Friday, March 8, 2019
Icon for International Women's Day

The Faculty of Law is pleased to celebrate International Women's Day 2019 with a look at the achievements of several alumnae who are helping to #BalanceforBetter, the theme for this year’s IWD. We’re proud of all our alumni who give back to the community in many ways. Here’s a look at five who are doing just that:

Class of 1983: Wendy Lee

Wendy Lee '03"Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't need a Women Lawyers Forum?" says alumna Wendy Lee, LLB 1983, "or a West Coast LEAF [Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund]?" As we celebrate International Women's Day 2019, Lee, one of the inaugural partners of Koffman Kalef LLP in Vancouver, turns reflective. “Despite progress over the years, it’s still not a level playing field,” she says.

It’s a long way from her days of being the only female lawyer, and sole female partner, at the launch of the firm with 18 lawyers in 1993. She recalls exciting, very busy days, and a time for focus.  "It allowed me to really think about the type of law I wanted to practice and how I wanted to practice."

Lee is a well-respected securities and corporate lawyer.  The gold medalist in her psychology undergraduate class at UBC, she thought she would focus on criminal and family law during law school. By midway, she became interested in business and tax law and then got to apply in law practice her “logistical talents in getting big projects done.” Adds Lee: “U of T Law was truly a great experience. It paved the way for me to be where I am today.”

She took the lead as head of the firm’s articling committee because she enjoys meeting law students and was familiar with the articling interview process. She also believes very much in supporting the next generation after her. “It was really important for a firm of our size to give law students articles so that they get called to the bar and hang up their own shingle.”

Lee understands very well the impact of community support and says she was “fortunate to have had opportunities and wonderful teachers and supportive mentors growing up and, in my career, lawyer mentors and champions.”

The first in her family to attend university, and the eldest of six children that her mother had by the time she was 25, Lee grew up in the back of a corner grocery store, and witnessed her family’s long days and hard work. Her parents purchased the business so they could “always have food on the table, and at wholesale prices,” says Lee. She didn’t speak English until she started kindergarten. The pursuit of post-secondary education in her family, says Lee, was encouraged.

“I realized only in adulthood the impact of my childhood, and how it shaped me into who I am now. I’ve always had a mother who worked, and two grandmothers who worked; and I encountered many people throughout my life who supported me.” A neighbour was a piano teacher, and thought she should learn to play, which she did. This experience influenced her love of the performing arts and music, which she carries into her volunteer work at the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and at Theatre Under the Stars, and support of arts organizations.

Another passion is mentoring and celebrating Asian-Canadians, through support of organizations such as the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, and mentoring and celebrating women, in the University Women’s Club of Vancouver and in the Canadian Bar Association’s BC Branch of the Women Lawyers Forum where she has been involved as an executive member, a mentor, and on the Awards Committee. “We do need to recognize and celebrate women. It’s a good way to encourage young women lawyers and mentor them, and to help them navigate the very difficult balance of law practice and family life.”

So her sage advice to new law graduates is: “Take time to choose your law practice area and the law firm for your career launch. And take time outside work to be with family, friends, mentors. Yes, you can have it all, but support from your network of family, friends and work colleagues is essential. My two, now adult, children are still considered to be my greatest life achievement.”

Class of 1989: Arleen Huggins
Arleen Huggins '89

There are many voices advocating for greater diversity, inclusivity and equity – and one of the strongest, most respected voices in the #BalanceforBetter fight belongs to alumna Arleen Huggins, LLB 1989.  

Her entire career, extensive community volunteer activities, and leadership roles have amplified these important issues, as she advocated for change “in the challenges faced by racialized women in the law, arising from the intersectionality between race and gender.” These are issues, she says, she’s seen in her workplace investigations, and race and harassment cases.   

She was the first in her family to attend law school, and remembers the many meetings her father, who worked for CN Rail, then VIA Rail, had in their home, as a union representative. “The plan was to practice union-side labour law,” explains Huggins. But sometimes plans are meant to change. She summered and articled at Koskie Minsky, and half-way through her articles, she decided against labour law and moved to litigation. 

The partner at Koskie Minsky LLP is head of the firm’s employment law group, and has a deep expertise in employment, human rights and commercial litigation law.   

She also has a passion for giving back. She may have been the only Black law student at U of T during her time here, but she’s working diligently to change the diversity numbers in the profession. 

“I have made it my goal to meet with and mentor as many racialized women as I can, to help guide them through their legal careers, from law students, to senior lawyers, to young partners.” 

She was elected to the inaugural board of directors for the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers in 1997, and completed various roles, including advocacy committee chair, and her term as immediate past president in 2017. She’s lauded for helping to actively build the prominent organization into the only national one of its kind in Canada. She volunteered for gender and equity issues at the Ontario Bar Association, the Canadian Bar Association, and the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund. She served on the Doctors without Borders HR committee, and on the judicial advisory committee for federal court appointments for the GTA. 

Ask about volunteering with students, and the conversation becomes even more vibrant. “I love speaking about these issues, love engaging and mentoring students, and love meeting them.” She’s been a long-time mentor to the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) of Canada and other diverse students, to coach and guide them to overcome barriers and carve out successful legal careers.  

Her passions, enthusiasms and advocacy have been recognized with numerous awards, including the 2016 Zenith Award for Celebrating Diversity and Inclusion, the 2017 Lincoln Alexander Award given by the Osgoode Hall Law School chapter of the BLSA, and the 2018 President’s Award from the Women’s Law Association of Ontario. 

She’s most proud to be volunteering with these groups, and for being recognized by them, says Huggins, particularly the law students. “Equity work is very important to me. You do see changes and progress, and this keeps me engaged. The Law Society of Ontario is doing fantastic work on equity and we’re intent on making this profession a better place to be.”

To the next generation of law students, she encourages them to be strong. “Do not be fearful. We have to ensure diverse voices are heard … And to the rest of us who have been in practice, we have to support them.” 


Class of 2002: Katherine Hensel

Katherine HenselThe path to law school for alumna Katherine Hensel, LLB 2002, was not a conventional route, but certainly a determined one. Hensel, who is Secwepemc (Shuswap), had a goal to get into law school by the time she was 30. And she did —at 28 years of age. This feat is all the more impressive considering she left home at 14, was working as an office temp at 17, and took her high school courses at night school and through correspondence. Along the way, she trained heavily to get onto Canada’s national rowing team, started her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University—taking maths and sciences and then switching to English literature—had her first of now four children, took time off school to work to pay her tuition and continue to train, and finally reached her goal at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

“The career I envisioned was to become as good a lawyer and as good a litigator as I could,” says Hensel, principal and founder of Hensel Barristers. “Once I got into law school, that goal changed to advocating for Indigenous people.”

And that she did. She launched her prolific career, becoming one of Canada’s most prominent Indigenous litigators, at McCarthy Tetrault in Toronto. In 2004, she joined the Ipperwash Inquiry as assistant crown counsel, to report on the circumstances surrounding the death of Dudley George, who was Anishnaabek.  She remained on the Commission until 2007, when its important findings were released.

It was, she says, one of her defining moments. “I worked hard with a big team of people conducting and preparing the report,” recalls Hensel. “I believed those proceedings had integrity to them, and that integrity meant that the product, the report, was credible and actually changed things for Indigenous people in Canada.”

The other career highlight came in 2012, as co-counsel on Indigenous cases with Stockwoods LLP. “I'm also very proud of my work with Attawapiskat First Nation and the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.” They were successful in setting aside a decision to appoint third party management. She’s counsel to two parties with standing in the ongoing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Inquiry. And she advocates for Indigenous children.

“We've been successful in repatriating or reunifying many, many—not as many as I'd like—Indigenous children with their families and communities. And that is not an easy task. That's like moving a boulder up a hill, generally, in terms of the institutional resistance and systemic racism that the children face.”

Still, she remains hopeful. How? “By doing. Because I do know what the conditions are, and I know the consequences of doing nothing for our descendants—all our descendants, including non-Indigenous. That is only rendered hopeful if I can do things, which I do. As much as I can.”

That includes teaching at the Faculty of Law as an adjunct professor for the past 10 years, in courses such as “Indigenous People and Canadian Courts: Advocacy, Evidentiary and Ethical Issues,” an opportunity she welcomes.

In 2013, she was awarded the Minaake Award for Human Rights and Advocacy from the Native Women's Resource Centre, and also received the Arleen Goss Young Advocates' Award.

For law graduates, she shares this advice: “Keep your eye on the ball. I have a practice where I am so grateful for the work that I get to do. I don't think I could have even envisioned this in law school. Keep working towards the kind of work you want to do and the quality and integrity you want to bring to it. It doesn't mean you're going to do that type of work right out of the gate, or even for a few years, but if you make all your choices in a way that are in the back of your mind, or even close to the front of your mind, then you'll get there.”

Class of 2006: June Dipchand

June Dipchand '06Alumna June Dipchand, JD/MBA 2006, is no stranger to facing adversity during her career, though she has never let it stand in the way of her aspirations, and it certainly has not kept her from pursuing a fulfilling career path.

An M&A partner at legal giant Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, born to Guyanese-Canadian parents in Nova Scotia, where she grew up, Dipchand recalls a lot of hard work during her school years and high expectations from both her father, a business professor, and mother, a homemaker.  Her first two degrees (math and engineering) were earned in Halifax, and her last three degrees (a master’s degree in engineering and her combined JD/MBA) were earned at U of T.

While Dipchand has sometimes been on the receiving end of negative actions and comments in professional settings, she believes this is most often due to implicit versus explicit gender or racial bias. “In these situations, if and when people realize how badly they acted, they are often horrified,” says Dipchand. She advises: "Do your job and be stellar at it. Eventually others will notice you are competent, and they will hopefully realize that it doesn't matter that they have been working with someone who is not like them."  Change, she says, is not easy, even at a time when public awareness of these issues is heightened, and meaningful change is still years in the making.

Dipchand is predominantly based out of Skadden’s New York office and partly out of the firm's Toronto office. Her practice is focused on U.S. and cross border mergers and acquisitions, securities law and general corporate law matters.  After more than 12 years at the firm, she remains thrilled to go to work every day. “There’s always something interesting or challenging to tackle, and I have been extremely fortunate to be at a firm that has provided me with the tools and support to succeed." 

Dipchand notes the importance of finding opportunities beyond everyday work to make your voice heard. She is a member of the firm’s hiring committee and is the head of Skadden’s New York office 1L Scholar Program, which is focused on pipeline diversity.  She is also engaged in many of the firm’s initiatives on diversity and women’s professional development.  She sits on the board of the Legal Aid Society and on its subcommittee for diversity and inclusion. As one of only two diverse women M&A partners in the New York office, Dipchand feels responsible to mentor others and share her story.

She frequently speaks on diversity-focused panels, most recently for the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania.  “I tell them it’s a bit like dancing like no one is watching. Just do the work and do it well.  Try not to worry about things outside of your control, including other people's biases.  It sounds much easier than it is. You will face negative perceptions, for nothing more than what you look like and what you are, but you have to do your best not to let that impact your work or your professional development.  Work hard, and success in one form or another often follows.”

Dipchand believes that progress is happening. “In over 12 years of practice, I have never negotiated a full deal against a woman M&A partner,” she said. “Now, for every single deal that I’ve done in the last three years since I’ve made partner, no one on the other side can say the same.”

Class of 2014: Laura McGee

Laura McGee '14Laura McGee, JD 2014, is a self-described policy nerd with a love for politics and law. “I like to communicate, read and write, and argue,” says McGee with a laugh. She remembers her law school days with fondness, and says it was a great degree to pursue, after her undergraduate degree from Western University in American studies. She grew up in a single parent household. “So, for me, law was an aspiration, and very attractive to someone like me who thought there weren’t a lot of options available to a history graduate.”

After articling, McGee started consulting at McKinsey and Company. “I found I could solve bigger problems on a bigger scale. My law background gave me the critical thinking muscle to see both sides of an issue and really help me connect with my clients,” she says.

On her own time, she connected with others about inclusivity issues, launching initiatives such as #WeNeedBoth and Summit Leaders. She co-launched #GoSponsorHer, a popular Canadian hashtag and networking campaign to help women advance their careers with the help of C-suite and senior leaders publicly advocating for them. Her sponsor was alumnus Mark Wiseman. Just recently, she was contacted by investment bank Goldman Sachs in the US, expressing interest about launching #GoSponsorHer at its institution.

She’s now on her third career. “I’m definitely someone with quite a risk appetite. I tend to plan with a purpose and navigate. And if there’s another opportunity, I’m comfortable to pivot.”

A serial entrepreneur, McGee is CEO and founder of Diversio, a company using technology-based solutions in the diversity and inclusion space. It uses data analytics and machine learning to help companies become more inclusive—and measure results. “We feel there’s a lot of attention in the diversity and inclusion space, a lot of pressure, but not a lot of data-driven solutions with accessible metrics and KPIs [key performance indicators],” says McGee.

For example, if a company was seeing a trend of female employees leaving at the mid-point of their careers because of challenges of work-life balance and child care, Diversio would use its technology to come up with solutions, such as a combination of a reintegration program, a best-in-class parental leave policy and perhaps a remote-working software application, to drive retention.

“Diversity is so important for so many reasons, and the social and economic impact are very clear. I love solving hard problems and challenges. Given the magnitude and impact of a more inclusive society, this is what motivates me.”

It’s no surprise then that in 2017 she was named one of Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence and was recently appointed co-chair of Canada’s Women Entrepreneurship Strategy Expert Panel.

“Women’s Day has grown to really celebrate the positive impact of celebrating women, together with men and everyone, behind a common goal of more women at the leadership table.”