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Judy Wilson, Public Procurement Lawyer of the Year 2013

Judy Wilson is Who’s Who Legal’s public procurement lawyer of the year for the first time. A partner at Blakes Cassels & Graydon in Toronto, she has more than 20 years’ experience dealing with commercial and procurement issues. In an exclusive interview Wilson tells Who’s Who Legal about her rise to the top of her profession.

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Judy Wilson’s decision to enter the legal profession was not an overly conscious choice. “I applied to medical school and law school in the same year and subsequently chose law,” she explains. “In Canada, at the time, it was very much the case that if you were a successful undergrad in an arts programme, then the logical next step was a law degree. There was certainly no grand plan.”

With two young children, her plan on completing the bar course was to stay at home for a year while her husband was articling. Five weeks in, Wilson recalls how she was “going crazy” and applied for a part-time position in the legal department of the City of Ottawa where she ended up staying for 12 years.

Starting out in the legal department handling tenders for road and sewage, her interest in public procurement soon developed. In time, she moved out of the legal department to become director of solid waste and later of wastewater. It was running “the municipal equivalent of a business,” she says. “I loved it.”

The next adjustment in her life came about when her husband was offered a new job opportunity, one which would require the family to move to Toronto. With her children aged 11 and 15 at the time, she recalls how they moved in the summer ready for the start of school in September – and Wilson, not wanting to leave her job, began commuting. After enduring six months of flying between Ottawa and Toronto, her frequent flyer points ran out. “I always wonder what might have happened if those points hadn’t run out,” she jokes. What did happen is that she looked for a job in Toronto, and joined Blakes as counsel.

Wilson – a client of the firm while working in Ottawa – says, “Blakes were the best in the country for client service and that ultimately determined my decision to join them.”

When joining the firm, she was told that if in two years’ time she showed potential to become a partner, she might be promoted. She explains how, at the time, she was “so glad to be in the same city as my family, I would have done anything”. Sure enough, before her two years were up she had made partner.

Despite her many achievements, Wilson displays modesty and says that in many ways she made partner by “fortunate coincidence”. In her first few months at Blakes, the World Bank called needing someone knowledgeable in infrastructure, and a partner in the London office recommended her. She went on to spend the next eight years travelling across the world for the client. By the time the Canadian market had picked up, she had worked on 22 World Bank infrastructure projects, putting the practice at Blakes in a great position to take on new instructions. “Being a Canadian public procurement specialist, where the laws are some of the strictest in the world, was a very nice fit for the bank which has a strong ethic of procurement due to concerns about corruption,” Wilson explains.

Her decision to specialise in public procurement was a matter of timing. Around the same time as her graduation from law school, the Supreme Court of Canada gave judgment on the seminal case on procurement law (The Queen (Ontario) v Ron Engineering Construction (Eastern) Ltd). Less than a month after she started working for the City of Ottawa, Wilson learned that the council was intending not to award a tender to a lower bidder, on the basis that they were from Hull, Quebec – a competitor city which had recently turned down a contractor with a lower bid as they were from Ottawa.

 

Armed with the precedent set by Supreme Court case, she went in front of the council to tell them that what they were planning to do was not permitted. They didn’t listen – but she inherited all the municipal procurement work from then on.

 

On her rise to the top, Wilson faced several obstacles. The first was that, at the time of joining Blakes, procurement and infrastructure were still viewed as “law light” among legal practitioners. At times, she describes how it was professionally difficult to be practising an area of law differing from those of her fellow partners. The second was the transition from the public sector to private practice. “It was really tough. I was 12 years behind when I arrived at Blakes and I needed to catch up.” Building her practice from scratch is, in her view, one of her greatest achievements and a source of great satisfaction. Indeed, in the last year she has been actively working on tenders for nuclear reactors and the new light rail system in northern Toronto, as well as advising clients on the Broader Public Sector Procurement Directive. She is currently acting for Cliffs Natural Resources with respect to the development of a mine in the far north of Ontario, a mining hotspot dubbed the “ring of fire”.

Despite all the obstacles, she is adamant that “nothing caused me more stress than managing my childcare”. Having two babies in law school and “seeing them grow up to be well adjusted, ‘normal’ children after having their mother travel 160 days out of the year for eight years” is a further highlight for her.

While Wilson still has a great career ahead of her, she is immensely proud of the succession plan she has put in place. She has worked hard to mentor other men and women and is gratified that they are not just strong lawyers, but also strong people. Mentoring is a subject close to Wilson’s heart. Never having had a mentor she feels strongly that, were she to advise her younger self, she would tell her to seek one out early in her career.

She also wishes she had come to the conclusion earlier than she did that private practice law is entrepreneurial. “You are a business person and building a practice within a larger context, not an employee. I was slow to come to this realisation,” she explains.

Further regrets include turning down an interview to clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada because articling at a law firm paid C$90 a month more. At the time, with a child, it seemed to Wilson like the logical choice. “With hindsight, this was not a good decision!” she laughs.

Asked whether the legal industry could do more for women in the profession, Wilson agrees. “But it is hard to know what without sounding trite,” she adds. She goes on to explain that there is a great deal of focus on work/life balance in an environment that is inherently skewed toward the former. “Women are balancing a home life and work in an elite profession in some of the world’s leading firms. Clients expect you to be available for the premium fees they are paying.” She believes the key is sponsorship, a step above mentoring, where male or female persons in positions of authority use their influence to help others advance. It is something she actively practises herself.

Blakes also have a women’s initiative in place which has been around in some shape or form for 15 years (formally for 10). It is a broad-based network identifying issues related to female clients, allowing women to share their professional and their work/life balance experiences. “It is a definite success, and is growing and developing as we go along,” she comments.

While the situation for women in the legal profession has improved since she embarked on her career 30 years ago, she believes there is still “a way to go”.

“Where change really needs to take root,” she says, “is in thinking of women as equals from a pure business perspective.”

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