The road less travelled

By Susan Goldberg Students 2011

Interested in taking a different direction? These three lawyers offer advice on how to land your dream job and help save the world.

The road less travelled (Photo of Maggie Wente by Alena Gedeonova)

The Trailblazer
Maggie Wente, 35
Partner, Olthuis Kleer Townshend, Toronto

Many law students talk about making a difference in the world through the legal profession, but it’s not easy to connect with the right opportunities. National profiles three lawyers who offer advice on staying focused, overcoming obstacles and being ready when opportunity knocks.

Aboriginal law, says Maggie Wente, isn’t an area that lends itself to quick victories.

As a partner at the Toronto firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend (OKT), Wente is regularly involved in land claim negotiations that have been going on for two decades. The work requires a certain kind of perseverance, one that is bolstered by Wente’s respect for her clients: It’s positively inspiring, she says, to see “people who are living in straitened circumstances continue to fight for their rights and to be able to practise their traditional lives, to hear them speak with passion.”

Perseverance and dedication to her community have characterized Wente’s career path to date. As a student in the University of Toronto’s combined law and masters of social work program — she graduated in 2002 — she was heavily involved in aboriginal student associations, legal issues, and communities, including editing the inaugural edition of U of T’s Indigenous Law Journal. Still, says Wente, a member of the Serpent River First Nation, she never assumed that her dream career in aboriginal law was a given: “There wasn’t — and isn’t — a whole lot of opportunity to work in aboriginal law in Toronto.”

Instead, Wente articled at a labour law and human rights firm, then accepted a job with one of the firm’s union clients, quite prepared, she says, to happily continue with labour law for the rest of her career.

Then she saw a posting for an aboriginal law position at OKT. Today, Wente advises First Nations on matters that include employment and labour issues, construction law and housing, the Indian Act, and treaty rights litigation.

Wente, 35, attributes part of her success to the fact that she maintained close ties to the aboriginal legal community and issues even as she worked at the union, through organizations like the Indigenous Bar Association and other networks of aboriginal lawyers. She counts among her mentors Kimberly Murray, executive director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and former staff lawyer and executive director of Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, where Wente is currently president of the board. 

"It’s also a question of what not to do." Maggie Wente Partner, Olthuis Kleer Townshend, Toronto

Wente advises new lawyers who want to practise in a specialized area to maintain their connections to that field: “Two, three, four years down the road, when an opportunity does pop up, you can demonstrate that you’re still committed to the goal.” More practically, she notes, the best way to find out about such opportunities — and to earn valuable references and recommendations — are through those networks.

She also tells new lawyers that working in fields or firms that aren’t their first choice can still be a worthwhile experience. Her own labour background, for example, is invaluable in her current work. “There are plenty of things that big, full-service law firms have to offer in terms of incredible training and good opportunities to work with really excellent lawyers. And that can be fruitful: Certainly, at my firm, we need people who have experience other than in constitutional law, who can serve the corporate or taxation interests of first nations clients.”

On the other hand, she cautions new lawyers to avoid positions now that could prevent them from doing their dream work later. Labour law firms aren’t likely to take people who have worked in management-side labour, she points out; working in government aboriginal affairs may create conflicts later on for those who want to work for first nations. “It’s also a question of what not to do.”


(Photo of Lara Tessaro by Venturi+Karpa)

(Photo of Lara Tessaro by Venturi+Karpa)

Volunteer extraordinaire
Lara Tessaro, 34


Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the Decline of Sockeye Salmon in the Fraser River, Junior Commission Counsel.

“I was a fairly average law student,” says Lara Tessaro. “But I was a really good volunteer.”

Her knack for volunteering may be one factor that has landed Tessaro, 34, a series of elusive dream jobs in Canada’s environmental law sector. She’s currently junior commission counsel to the Cohen Commission, the federal inquiry investigating the decline of sockeye salmon in B.C.’s Fraser River. Before that, she spent four years as a staff lawyer in the Vancouver office of Ecojustice (formally the Sierra Legal Defence Fund), Canada’s largest non-profit environmental law organization. There, representing MiningWatch Canada, Tessaro landed a Supreme Court of Canada victory against the federal government.

“It was the first case I ever filed as counsel of record, entirely by myself, in my third year of call,” recalls the so-called average student, who received her LL.B. in 2002 from the University of Toronto. “Devon Page [now executive director of Ecojustice] just let me do it. He trusted my judgment.”

Tessaro credits champions and role models like Page, as well as Ramani Nadarajah, a lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), with helping her establish a career as an environmental lawyer. Under Nada­rajah’s guidance, Tessaro spent an “amazing” semester volunteering at CELA during law school. The experience, she notes, allowed her to see what she might become “when I grew up. Ramani … let me be involved with everything, from photocopying to attending hearings to doing legal research.”

That experience, and Nadarajah’s recommendation, helped open doors to a summer job — and, later, an articling position — at Ecojustice. Summering with the organization, she says, was the first time she actually thought about a career in environmental law. “I got there and I realized you could find a community of like-minded activists who were keen to fight uphill battles, who were not scared to tilt at windmills, who are very strategic thinkers who weren’t scared of politics in their work.”

"You’re going to have to be willing to be a little bit pushy and be a little bit creative and do a lot of networking." Lara Tessaro

Tessaro cautions aspiring environmental lawyers about the more depressing realities of the field: namely that the clients (hers include orca whales and coho salmon) rarely have money, and that full-time jobs in the sector are few and far between. “The idea that if you do all the right things in law school there’ll be this position waiting for you is not true. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the law school rainbow for public interest work.”

Case in point: There was no job awaiting Tessaro at Ecojustice at the end of her articles. Instead, she embarked upon a “multi-month campaign” of “haranguing and lobbying and bullying” private counsel Cameron Ward, who practises civil liberties and administrative law in Vancouver, to take her on. “It wasn’t environmental work per se,” she said. “But, it was a great way to get out and learn how to be a lawyer.”

From that job, Tessaro moved to Ottawa to serve as junior commission counsel to the Maher Arar inquiry, and then, finally, back to Ecojustice. Law students who want to practice in “underdeveloped” areas in Canada, says Tessaro, need to create their own opportunities.

“There’s no easy recipe to doing it. You’re going to have to be willing to be a little bit pushy and be a little bit creative and do a lot of networking. Be open to the opportunities and the cracks in the shadows that you would not necessarily see on the first of law school.”

(Etienne Michaud, Photographed by Sean MacLeod)

(Photography by Sean MacLeod)


Career without borders
Etienne Michaud, 33

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, Geneva, Switzerland Senior Legal Officer

Etienne Michaud expected to be working in-house at a Canadian IT firm.

Instead, when the 33-year-old graduate of the Université de Montréal law school isn’t fielding calls from the Congo behind his Geneva desk, he’s actually in places like the Congo, Afghanistan and India. As senior legal officer for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, he helps distribute and administer resources to countries in need to prevent and treat these conditions.

Michaud is perhaps as surprised as anyone else to find himself at the Global Fund. In law school, his electives focused on intellectual property and IT. After graduating in 1999, he articled at the Geneva-based, United Nations–administered, International Telecommunications Union, under the mentorship of a Quebec lawyer. He earned an LL.M. in information technology law in 2004, and spent time in China (to take a course in Chinese commercial law) and at Harvard (an internet law program). He then took a position at the Research Centre for Public Law at U de M, studying IT law across multiple jurisdictions and countries.

Ultimately, however, Michaud decided that the academic path wasn’t for him so he hopped on a plane to India to research the impact of telecom policies on NGOs in the developing world, for Alternatives International. “I wanted to get a more hands-on experience of how [telecom regulation] actually affected people,” he says.

When that stint ended, Michaud returned to Montreal, and then, a week and half later, found himself back at the ITU in Geneva. “I got short-term contracts, but the work was interesting,” he says, “so I didn’t mind too much the insecurity of it all.” In 2007, he joined the legal affairs unit of the Global Fund.

What’s the common thread, then, on Michaud’s slightly eclectic résumé? “My career was mostly defined by finding and seizing opportunities outside the beaten path,” he says. “I’ve always tried to position myself where I knew I could make a difference because of my skills and interests.

Where can I excel? Where can I actually make a difference to my employer?”

Even so, says Michaud, his international experience was crucial to getting the job he has now.

"I’ve always tried to position myself where I knew I could make a difference because of my skills and interests." Etienne Michaud


“What any hiring manager will look at is that you’ve worked abroad. Have you had some exposure to other cultures? Have you proven that you’re able to work in a multicultural environment?’ It’s always part of the criteria, always. And you don’t build that overnight.”

Michaud also credits his adventuresome spirit in helping to shape his career path. His willingness to leave secure positions for short-term contracts, as well as his willingness to relocate to Geneva on 10 days’ notice, he says, are gambles that have ultimately helped him build that interesting, international résumé.

He has recently taken up a one-year secondment to the Office of the Inspector General of the Global Fund to work on investigations concerning allegations of misuse of Global Fund grants. “I’m working with people coming from law en­forcement or criminal prosecution backgrounds as well as forensic accountants. It is very challenging work and I find the task of ensuring tax dollars are being put to work as intended very motivating.”

Michaud also notes that most of his job- and globe-hopping took place before he had family obligations that might have made him more reluctant to take the next flight to anywhere. Now married, and with children a distinct possibility, he concedes that he’ll no doubt have to be more selective about risk-taking in the future, although he imagines he’ll still find himself travelling to the farthest corners of the globe.

Still, he says, he’s honed some risk-management skills: “When you’re going to Afghanistan, you learn not to tell your mom.”


Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Thunder Bay.
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