Kathleen Lahey acknowledges that her decision to spend the bulk of her career in academia is bewildering to some. But the Queen’s University law professor says what many consider a sober wing of the profession has given her a rare opportunity to match intellectual curiosity in tax and gender law with practice.
“It has really enabled me to respond from an academic perspective to a number of major issues,” says Lahey, who on top of teaching law across the globe has acted on contentious Charter cases at the Supreme Court and shared her knowledge as an author.
Lahey, 62, grew up in Illinois, and while many lawyers become interested in the profession through a parent’s experience or an attraction to its social stature, Lahey decided to go to law school based on an interest in income tax law.
She taught a combined math and writing program at a Chicago-area college, and that experience fuelled her belief in the significance of the specialty.
“I have found that it is so pervasive and so imbued with policy choices that it is really an excellent way to get a sense of how legal policy interfaces with day-to-day life,” she says. “It provides me with a fascinating area to study.”
She went on to receive a JD from DePaul University in Chicago, where after getting her degree she began practising and specialized in the tax-exempt bond issue market. Lahey says Canada’s Royal Commission on Taxation was a prominent part of her law school curriculum, and it pulled her north.
“It made me realize that if I went to Canada, I would get what seemed to me to be a little more open and rational approach to tax-policy choices than seemed to be playing out in the United States,” she says with a laugh. “I have subsequently somewhat refined that perspective, but I was then purpose-driven to go to Osgoode [Hall Law School] to study tax law.”
She attended Osgoode in the early and mid-1970s, and began teaching tax and business law at the University of Windsor in 1976. Lahey says she “absolutely loved” the time she spent there.
“It was and continues to be, I think, one of the most creative and genuinely diverse open law schools in Canada,” she says.
Lahey used a sabbatical in the early 1980s to act as senior lecturer at Monash University law school in Australia. She remained a professor at Windsor until the late 1980s, however, at which point she spent a leave as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School’s international tax program.
After that stint, she accepted a teaching position at Queen’s, a campus that at the time was the epicenter for critical legal studies and feminist studies in Canada, both areas of great interest to her.
The Queen’s position saw Lahey cross appointed as a law professor and professor of women’s studies, which exposed her to students in virtually all of the university’s faculties.
Lahey recently spent a leave from Queen’s working with the House of Commons committee on the status of women, from November of 2007 to June 2008. She helped the committee with a major study on gender-based analysis of law and policy. The committee specifically went to her in search of information on how a gender-based analysis of tax law would be carried out.
She conducted a series of studies on that issue for the committee, and went on to provide similar expertise to the New Brunswick government until early September.
Lahey also has rounded out her career by contributing to Charter cases. Most notably, she acted on the 1989 case at the Supreme Court of Canada, Andrews v. Law Society of British Columbia, the court’s first interpretation of s. 15. More recently, Lahey has acted for couples involved in same-sex marriage litigation.
“I have had the opportunity, really, to become involved in a number of different aspects of the legal process, as well as varying types of application of academic work,” says Lahey, who also has published books on law and sexuality and corporate taxation.
“I’ve had the opportunity to carry out intensive research, and also to sometimes apply it to current events,” she says. “I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve found being a law professor to be so intellectually and professionally engaging.”
Lahey says she’s gained support over the years from a group of other female law professors in Ontario who broke into the profession at the same time. But because there were few women teaching before her, she’s turned to role models like Bertha Wilson, the first female justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, for guidance.
“She would visit law schools and meet faculty,” recalls Lahey, adding that Wilson provided “a sense of the importance of women’s own experience as they become involved in the study, teaching, and practice of law.”
Lahey sympathized with Wilson’s recollection of receiving an excessive amount of deskwork early in her career - ostensibly because she was good at it - and later realizing it likely was influenced by the idea that women couldn’t deal with clients.
“Just being able to hear that, and hear a woman who had been in the profession longer than myself say something like that, helped me understand that some of the differences that I perceived were not just figments of my imagination.”
Lahey, who is the founding editor of the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, says women now face fewer challenges in the profession, although a number of issues are yet to be worked out.
On top of the usual obstacles for women hoping to excel in a male-dominated profession, Lahey has gained prominence despite raising two daughters (now in their 20s) while working and facing resistance to her own identity.
“As an out lesbian, I have been perhaps not taken quite as seriously as people who don’t have that personal characteristic,” she says.
On top of Lahey’s clear affinity for the law, her success must also be credited to her outlook on these challenges.
“All of those things have immensely enriched what I’ve done, so I wouldn’t say they’re pure negatives by any means,” she says.
This is the seventh in our Women in Law series that is running in Law Times, featuring profiles of female lawyers from around the province.