Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta Justice Susan Richardson had a fractured start to the practice of law which led to a long-time commitment to encouraging budding lawyers seemingly under pressure to find their place in the profession.
“I have made a point of seeking out law students and young lawyers who seem to be struggling with either the practice of law or juggling family life and being an articling student/lawyer,” says Justice Richardson.
“I developed professional relationships with young women at risk of abandoning the law and I encouraged and mentored them through law school and/or articling,” she says.
“And I worked hard to demystify the legal profession for them and make them see it is broad enough to have a place for everyone, regardless of your individual strengths and weaknesses.”
Justice Richardson — who was appointed to QB in Edmonton on April 17, 2019 after having served as a Provincial Court Judge for eight years — would begin these mentoring relationships by sharing her own early experiences, which included choices she made, at times, to prioritize her young family over work.
“Growing up, I knew no lawyers and no one in my family had gone to university,” says the married mother of two, who grew up in a military family that moved frequently.
“Throughout my legal education, early life in practice and having children as a lawyer, there were many points where I could have deviated from this path,” says Justice Richardson.
Some challenges she faced include being homesick while attending law school in Ontario, having to work 32 hours per week in order to afford to complete her legal education, being unsuccessful many times in seeking articles with criminal law firms and then, after finally securing a position, quitting after nine weeks due to it not being a good fit, and not having another one to go to.
And later in her practice, when she asked for a six-month leave without pay to follow six months of maternity leave, she recalls being told that her decision to take an extended leave would jeopardize her career.
Justice Richardson attended the University of Alberta (U of A) after graduating from Edmonton’s Archbishop O’Leary High School in 1983 and received a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Canadian History, in 1987. She then attended Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, earning her LLB in 1990.
After graduating from law school, she took a position as a mental health worker for two years before doing her articles with Alberta Justice. In 1993 she began work with Alberta Justice as a prosecutor with General Prosecutions. After four years there, she took a one-year secondment position with Alberta Treasury Branches (ATB), working in the Office of the Chief Inspector handling complaints relating to fraud, money laundering, forgeries and suspicious financial transactions.
She then returned to Alberta Justice and worked again as a prosecutor from 1998 to 2001 before switching to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) and working as a drug prosecutor, with an emphasis on Charter litigation. In 2003 she took a one-year secondment with Aboriginal Litigation Services, Justice Canada, working on civil files dealing with oil and gas claims and treaty land entitlement claims, before going back to the PPSC and prosecuting drug, firearms and conspiracy cases. In 2009 she went to Alberta Justice’s Edmonton Regional and Rural Response Office where she prosecuted high-profile files up until her 2011 appointment to the Bench.
Throughout her legal career, Justice Richardson placed an emphasis on continuing education. That includes taking courses with the Canadian Securities Institute while working with ATB, earning a Master of Arts in Criminal Justice at the U of A in 2008 and completing the Strategic Management Certificate at Harvard Extension School in 2017.
As well, she taught and presented at Alberta Justice Crown School, the Department of Justice, the Legal Education Society of Alberta, the Edmonton Police Service, the Alberta Law Conference, the U of A Law School and the Alberta Provincial Judges’ Association.
Justice Richardson was very involved in the community, up until her appointment to the Bench, in activities including being a student volunteer teacher of English as a second language for adult South Asian refugees and being on the board of directors of the Documentary Heritage Society of Alberta, the Head’s Up Fraud Prevention Association and the Selections Career Support Services.
As a result of her father being in the military, she grew up in four provinces and eight cities. That, and spending four summers working in the Northwest Territories, resulted in Justice Richardson gaining insight into the variety and diversity of Canadians and their unique perspectives. She also learned early the skill of adapting to her surroundings.
“Whether cultural, linguistic, urban, rural, religious or educational, I am able to adapt and be comfortable with anyone in any setting,” she says.
Justice Richardson sees being a judge as an expression of the highest form of public service. “It is work that is the culmination of my professional public service and the decades of volunteer service to my community,” she says.
And after a decade of wearing judicial robes, she understands the job.
“A judge must remember that no one wants to be in court,” she says. “The judge’s role is to ensure all parties leave the courtroom satisfied that they have been heard and their arguments have been understood.”