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Women in Law: Nancy Brooks learned the profession from the best

|Written By Robert Todd

How can you get there if you don’t know where you’re going?                                        

It’s not a question Ottawa lawyer Nancy Brooks says she has ever asked herself, yet her journey in the profession has quickly wound from the top of her graduating class, while raising two young boys, to the office of the chief justice of Canada and a spot beside the top lawyers in the country.

Ottawa’s Nancy Brooks has never chased specific goals in her career, but she has accomplished much.

Brooks, a partner at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP’s Ottawa office, grew up in Windsor until age 12, when her family crossed the province to live in Ottawa.

Her father, who recently passed away, owned and operated a Chinese restaurant in Ottawa, and Brooks recalls working in the restaurant from a young age. She credits her toil there for developing a strong work ethic.

She specifically recalls being paid the “paltry sum” of about $1 an hour to work at the restaurant.

“But I never saw the money; it was just tallied up on a sheet,” she says, adding it was difficult to draw down on the tally for anything as simple as a movie, as her father planned to use the money for her university tuition.

The work ethic she developed certainly came in handy, particularly for someone who entered the legal profession as a second career. Brooks worked in Canada’s nuclear industry at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. for 17 years, embarking in that industry at the Chalk River reactor physics group.

By the time she left AECL, Brooks had become the director of business opportunities. She caught the legal bug, however, through literature. (She specifically remembers a biography of British Law Lord Tom Denning.)

“I just thought it would be an interesting and rewarding thing to do - to switch careers,” she says, adding it was difficult to leave a career she loved.

“I always felt when I worked at AECL that if you did a good job and were interested you could get ahead and get more interesting positions, and that certainly was my experience there,” she says, adding she found her colleagues to be great people to work with, who had a high level of integrity.

But she found it difficult to deal with the uncertainty surrounding AECL funding, and wanted more control over her career destiny.

Arriving at the University of Ottawa’s common law school in 1991, Brooks was immediately drawn to her new profession.

“I just thought it was a fascinating subject area,” she says, noting it was “interesting” to be in the mix with students much younger than herself.

But, unlike her new peers, Brooks was raising two young boys - one four and one six  - at the time she entered law school, and was doing so on her own, having parted with her first husband. Thankfully her years as a top-notch working professional had honed her organizational skills.

“I just found that it was an enjoyable experience,” she says, likely to the chagrin of other lawyers who clawed their way into the profession. She ended up graduating with a silver medal and went on to clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada for now-Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin.

(She admits to being unaware at the time that she was chosen to the high-profile position thanks in part to a letter of recommendation by the dean of her law faculty.)

Brooks fondly recalls her time at the country’s top court in 1994 and 1995, particularly in terms of working for McLachlin, whom she describes as “one of the top legal minds in the country.”

“Justice McLachlin was a very good mentor. She has her very direct approach,” says Brooks. “She has a very distinctive writing style. I think for all of us working for her, we had a chance to learn how to write better. Learn how the judicial process works, how judicial thinking works. For young lawyers, as we all were, it was just a very rewarding experience.”

On top of learning about the profession from the best, Brooks also enjoyed the camaraderie she developed with some of the top students from across the country, who also were clerks of the court.

“We had an a cappella choir that was led by one of my chamber mates, Nick McHaffie, who now is a lawyer across the street at Stikeman Elliott [LLP],” says Brooks.

“At lunch time we would have these practices of singing four-part harmony. It was just a lot of fun. We had a great esprit de corps, I would say.”

Brooks went to Blakes following her clerkship at the top court and became an associate at the firm after being called to the bar in 1996, but almost immediately became pregnant with her third child.

“I joke about it, but my partners did take it with very good grace,” she says. “I came in for a couple of months, then I went off on six months’ maternity.”

She has been with Blakes ever since, minus a leave of absence from 2004 to 2007 to serve as executive legal officer to McLachlin. She’s now returned to building her administrative law and commercial litigation practice.

In another tip of the hat to Brooks’ legal acumen, she was appointed legal counsel in July to Justice Jeffrey Oliphant’s commission of inquiry into certain allegations respecting business and financial dealings between Karlheinz Schreiber and former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

“I’m very thrilled to have been named one of the commission counsel by Justice Oliphant,” says Brooks, adding she’s excited to work with lead commission counsel Richard Wolson and fellow commission counsel Evan Roitenberg.

“We’re just getting up and running. I expect it will be a very rewarding mandate, because I expect that . . . it’ll be interesting to work with Justice Oliphant and I’m sure that all of us will benefit from it.”

The report from that inquiry is scheduled to be delivered to the government no later than June 12, 2009, and is sure to be just one more in an expanding list of impressive experiences on Brooks’ resumé.

But, considering how much she’s accomplished, some may be surprised to know that - contrary to much of the business self-help literature - Brooks has never chased specific goals in her career.

“I’ve never plotted out where I’m going to be five years into my career, or 10 years,” she says. “I work hard and I try to do a very good job. And I expect the opportunities I’ve had in the past to continue.”

This is the fourth in our Women in Law series that is running in Law Times, featuring profiles of female lawyers from around the province.

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