It was while working in New York watching lawyers help squatters move into better housing that Carole Brown first got the urge to study law.
At the time, Brown was a student working for the summer in the City of New York’s housing and development department. Her job was concentrated in Harlem, an experience that inspired her to do more.
“I had determined that what I was doing that summer in New York was always a Band-Aid solution, whereas lawyers could help to effect change in society,” she says.
Now, in the midst of a career that has brought her from her American roots to work in some of Canada’s biggest law firms, Brown has just taken the helm of one of the country’s largest legal organizations, the Ontario Bar Association, as president.
It’s a job colleagues and friends say she is well suited for given hr reputation as a high-energy lawyer with impeccable character and a will to succeed.
“She’s got soft hands in the sense of being able to work with people,” says Brown’s close friend, Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP civil litigator Fay Brunning.
“I’ve always watched her earn people’s respect and admiration. She’s patient for people to be able to understand her style of leadership, and I really think that she’ll do well this year.”
Brown, 59, is a partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Ottawa who was called to the bar in 1984.
Away from her practice, she has slowly worked her way through the OBA ranks since becoming a member as a law student. She has served as an officer, executive member, and council member.
Brown says she was drawn to the association due to the role it plays as a provider of professional development, as a voice to government, and as a forum to build networks.
“It also permits us to exit from our own practice focuses, to focus on larger issues related to the profession at large,” she says.
She singles out diversity in the profession as one of her top priorities in the year ahead.
“The face of our country is multicultural, but the face of our profession has not kept pace,” she says.
“There are barriers in the profession, both obvious and hidden, that result in some of our members from certain marginalized groups or communities that are under-represented in the practice. I want to focus on that and I want to try to formulate some programs and plans . . . that will assist in breaking down the barriers.”
She also lists access to justice as another “substantive” area where she will focus her efforts. Some of the member service issues she hopes to tackle include professional development and greater participation in the association from regions and young lawyers.
But while Brown will now be able to lead some of those changes as head of the OBA, it’s worth pointing out that she took a roundabout route to that point. She grew up in the small town of Camden, N.Y., as the only child of two teachers who encouraged her to succeed at school.
She then used her strong academic abilities to get a bachelor’s degree from Middlebury College in Vermont, a school known for its language courses.
She moved on to complete a master’s degree in language and literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. While in France, she met a Canadian man, which prompted her to move to Toronto. There, she spent four years working at the French consulate doing art exchanges and counselling students about education in France.
She then followed her urge to become a lawyer by enrolling at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, where she met her husband Donald Piragoff - currently an assistant deputy minister at the Department of Justice - at the school’s law library.
“It was the great Canadian love story,” she says with a laugh.
Her strong grades helped her land an articling position with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP in Ottawa. She then returned to Toronto after being offered a clerkship with the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Piragoff was at that point working with Justice Canada, so Brown went back to Ottawa to practise with the 15-lawyer firm Scott & Aylen, which later merged with other firms to become BLG. She has since developed a vibrant practice focusing mainly on commercial and securities litigation work.
Her friend Brunning notes the long odds Brown has overcome since a devastating car accident in December 2001.
Brown was travelling in the United States at the time and was transported back to Canada by air ambulance for medical treatment. She was hospitalized for an extended period, and doctors doubted she would ever return to work.
“She just has amazing self-determination,” says Brunning. “Carole is so pragmatic - she was sort of like, ‘OK, this is what has to be done,’ and she systematically completely overshot everybody’s expectations and she’s now healthy again. She’s overcome that entire medical situation that she had.”
Larry Elliot, a BLG partner who manages the Ottawa office’s litigation department, credits Brown’s resilience and ability to establish rapport.
“She gets along very well with people,” he says. “She is extremely hard-working and dedicated and just very committed to any cause she gets involved with. No task is too small.”
OBA immediate past president Jamie Trimble says Brown brings a diverse personal and professional background that will benefit the association’s members. He notes her roots in the United States will help her from a cross-border perspective, and as an Ottawa lawyer she will be mindful of issues facing practitioners outside Toronto. She is also the first large-firm lawyer to take the helm in a few years, he adds.
“That background brings a slightly different perspective than either I held or others in recent memory have held,” says Trimble.
“The OBA is the only institution [that] can be the voice of the profession, and in order to be the voice of the profession, you need to have different voices speaking. It’s important that the presidents of the organization reflect divergent interests from time to time.”
For her part, Brown says she is excited about the opportunity to lead and believes she is the right person to help move the association forward.
“I hope that I can bring direction [and] creative ideas and I know that I am also a good listener and open to new ideas, so I’m hoping that will serve me well in terms of everything that comes my way,” she says.
“I also believe in teamwork. So I am hoping to bring good people on board to assist us going forward.”