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Anne Kirker, LLB'91

(Originally published in the University of Calgary Alumni e-Newsletter on March 2, 2015)

What it Takes to Be One of Canada's Most Powerful Women

An influential alumna who's leaving her imprint 

By Deb CummingsAnne Kirker

Since 2003, the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) has recognized the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada — those overhauling banking, health care, politics, media and energy systems. In the private, public and not-for-profit sectors— these extraordinary icons are game changers, leaders and critical influencers.

Held late in 2014, the theme for the latest annual awards gala was “timeless,” an adjective the executive team thought described bold leadership. Also an apt description for alumna Anne Kirker, LLB’91, who was one of several University of Calgary grads, on that prestigious list. Diminutive in stature (Anne is all of 5 ft. 2 inches tall), Kirker has that soft-spoken Katharine Hepburn-style of timelessness and grace to her.

She may be a potent litigator and partner with Calgary-based Norton Rose Fulbright, but Kirker also flexes quiet power — mentoring numerous young lawyers and volunteering countless hours on umpteen boards. Qualities that likely helped her in her first career, that of a pediatric nurse, and in becoming this year’s President-Elect of the Law Society of Alberta. She will become President in 2016. Before Kirker’s agenda became too busy with this new role, we thought we’d pop by her office for a chat about leadership, motherhood, and the future of law as a profession.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer: I was a very happy 23-year-old pediatric nurse in 1988 when the illegal strike  occurred. I didn't agree with the Union's position and decided to go to work. I had always been interested in professional standards and ethics and as the strike dragged on, I became increasingly interested in the legal parameters of the strike.  That is what drove me to write the LSAT and go back to school. I wanted to learn about the law and envisioned myself using my legal education as a member of the nursing profession.  At the time, I didn't know anything about the private practice of law.

What are some of the changes that have occurred at UCalgary’s law school since you were a student? Historically law schools have taught the theory and  principles of law, but not how to bring the law to life in practice. U of C has always been a leader in legal skills development and is once again leading the way in trying to provide students with the education they need to apply what they learn about the law in a way that clients or employers can use. The Faculty of Law is introducing several new initiatives, including a "boot camp" at the beginning of each year where students will be introduced to practitioners and business people to gain an understanding of the real-life context in which they must apply what they learn. They are also introducing some new practical courses, in business and entrepreneurship for example, to give students the opportunity to develop some business acumen.

Is now a good time to be studying law? Yes! I often tell people that a legal education is a wonderful thing. You don’t have to make your living the way I have — in private practice. There are so many opportunities — I can’t think of another degree that opens as many doors. I have friends who started in private practice, went to Geneva to prosecute war crimes and then returned to private practice. Others moved into in-house counsel positions, policy work, politics, business or careers in legal education — the sky’s the limit.

Are we continuing to lose women in private practice? Yes, and that’s a concern. My view is that it’s not so much a work-life balance issue — a professional career is demanding no matter the context —  it’s the sense of isolation in private practice that causes women to step out. As women leave, it gets lonelier and lonelier at the top. But, I like to think that as more of us stay and empower younger female colleagues to do the same, the tipping point will come.

How demanding is a career in law? Private practice is very demanding, but so are many other jobs you might do with a law degree — certainly intellectually, if not in terms of time. Just as the demands of life ebb and flow, so too do the demands of a career in law. If you can embrace the challenge and be adaptable, it can be a hell of a ride. I would add that team work and a sense of humor, in all areas of your life, is essential.

Besides being a team player what other characteristics make a good lawyer? I think the best lawyers are smart, hardworking and real. I think lawyers who try to be someone else can often be ineffective. Believe it or not, despite the fact that I have been a litigator for 23 years, I don’t particularly like conflict.  I have always been very adept at diffusing it with constructive dialogue.  I have used that strength in my practice and never pretended to like a fight.

How critical is the role of a mentor? Having someone to trust and answer your questions is enormously important. And frankly, having someone to push you a little outside your comfort zone — that alone can take you to the next level. A mentor should also be there to pick you up when you fall. The support of a good mentor and champion can really build your confidence. 

What’s your kryptonite? Downton Abbey, Homeland, Broadchurch.

What’s your secret to juggling a demanding career, two children and a husband? I have always been honest with my kids — I work because I love it, and I’ve worked hard to get where I am. Just as their father has. Of course there were times when I had to miss a swim meet or a performance, but if I wasn’t there then my husband was. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything major because in some form or another we, as a family, were there for each other. 

How do you define a good leader? I believe that leaders who stand the test of time and those who remain true to who they are and take their work, but not themselves, too seriously. Those who understand that success is not a scarce commodity — it should not be hoarded but shared, generously. I think a good leader is also trusted to be hard working, honest and to enable the people around him or her to achieve personal excellence and team success.

If you had a dinner party and could invite anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Probably Churchill. So many of his sayings resonate with me . . ‘continuous effort is the key to unlocking potential’ .  . . ‘attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference’. 

How does it feel to wear the mantle of ‘top 100 most powerful women in Canada’? I am very honoured by it but it’s most meaningful because I earned the trust and respect of my colleagues and clients. You know . . . I didn’t set out to be powerful. I didn’t set out to be a leader. I just set out to challenge myself. Frankly, I didn’t even set out to practice law — that’s not why I went to law school. I was just open to challenges and followed my instincts and what interested me. I now find myself in a position where people listen to me and look to me for guidance, and I think that position brings responsibility to set the right tone . . . to lead.