Each month, we feature a professor from the Faculty who supports and contributes to feminist legal thought.
Interviewed by: Kate Cornish
KC: What was your very first job?
ET: As a lawyer?
KC: Any first job!
ET: I worked at summer camp forever and ever and ever. I was one of those people who was still working at summer camp at an embarrassingly old age, well into my undergrad for sure. And as a result of that, it kind of interfered with my ability to have normal summer jobs. But then my first non-camp related job was at the department store “Ogilvy” in Montreal in the papeterie selling high end pens, which was kind of my dream job and still sort of is!
KC: So from selling pens, how did you get on this path to law?
ET: This is actually kind of a funny story. My parents were both in the legal profession, and so from a very young age people would always say to me, “are you going to be a lawyer when you grow up?” And I would say “no!” And as a result, I undertook a very Type A form of rebellion, which was majoring in bio-chemistry in my undergrad as my way of saying “see, I’m not going to be a lawyer.” And when I told my dad that I was going to study bio-chemistry, he said, “that’s so great, we’re so proud of you for doing this science stuff, and when you finally realize that what you actually want to be is a lawyer, we’ll support you.” And I was indignant. And it wasn’t because there was pressure to be a lawyer, it was more like my dad knew me, and just strongly felt that I would end up being a lawyer. Then a year later, in my third year I started thinking I might want to transfer to political science. Long story short, I did end up applying to law school, so that was my path. It was like a reluctant acquiescence to a foretold destiny.
KC: Great! Yeah, I was going to ask about how your parents’ legal careers influenced your upbringing and your pursuit of law.
ET: Number one, it caused me to not want to be a lawyer. But not because I wasn’t interested in what they were doing – my parents both kept their work separate, they didn’t spend a lot of time talking to me about their work per se. But I do think it shaped my capacity for legal reasoning, just the way we talked about issues and things, it was a very logical kind of approach. Also the fact that my parents had very varied careers. My professional role models through my parents weren’t people who just went to big firms and stayed there for their whole career. And I think that has really informed my own risk taking with my career, and my own comfort with every couple of years fundamentally changing what I’m doing. This is consistent with what I saw and only now understand was quite unusual for their generation.
KC: In your varied career, what are you working on at the moment that you’re most proud of or excited about?
ET: Tricky! I am someone who tends to have a lot of little things on the go. I mean, I’m teaching a new course this semester and it’s the first time I’m having to build a class from the ground up, and it’s in the area of criminal evidence, and evidence was my favourite class so it’s been really fun to go back to first principles. I just spent two days going over document intensive cases with them, and how you deal with this is very complicated because the Evidence Act is often not very clear. And I was thinking, I wish I had done this as a lawyer: gone from the beginning and gone through all the cases, make some slides… it’s very refreshing. I’ve enjoyed teaching and going back to the basics and remembering why I loved law school so much. I’m running for city council so that’s kind of exciting too. And I work with a refugee sponsorship group. We’re about to bring over our 4th family and that’s been a really rewarding experience and a way to engage with members of my community.
KC: You mentioned you have a life in politics as well, so what about being a lawyer have you been able to translate into political life?
ET: In fact, part of what moved me to enter politics was Tom Mulcair and his manner as leader of the opposition in question period and just his style. People often talk about what an able cross-examiner he was in the House. And when I was starting to think about politics and standing up to things the government was doing, then I would see Tom and think, “I kind of have that same skill set.” It was the first time I saw a super natural transition from law to politics. And it’s not brain surgery, so many people in politics come from law. I think where I had a strength as a candidate was being able to think on my feet in debates, and having confidence in my ability to research an issue, form an understanding of it, and then repackage it in a way that’s accessible for someone who doesn’t really understand it. When you’re a litigator, that’s a big part of what you have to do. Like when I did white-collar crime and you might have to explain a complicated scheme to a judge. It’s a skill that civil litigators have too. Condensing and repackaging, but not by dumbing it down. Kind of like what we do on the podcast – trying to make things more accessible. I think that’s a legal skill that’s an asset in politics.
KC: Do you want to tell us a bit about your podcast?
ET: I co-host “The Docket,” with my common law spouse, Michael Spratt, who’s a criminal defense lawyer. He actually started the podcast with a colleague, before I was involved. It was fine, they enjoyed themselves and had some good guests, but it wasn’t circulating as widely. When I came on, it was because we decided to do this thing on “Making a Murderer” and wouldn’t it be cool cause we were a crown and a defense lawyer. My mom was involved from time to time, and she’s a former judge, and we found we had good chemistry for it and had positive feedback. So when “Making a Murderer” ended, we decided we would just continue with it, but dealing with contemporary legal and political issues. We enjoyed doing it, if we had more time we’d do an episode weekly. We don’t spend a ton of time preparing, maybe we follow something in the media or read a decision that we want to refer to. It eats into our very precious leisure time, but it’s fun!
KC: You mentioned “Making of a Murderer,” do you have a favourite Netflix show at the moment?
ET: I am currently watching “This is Us” – I just stumbled on it, I hadn’t heard all the hype about it. I’ve re-watched Grey’s–it’s like comfort food for me. It’s hard because Mike has an aversion to any legal procedural shows, for him it’s too close to work. He couldn’t deal with The Wire, whereas I like shows like that. There’s the shows you watch with your partner and the shows you watch alone. But definitely into “This is Us” at the moment.
KC: Good show! So what is the best thing about being a prof at Ottawa U?
ET: I just really like the combination of being able to teach in a subject matter that I really really love, but also–to the extent students are open to it–I do enjoy the mentorship part of it. So I’ve really invested time and tried to help people move forward in their careers who are interested in criminal law in particular, which is not everyone who takes first year Crim. I’ve really made a commitment to myself that I am always going to find the time for reference letters and introducing people to folks who are practicing. When I look back on my own classmates, and especially now that we’re about 15 years out of law school, I was one of five classmates running in the federal election. Another classmate is the Attorney General of BC. Now I always think about who are my students, who is going to be in those super high profile jobs, and also who is going to make those small impacts in their community as well.
KC: That’s nice. So if you had one piece of advice for students, what would it be?
ET: For students that are interested in Crim, not to dismiss it as a career like I initially did. I would always go to interviews and say “I know my transcript looks like I’m really into Crim but it’s really just an academic interest.” I didn’t really seriously consider it as a career path. But the biggest thing is, I’m big on risk taking and openness to opportunities, so I think my number one advice would be, don’t be too singular in your plan – like don’t have a 2 year plan, a 5 year plan, a 10 year plan, that’s very rigid. I think when you have that, you can miss the opportunities that will take you where you’re meant to go. So I’m not saying don’t be ambitious, be ambitious, and be forward looking, but be prepared to deviate from that plan. Law is a career where you can and should love your work, and if you’re not loving your work then there’s something else for you. A law degree is so versatile, you don’t need to be in a big firm to be a lawyer. Don’t get sucked into the path of least resistance. It’s just harder to get those alternative careers so you have to be willing to put the work in.