Bertha Wilson's Practice Years (1958-1975): Establishing a Research Practice and Founding a Research Department in Canada
35 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2008 Last revised: 16 Sep 2008
Date Written: July 10, 2008
This article is one of a collection of essays on Canadian judge Bertha Wilson, edited by Kim Brooks, to be submitted for publication with the University of British Columbia Press. It is an account of Wilson's practice years at the law firm Osler, Hoskin and Harcourt from 1958 to 1975, and her founding of the research department at that firm. Using interviews with former colleagues of Wilson's and reconstructed primary source materials, the piece provides a snapshot of the years before Wilson went to the bench, when she founded the research department and took an early interest in law firm computerization. It explores the gendered nature of the research-related initiatives she was involved with at Osler, focusing specifically on the system she established for the law firm library indexing and cross-referencing the firm's legal memoranda and opinion letters.
Wilson's research practice is important to understanding Wilson qua Wilson, the first woman to sit on the Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada. Given that the idea for a research department was copied by other large Canadian law firms, what she did at Osler is also important to understanding Canadian legal culture.
Wilson leveraged her difference and natural strengths at a time that might be called the cusp of specialization, not yet here but on its way, a new world order characterized by departmentalization, increased meritocracy, more aggressive forms of client development, and new technology. As the first female lawyer - and female partner - at Osler, she symbolizes many of those changes in the profession, while at the same time participating in the process that would make those new elements a reality.
This account will be of interest to Canadian lawyers who want to learn more about Wilson, law librarians who want to know about the history of law firm information storage and retrieval systems, those interested in women in the legal profession, and legal historians with an interest in changing modes of law firm organization and development in Canada and the United States in the Twentieth Century.
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