If they see a barn on fire, most people will call 911, stand back, wait for the firefighters and hope the horses survive. That’s the wise and considered approach, said Heather Joy Ross, LLB’84.
“Then there’s a whole other group of people who, without thinking, will run into the barn to save the horses. I’m hard-wired that way.”
After a legal career spanning more than 30 years – including as family lawyer, defence lawyer, mentor, law-firm partner and lifetime bencher (governor) of the Law Society of Upper Canada – Ross was recently awarded the Law Society Medal for Outstanding Service.
During her career, she has tackled issues of domestic abuse and gender inequity and helped lead the creation of the Huron Women’s Shelter in Goderich. As founder of the South West Region Women’s Law Association, she has been a mentor to scores of women lawyers.
She can cite countless times she has gone into the legal ‘fire’ in support of clients who thought theirs was a lost cause. “I’ve never been able to back away from injustice,” she said.
At age 29, Ross was married, with a preschool son and 13-year-old daughter at home, when she applied as a mature student to Western Law.
She credits two factors as pivotal in her decision: one was the legacy of a mother who put her social conscience into action. The other was a lobbying effort in the 1970s by a Huron County group wanting to ban several books from high school classrooms.
Ross ran a gift store in nearby Clinton at the time and sold books by Canadian authors. She and Alice Munro, DLitt’76 – a friend, customer and a future Nobel laureate in Literature – joined forces to oppose the ban.
They won their case before the school board, and Ross realized law school would be a good path to continue her advocacy.
She was already doing some administrative work with her husband Paul’s law firm. “I did that for a year and realized it wasn’t for me. But being a lawyer was.”
Her first day of class at Western was also her son Quinn’s first day of kindergarten and his fifth birthday. That first morning, a guest lecture by Canadian Constitutional lawyer Mary Eberts, BA’68, LLB’77, PhD’99 (Civil Law), confirmed to Ross that she’d made the right choice.
Later that day, Ross raced home to Goderich to make a birthday cake for her son. That was the beginning of what was to become three years of daily, 200-kilometre commutes: “I was focused. I was there for a reason and I felt it a privilege to be accepted.”
She credits professors such as Constance Backhouse, LLD’12, a leading legal scholar in gender and race discrimination (and now at University of Ottawa), with helping her build a solid foundation in justice, equity and legal principles.
By contrast, Ross and other female students also battled against unsanctioned attitudes about their place in law school. Once, after a documentary screening, she and her friends were blocked and mocked by male law students who yelled that they weren’t welcome and should go home.
“It reminded me things were all not well,” Ross recalled. “I simply said, ‘I have as much right to be here as you,’ and moved on.”
That determination would echo through her career as she prepared – often over-prepared – for each case and advocacy, whether it was on behalf of women and children who had left abusive relationships or in building support networks for other women lawyers.
Elected as a Law Society bencher in 1999, she has influenced the profession’s rules of professional conduct, as well as its work on human rights and on equity, diversity and inclusion.
In 2019, she retired after having helped expand The Ross Firm to four locations. Son Quinn, LLB’04, an immediate past-president of the Ontario Bar Association, now heads the law firm.
She was astonished last month when she was announced as the recipient of the Law Society’s medal for service in keeping with the profession’s highest ideals. She hadn’t even known she was nominated.
Since, she has received congratulatory letters from hundreds of people – past clients, friends, colleagues. One of the most poignant was from a woman who thanked Ross for keeping her and her children safe years ago.
She values her education at Western and as a lawyer, particularly now, as racism is being exposed and injustice brought to light. “In this current climate, I appreciate my profession and its importance in keeping tyranny at bay more than ever before.”