I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Michelle Roth, a leading corporate lawyer at Goodmans and recent recipient of the Lexpert Zenith Award for mid-career excellence in the legal profession. It came as no surprise to me that in addition to being an excellent lawyer, Michelle is a remarkable person. Keep reading and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean.
You have degrees in music, English, and biology - how did you move from those areas of interest into the legal profession?
That is an excellent question and one that I have asked myself as well. I was first and foremost, many moons ago, a musician. I spent a lot of my childhood training, so much so that I would take big, big chunks of time out of school and travel, and I studied in Japan for a while. I expected for most of my youth that I would be a musician, originally a pianist, and then I thought maybe it would branch out into something to do with singing and performing arts. But I spent a lot of time in auditions and started to understand the commercial realities of what it meant to be an artist.
I decided to apply to law school because I wasn’t sure what practical applications I would be able to use my music and liberal arts degrees towards. I had at one point toyed with the idea of medicine which is why I have the biology in there, but it became clear soon after the dissection of rats, which I have a phobia of, that that wasn’t going to work for me!
So I decided on law school for the same reason that many people do - ‘what am I going to do? I guess I’ll go to law school!’ When I got accepted into a number of schools and I brought the acceptances into rehearsal with me, the degree of excitement, and the notion that any one of us could actually become a capital L lawyer was so dramatic! There was a sense that if I could achieve this, if I could go to law school and get accepted, I would be propelling myself forward in ways that people in my community would not have imagined or expected.
What drew you to Goodmans specifically?
I was expecting to practice in BC, in Vancouver specifically, which is where I grew up, or somewhere along the West coast, potentially California. But I was involved in a moot competition that took me to Toronto. The judges were representatives from Davies, Smith Lyons (which no longer exists), and Goodmans and I was fortunate to be invited to speak with people from each of the firms after the competition. Just before going to Goodmans, I met with the people at a one of the firms, who gushed about the 90 hour weeks their students pulled and showed me that they have facilities where the students could rest or sleep. I was a little bit taken aback by that experience.
I wasn’t going to come to Goodmans at all, but my mother decided she had to do some shopping in the Eaton Centre, which is where Goodmans was then located. I came up and had a discussion with Stephen Halperin. In fact we had tea with a beautiful tea set (very impressive!), then we talked about life, following which I had a discussion with Dale. Dale pulled out whatever magic wand he had that day, did his Dale magic, and I thought, ‘wow this has got to be the best place to work ever in the whole world.. I will pick up my life and move to a place where I know absolutely nobody, not another soul, because this seems like such an amazing opportunity.’
Since being at Goodmans, what’s a proud moment for you here?
I think being hired back was a very proud moment, and a life changing moment for me. It was a year where not everyone was coming back and my hire back decision was made a lot later than anybody else’s and so I had to watch the experience of many people who were not accepted and the stress that came with it. It was a fairly nerve-wracking experience.
When my hire back day finally came, I had already played through about 20 different (and super dramatic) scenarios, not just for the hire back decision but for my entire life, none of them being good. Every single one of them resulted in pure and absolute misery, and so when the answer was yes, I was beyond elated.
I still have that feeling of gratitude for being able to be part of a place that commands tremendous respect and admiration - and its fair share of jealousy! A place that combines lofty, but achievable ideals, incredible mentorship, world-class legal and commercial experiences, the chance to write your own success story and, always, unparalleled fun! Certainly, in my mind, Goodmans is a collection of the best of humankind, there is not a day that goes by that I am not completely thankful for being privileged enough to have earned my place here.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve had here?
That actually is not available for public consumption, I’ll try to think of another one. Really there are so many … One of the strangest and funniest stories is from my articling year. There was somebody that articled with us, she is no longer here. She’s an amazing individual, very bubbly, very fun, very smart - she has gone on to achieve many successes. She was working at home over the weekend and in her briefcase heard a ticking. She came to the immediate conclusion, having ruled out any other possibility, that there was a bomb inside. So, of course, she called the bomb squad.
She also, as an afterthought I think, called the instructing lawyer. He very calmly picked up his car keys, jumped in his car and drove over to this person’s house where (according to urban myth) he marched right through the bomb squad lines, picked up the briefcase and pulled out a Dictaphone. When met with alarm by onlookers, he took out from his other hand, again very coolly, his own Dictaphone, put it in reverse mode and demonstrated how it made the exact same ticking sound as the briefcase. The bomb squad quickly dispersed.
But there’s got to be another one…how about something not strange, how about just like a really cool thing? How about the fact that we used to have something called the Goodmans Vocal Group and we used to rent out the top of The Senator once a year for the United Way and pool all our talents together. We sold enough tickets that that we’d get pulled into some public events sometimes. We sang with Bob Rae at Hart House for an event honouring Bob Rae, we sang at Sick Kids Hospital and a number of other places. We became a real vocal group. We re-visited our roots on June 8 when with CHOIR! CHOIR! CHOIR!, we showed our True Colours.
If you had a one year sabbatical, what would you do?
Well I’ve had three maternity leaves and they’re not sabbaticals by any stretch, but I’ve had some time to think about what I’m doing when I’m not at my desk every day, and it turned out to be different things than I thought I was going to do. I thought I was going to become more fit, and I did learn how to practice yoga. I also thought I would rest more - I definitely did not do that!
The one thing I didn’t realize I was going to do was business develop. I figured out that I could take time away from having stacks of paper and scant hours in which to get an agreement done and think strategically about how I could progress myself and my practice. Every social gathering could become a business development opportunity and I found that I really enjoyed creating and growing relationships, I found out something about myself, which is that I like to be engaged with people, and meet new people, as nerve-wracking as it sometimes is! I find it nerve-wracking, but I also find it extremely fulfilling.
But if I was convinced that I absolutely could not, just could not work, then I would spend the entire year travelling to every destination on the planet that I possibly could travel to, and eating everything I could possibly eat along the way.
Speaking of projects, what is the next big project you have right now?
Well Daniela as you know, we have been able to bring to life a particular passion of mine which is called WiTH iT, and we’re doing it under our SenbridGe umbrella. WiTH iT stands for Wider Inclusivity in Transformative Health, Innovation, and Technology and it’s a way to get people who are already thinking about these issues to progress them so that we can talk about them with a lot more ease, with a lot more approbation, and with a willingness to go forward and try and create some guidelines, or even a creed, so that we can continue to make the places in which we work, and the people with whom we work, more inclusive in the way that we think and hire, but also in the way that we can influence the world around us because at the end of the day, we are influential people.
We can be change makers and others will listen to us. That makes us uniquely positioned, I think, to change, and to be disruptive, and to invigorate old standards and traditions, and maybe turn them on their head or maybe just slightly modify them so that they are able to encompass a world that is and should be even more broad.
If you could give advice to young lawyers starting their career, what would you say?
I would say think expansively, learn everything you can even from the most mundane tasks because to this day I still talk about those things - even things I learned from doing PPSA summaries! Take everything you can out of every experience, don’t relegate anything to the menial, embrace everything with the potential to be more than it will be; but also create opportunities for yourself, push forward and be proactive in creating chances to continually learn, meet and work with new people.
Although the road ahead is going to be bumpy from time to time, and it’s going to be a while before you can walk in and say that I feel comfortable with all the things that might come my way today, there is a point, where you will have true confidence- it’s not about knowledge because knowledge is something you can always use to have more of- there is a point where you are going to say to yourself, I am equipped. I am equipped emotionally, I am equipped intellectually, I am equipped physically to handle anything. I can find a solution, a good one, for myself, for my clients, for the world around me. I can do this.
Just get to the place where you say ‘I may not actually know it, but I will know it, I will be able to figure this out because I have the constructs to do that’. Once you believe that about yourself then you have only upwards to go.
Specifically speaking to women entering the profession, what might you want to impart onto them?
Honestly, it’s the best world that it’s ever been for women in law right now, and the greatest thing is that every second that passes us by makes it better even still, because you’re here, and your colleagues are here, and whether they be men or women, people have a mindset that is increasingly inclusive and are starting to really get that whatever gender we are, no matter where we come from, whatever our proclivities may be, we have something valuable to bring to the table.
There is – I don’t even want to call it tolerance- there is an absolute drive to make sure that we retain the very best of people. The very best of people include, the last time I checked, about half or more than half females. We have to think about this in ways that are different than we thought about it in the past, and we are gifted in that in this day and age we have technology. I think technology enables us to be able to work in ways we were never able to work before and to be responsive to our clients which is at the underpinning of what we do, but at the same time create time for balance and lives and family and whatever it is that’s going to keep you happy and fulfilled.
You’ve done a lot of work in the seniors housing industry and healthcare world- have you ever thought about what your retirement years look like?
As a person who is deeply involved in aging and healthcare, I’m being told and I tell other people all the time, our lifespans and our career spans are completely different than they were before. I’m not even sure that by the time I get there, certainly not by the time you get there, that retirement will be a word that has the same meaning that it has today, because so many people are talking about things like encore careers, where - whether it’s the same career or a different career, you go on to have successive professions, successive vocations, and I don’t know when the time comes what the next option will be, maybe it will be lying on a beach but I doubt it. It’ll probably involve travel, because I like that so much, but I’m able to do that as part of what I do now.
I will probably have some sort of encore career, and it’ll probably build on the knowledge and the relationships that I already have and it’ll probably be smaller in scope and scale and that’ll allow me to do a bit more of the travel, but I can’t see myself sitting still and doing nothing because it just isn’t good for the brain.
We’re a particular type of people, those of us at Goodmans. Culturally I think we are friendly and open and laid back and easy to talk to and accessible. But we are also still driven people, creative and motivated and incredibly bright and ridiculously hard-working. We are also well-rounded - we tend as a group to be very fit and interested in the world around us. In a nut-shell? We’re good people.