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 LSM, 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.”
Heather Joy Ross LSM hopes award encourages women that they too can have an impact in their community
Huron County lawyer Heather Joy Ross LSM has been recognized with the Law Society Medal, a top recognition given for outstanding service and devotion in the profession by The Law Society of Ontario.
Ross hopes that receiving this award inspires women across the country. In her 30 years in the field, the Goderich, Ont. lawyer was a governor with the Law Society of Upper Canada, where she helped to create a standing committee on Equity and Indigenous Affairs, as well as a Human Rights Monitoring Group.
“I hope that it encourages girls, young women, older women to know that they can be true to themselves and still make an impact in whatever they choose to do,” she said.
“If they choose to become lawyers, there is much great good that they can do for their communities and for society.”
Ross’ path into the profession was anything but common. She was admitted to Western University’s law program as a mature student while parenting two children, she said during an interview on CBC’s Afternoon Drive.
Two factors prompted Ross to take that leap: her mother’s strong social justice conscience and efforts to stop three books from being banned in Huron County in the late 1970s.
At the time, the Catholic Women’s League in the town of Kingsbridge, Ont. were on a mission to strike John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners off of the high school curriculum in Huron County and Ross was one of the women who stepped in to stop it.
“When I had the opportunity to work with our national treasure, Alice Munro, to stop the book banning, that galvanized my social conscience and led me to decide to go to law school as a married mother of two kids,” she said.
After graduating, Ross went on to represent women and children fleeing domestic violence while also tackling issues of gender inequality, something that she says at the time was not as prevalent.
“There was a real lack of knowledge around domestic violence and how to represent clients who had suffered abuse and domestic violence. Nobody seemed to be doing that,” she recalled. “I decided that it required specialization and study and taking the real care that was needed to, in a way, specialize in that kind of work.”Afternoon DriveHuron County lawyer honoured by Law Society8:37A retired lawyer in Goderich is topping off her career with a medal from the Law Society of Ontario. We spoke to Heather Joy Ross LSM about her life in the courtroom. 8:37
Ross also played an important role encouraging other women in the profession. She launched the South West Region Women’s Law Association, a support and advocacy network for female lawyers and law students in southwestern Ontario.
She said her drive and strong sense of justice are what motivated her throughout her long and fruitful career.
“[I] wanted to help people who were vulnerable and who were being treated unfairly or unjustly,” she said.
“I believe today, as I did the day I was called to the bar, that the law is a helping profession.”
Goderich Signal Star:
The Law Society Medal is an award given for outstanding service within the profession where service is in accordance with the highest ideals of the legal profession. It is one of the highest honours the Law Society bestows.
Often awarded for devotion to professional duties over a long term Heather Joy Ross LSM LLB, a founding partner of regional law firm The Ross Firm in Goderich is a recipient of the Law Society of Ontario’s medal this year.
Initially scheduled for May 27, the award ceremony was indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic.
“When the Treasurer of the Law Society of Ontario called me to tell me I was being awarded the Law Society Medal I was completely shocked and surprised,” Ross admits.
Ross is hopeful that for young girls and women seeing her receive this award – a lawyer from a rural area practicing with a midsize law firm – it will serve to empower other women to make an impact in their community.
Deciding to go into law school at the age of 29, married with two children, Ross attended the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario in 1981. She was called to the Bar on April 17, 1986.
Throughout her career Ross has practiced law in a number of different areas including working as a part time Crown Attorney, practicing criminal defense work, family law and civil litigation as well as practicing in the area of wills, estates and elder law.
“The work I preferred was any case involving someone who was vulnerable, someone who was being treated unfairly, unjustly,” reflects Ross.
“I think my work with Alice Munro fighting the book banning in Huron County in the late ‘70s galvanized my social justice conscience and led me to go to law school as a mature student.”
As a student and as a practising lawyer, Ross was inspired by some of Canada’s greatest women lawyers, jurists and educators including professor Constance Backhouse, lawyer Mary Eberts and former Supreme Court of Canada jurist Claire L’Heareux-Dube.
Ross was inspired and followed their careers with great admiration, giving Ross courage to challenge the status quo and speak the sometimes, uncomfortable truth.
Once she began practicing law it became obvious to Ross there was no organization for women lawyers in southwestern Ontario.
Ross added: “It was obvious to me that women were not, then, in leadership roles in towns, counties and indeed, in our country.”
In the early days of Ross’ career there tended to be one female lawyer for each county, and as a result, many felt isolated in a primarily male-dominated profession.
After some significant crises occurred that impacted the legal profession in 1993 – the Legal Aid crisis and the Lawyer’s Indemnity Insurance crisis – Ross was moved to create a regional women’s law association to give women lawyers in Ontario a voice.
Along with the participation of some other women lawyers, Ross founded the South West Region Women’s Law Association, which was created in September 1993 and to date remains a strong organization.
“My early work was representing women and children fleeing domestic violence in Huron County,” explains Ross.
She served on the inaugural Domestic Assault Review Team (DART) and Ross was involved in the work leading up to the establishment of the first Huron County women’s shelter in Goderich.
Ross added: “My work mentoring women in the legal professions has been a hallmark of my entire life in the law – starting in law school and continuing to this day.”
As a practicing lawyer Ross tackled issues of domestic abuse and gender inequality and broke new ground when both subjects were not in the forefront of legal and judicial thought.
Being a lawyer gave Ross the tools to help make change, particularly change for women and girls in the region. Throughout her career Ross was often a mentor to fellow women lawyers in the region.
Elected as a Bencher (a governor) of the Law Society of Upper Canada in 1995, Ross was instrumental in contributing significantly to the regulation of the legal profession in Ontario.
“It was quite an achievement in the sense that I was elected from a small town of some 7,000 people to a provincial law society that had historically been dominated by male lawyers from large firms,” Ross says.
Only 40 seats for the entire province – 20 seats outside Toronto and 20 seats inside Toronto – Ross was re-elected a further three, four-year terms and became a life Bencher in 2011.
Serving as a Bencher until she retired in June 2019 – nearly 25 years of service to the profession in that role – Ross admits the work as a Bencher allowed her to participate in the work on policy and rules in governance of the legal profession in Ontario.
Ross added: “It also gave me the opportunity to sit as an adjudicator in lawyer and paralegal discipline hearings and appeals.”
During her career Ross also worked at the Law Society on the redrafting of the Rules of Professional Conduct and helped create the standing committee on Equity and Indigenous Affairs.
Ross also made a significant contribution to the creation of the Human Rights Monitoring Group and the Law Society of Ontario’s Human Rights Award.
In addition, Ross taught law as an adjunct professor at the Faculty of Law at University of Western Ontario from 1999 until 2006. Working with law students was enriching work, Ross taught ethics and family law practice and procedure.
A disciplined, ethically rigorous and determined professional, Ross was seen as the definition of the consummate advocate by colleagues during her 33-year career in law.
A leader in her profession since law school and a mentor to other female lawyers, Ross has tackled issues and broken ground, contributing greatly to the legal profession of Ontario.
“Law is a helping profession overall,” Ross adds.
“I hope it – receiving the award – will serve to empower women to the certain knowledge that you can be true to who you are and still make an impact in your world.”