The Ontario legal scene in 1934 was very much a man’s world.
If Mary Constance McLean - or Connie Hunt, as she was then called - needed any reminder of that fact, she got it at her call to the bar ceremony in a downtown Toronto courtroom. She and one other woman stood up, surrounded by almost 60 men.
“I don’t know what the men thought,” McLean says. “They didn’t seem to mind because I married one of them the next year.”
Six women were there when she began her final year at Osgoode Hall Law School, but four fell by the wayside. McLean ended up finishing fifth overall in her class of 95 students. That feat got her a mention in the newspaper of her hometown of Hamilton, Ont.
“Among those few women practising in the province, none have had as brilliant an academic record,” it read.
Seventy-six years later, and having just celebrated her 100th birthday, McLean sits atop a legal dynasty of sorts. She articled and practised with her father, John Hunt, and later with her husband Monty McLean when he took over her family’s practice.
Her legal career took a back seat for a number of years while she raised five children. One of them, Donald McLean, became a Crown attorney, while two nephews are also lawyers. Following in their footsteps are one grandchild and two great nephews, who joined the club earlier this month.
“When I told her my son had been called to the bar last week, she said, ‘Just what we need in the family - another lawyer,’” says Dermot Nolan, one of McLean’s nephews.
McLean got back into full-time practice in her 60s after her husband developed Alzheimer’s disease. She says she went to his office intending to close it but ended up with more than she bargained for.
“I discovered there were about four estates that I figured I would have to handle because they’d been clients. Well, 20 years later, I was still practising. I just felt I owed it to those clients but when I got back, I got in the hang of things.”
At one point, Nolan and his brother, both relatively new calls in the late 1970s, invited her to join their practice in Hamilton.
“It worked out well for us,” says Nolan. “We were two young lawyers starting out and we were happy to take the work she didn’t want to do, and it helped her get back into the practice of law.”
In the end, a combination of increasing insurance premiums and advancing technology convinced McLean the time had come to step aside at the age of 85.
“There were all these new-fangled digital types of things that you really had to purchase, so I decided that was the time I’d quit,” she says. “I can hardly figure out the television to get the news, so I’m sure not going to put any money in there.”
Still, she never resigned or retired but instead kept up her membership in the Law Society of Upper Canada. Nolan believes she may now be the oldest lawyer in Ontario.
“She took a leave of absence and she’s still on it,” he says. “I’m always teasing her, asking her when she’s coming back.”
The list of letters read out at her 100th birthday party recently sounds like a who’s who of the Canadian legal world, with messages from the Supreme Court and provincial chief justices and the treasurer of the law society.
Justice Alan Whitten of the Ontario Superior Court shared space with McLean and her nephews for eight years before he joined the bench. “That time was both a professional and
he wrote in his letter. “Your impact upon the legal community in Hamilton has been truly immense.”
There were also messages from the Queen, the Governor General, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and his predecessors Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien.
“I had so much adulation for that, too much attention maybe,” McLean says. “It was wonderful, the best party I’ve ever had.”
McLean told family and friends at the celebration that while she was pleased to have reached her goal of celebrating her 100th birthday, she would now have to set a new one.
St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton may have helped her with that by announcing it intends to present her with an award in September. McLean started one of the first volunteer associations for the hospital.
“I had to put an extra phone in because of the work I did for the hospital as a volunteer,” McLean says, adding her husband used to jokingly answer the phone saying, “St. Joseph’s hospital annex” because of the sheer volume of calls they would take.