STEPHEN GRANT: If you really dig, you can find out that, years ago, Sheila was a folk singer. She was also a motorcycle rider. As well, on her CV she has a list of practice areas in which she has engaged: class actions, corporate restructuring, defamation, intellectual property. She doesn't mention the fact she also does family law. She and I have co-counselled on a couple of cases that are not found in her resumé, but I'm here to tell the tale. Lawyers like to talk about other lawyers, and particularly the great lawyers. Sheila and I have seen some great lawyers over the course of our careers, and I must say she is the real deal.
How did this happen?
SHEILA BLOCK: When I was coming through school, I didn't want to be a nurse, and I didn't particularly want to be a teacher. I thought, maybe I could be a social worker or a lawyer. It occurred to me, when I found out you could draft wills and do real estate deals, that you wouldn't actually have to speak in public –you could be a lawyer and sit at your desk. So I thought, I'll try that.
And, great surprise, Joyce Harris, now retired, and I did mooting together at the University of Ottawa, and we won our moot.
We were two of eight women in our class. After that, we came to Toronto and mooted with everybody else at U of T. Professor Alan Mewett was one of the judges. All the other participants were men. And I'm tall compared with Joyce, so we were these two diminutive females. And we won the whole thing. And I thought – well, how hard can this be?
So I applied for three jobs. One with your guy, Ian Scott. He later told me he lost my application.
SG: That could easily have been true.
SB: One with Alan Borovoy.
SG: At the CCLA?
SB: Yes. And I also applied to [former Chief Justice] Charlie Dubin. And Borovoy said, "Look, if Charlie will hire you, go with Charlie." And so I did. Armstrong, Morphy, Blair and Brunner were with him.
SG: Later Justice Armstrong and Justice Blair. This was a litigation boutique, way, way, way before its time. But they did everything. Chief Justice Dubin was so profound a lawyer that, of the labour law he practised, he would act on the union side one day and on the management the next. He even acted for the Labour Board – a real trifecta – he was that great. You don't find that happening anymore.
SG: Has it been a fulfilling career over these years?
SB: It really has. First of all, it's a helping profession. And when I mentioned social work as a possibility, my sister is a social worker and it would have been the natural thing to do growing up in the sixties that you would become a social worker if you had any sort of care for people.
But I thought I'd try this law thing. And it really is a helping profession, particularly on our end of the practice where people are always in trouble somehow or another. Either they've done something, they've been sued, or they're suing because they believe something has been done to them. And you are their Pericles – you are the one who stands up for them.
SG: It's a privilege, what we do. No?
SB: It's totally a privilege. As I often say, "I could stay home and watch the soaps or come to work. You learn so much about other people's lives, the intimacy you get."
And this is a point my son made to me when he was interning for a criminal firm and he'd come home at night and I'd be working on my transcripts, after he made us a delicious meal – he is a wonderful cook – and he was reviewing Crown disclosure. He said the intimacy that you get – about people's lives – it really is a privilege. And with that privilege comes a lot of anxiety, responsibility and worry about doing your best.
SG: You had worries over these years? You?
SG: You wouldn't know it.
SB: I think I've managed the stress pretty well, and having three kids is a good antidote because as soon as you get home, you are in a completely different world.
SG: I've known you for a long time and worked with you from time to time, and the case or the cause doesn't matter because the passion was always there, and it's still there. How do you do that?
SB: Well, first of all, you don't become a judge – where you have to decide who is right and who is wrong. That really wasn't in my DNA. But knowing that somebody has a position that they can't themselves put forward and they need an advocate, a Paraclete, a representative who knows the landscape – that's my role, and I know what I'm to do. I'm to do what they would do for themselves if they had the skill and the training.
I like being given the assignment and knowing there will be somebody really good on the other side and that there is a third person who will ultimately decide the rights and wrongs of it. But I can be passionate about that because that's my job.
SG: Passionate but objective, no?
SB: Yes. It's not what I think or I feel or the idea that you just deny the other side's argument. It's being passionate for the role of putting forward the best possible case.
CHANTELLE SPAGNOLA: What skills do you possess that have made you the litigator you have become?
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This is an edited version of the Young Advocates' Standing Committee "Fireside Chat on Advocacy" at Campbell House on April 11, 2016. The Advocates' Journal is grateful to Neesons for transcribing the conversation.