vary enormously, and the kinds of legal issues that come forward, the kinds of factual issues that come forward, vary between cases, they vary over time,” she says.

“It’s wonderfully interesting and exciting, and if anything, is just as interesting and exciting to me today as it was when I started. Which is not what I expected.”

Jackson says she is most proud of her work on freedom of expression issues. She has been a staunch advocate in the area of defamation, and has also worked on major constitutional cases.

She admits that freedom of expression was not really on her radar when she entered the profession. But the first case she worked on after her call was about defamation. That forced her to read all of the Canadian case law and much of the U.K. case law on the subject.

The case - a $42-million action against the Financial Post - was, at the time, the largest of its kind in Canadian history. She was the junior lawyer acting on behalf of the Post.

That exposure brought her a slew of work from Canadian media organizations.

“If you do that for any length of time, you are driven to consider the importance of a free press and free expression,” she says, adding the experience fostered a genuine interest in the issue.

She has also been instrumental in advocating on behalf of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association at the Supreme Court of Canada. She was counsel, for example, on the Little Sisters and R. v. Sharpe cases on freedom of speech.

“So those kinds of cases I’ve continued to do and they engage me intellectually and professionally,” she says.

She remains humble, however.

Despite the countless contributions she has made to society and the profession, Jackson’s reaction to receiving the Law Society Medal is that she has “never been so surprised by anything in my life. And I still am.”

She says, “I’ve looked now at who’s received this medal in the past - it’s quite an august group to be joining.”

This is the sixth in our series focusing on recipients of the LSUC awards honouring the best of the profession. Please visit us online at to watch video highlights of our interview with Patricia Jackson.

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