Everyone achieves what they can in the 24 hours allotted them each day. But Janet Stewart somehow seems to squeeze in more than most.
The London lawyer – who has mentored hundreds of colleagues in the profession and been a stalwart on more than 25 community boards that benefit health, education, law and the broader civic good – will be awarded an honorary doctorate of laws during virtual fall Convocation.
She is an enthusiastic volunteer in almost everything – except when pressed to self-promote.
“I’ve never thought anything I do is particularly worthy of note,” she said in typical self-deprecation. “I just do what interests me and try to do it well. And when you see something develop and grow, you kind of get into it.”
Stewart was the first woman lawyer to join Lerners LLP in 1969 and remained the only woman on its legal team for the next five years.
In the half-century since joining Lerners, Stewart has helped lead the firm’s expansion to 150 people, from the seven when she started, She was managing partner from 1991 to 2007 and continues today as a partner.
Stewart has a passion for growing the community and has been a guiding force in governance boards and committees at Western, Western’s Faculty of Law and Huron University College.
She also was a director on the boards of the London Community Foundation, London Health Sciences Centre Foundation, Ontario Arts Council, the Salvation Army, the London Airport Authority and the London Economic Development Corporation, among others.
The community commitment began in 1974, when Stewart was asked to sit on the inaugural board of Big Sisters of London (now Big Brothers Big Sisters of London and Area).
“I was flattered to be asked and it didn’t occur to me to say no,” she recalled.
Nor did it occur to her to say ‘no’ for the next 25 years that she served on that board, a relationship with the organization that continues today. Several family members and others at Lerners continue to volunteer with the organization.
Her drive is legendary, although she passes it off as overstated. “If truth be known, I usually worked my way fairly quickly to become chair of the board so I didn’t have to do anything but delegate tasks to some really good people,” she said with a chuckle.
When pressed, she will say her strengths are organization, efficiency and a knack for motivating people.
As Stewart built her career, she also made a point to mentor young women lawyers, partly because she had so few when she entered the profession. She noted Earl Cherniak, a partner at Lerners, “has always had my back” and encouraged her from the beginning to take leadership roles.
She gradually noticed and encouraged a change in composition of the boards where she served – although, 30 years ago, no one would have called it a lack of diversity. “It was often me as the token woman on a lot of boards, and a lot of men.”
Stewart’s work and volunteerism have led to dozens of honours through the years: recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2003) and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012; Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award (2013); the Order of Ontario (2010) for advocating for the advancement of women in the law and for community philanthropy; Honorary Doctor of Laws from the Law Society Ontario (2015); Cliff Hall Alumni Award, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada (2005); Huron University College Medal of Distinction (2004); and YM-YWCA Woman of Distinction (1993) and YMCA SWO Woman of Excellence (2019).
The honorary degree from Western will be conferred to Stewart in one of three virtual ceremonies, which will be available to stream beginning at 7:00 p.m. EST on Friday, October 22 (See more complete Convocation details below.) Also receiving honorary doctorates are writer/visual artist Shani Mootoo, historian Natalie Zemon Davis and medical researcher Tak Mak.
Approximately 3,000 graduating students will then join 328,000 alumni from more than 160 countries as Western alumni.
Stewart said she is honoured by the degree and has long advocated that Western and London build on each other’s strengths.
And the long-time lawyer who still takes time to be a loyal Toronto Blue Jays fan (with Boston Red Sox a close second), an avid golfer and a long-time book-club participant also takes a measure of pride in “not being a fussbudget” about little things.
Her message to new graduates at Convocation would be to change what they can, accept what they can’t change and stress less about life. “Don’t get yourself too bent out of shape by slight slings and arrows. Often, they aren’t meant for you so there’s no point in fussing.”
Virtual Convocation details:
Western is celebrating graduating students through a virtual fall convocation beginning at 7 p.m. EST on Friday, Oct. 22. Three degree-specific, pre-recorded ceremonies will be posted online on Western’s fall convocation 2021 page, allowing graduates, their families and loved ones to watch the ceremony that applies to them, whenever they like. Each ceremony will include celebratory music by Convocation Brass, with administration and faculty on stage, and remarks from this year’s honorary degree recipients.
An orator will read out each graduating student’s name, which will also be featured on individually displayed slides throughout the ceremony. Approximately 3,000 graduating students will then join 328,000 Western alumni from more than 160 countries. Graduates will receive their parchments by mail.