Lessons in leadership: How Dominique Hussey’s McGill Law experience led her to the top at Bennett Jones LLP
As Canada came to grips with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, Dominique Hussey, LLB’97, was beginning a new role at Bay Street law firm Bennett Jones. Over a decade after joining the firm as an accomplished intellectual property litigator, she was named Toronto managing partner and vice chair on 31 March 2020. She spoke with Focus online about her new role.
By Claire Loewen
| Illustration by Sarah Gonzales for Precedent Magazine.
“[The exchange] was a very good experience because although I had wide interests, I had been singularly focused on studying and achievement, and not as much on personal relationships, which of course has become very important for my role.“
“It really didn’t feel like a massive change in the way that you might expect,” Hussey says. “To the extent my world has changed; I don’t know whether to attribute this to my new role, or to COVID.”
The shift to managing partner felt like a natural culmination of events, Hussey says. The achievement is a reflection of her strong worth ethic, wide variety of interests, and personal leadership skills – traits she was able to develop and master during her days at Chancellor Day Hall.
Hussey began her McGill journey as a biology student pursuing a minor in classics. She spent her down time exploring Montreal, practicing her French wherever possible. Her interest in music led her to join McGill’s Choral Society and its chamber choir. She credits that variety as an important piece in her development.
While on an academic exchange at Duke University in North Carolina, Hussey says she learned to broker understanding between people, which is a big part of her job today.
“I was a foreigner. I was a Canadian; I was also a Black woman on a campus that was very divided,” she says. “I found I was able to make connections with a variety of different groups. That was a very good experience for me because although I had wide interests, before the exchange, I had been singularly focused on studying and achievement, and not as much on personal relationships, which of course has become very important for my role.”
In 1993, Hussey arrived at McGill Law with the goal of becoming a bioethicist. During her time in the program, she was able to try her hand at leadership, serving as the VP Administration for the Law Students’ Association in her final year and the co-chair of Skit Nite in her penultimate year.
“It’s all good training to be responsible for something, and be responsible to people; to have to present to people a certain way and maintain that level of organization, while keeping up with studies and outside interests,” Hussey said. “That was great foundational training for what I eventually came to do.”
While extra curriculars helped hone her leadership skills, the classroom was where Hussey discovered the value of social interactions and critical thinking. In particular, one avant-garde course on intellectual property law set her on the path to her practice at Bennett Jones.
“I was lucky that a course was available at a time when intellectual property was just not as well known,” Hussey says. “That ended up being of very critical importance, although at the time, it was something that I took only because it appealed to various interests that I had – art, science, music. It was a perfect combination.”
“ It’s important to see various styles of leadership and various types of people – a diversity of people in terms of backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and personalities.“
The natural mingling of French and English-language education in the classroom taught Hussey that people with different backgrounds can have common understandings, even while maintaining very different views, so long as there is mutual respect.
“McGill very much embodied that philosophy,” she shares.
A symbolic leadership role
As the first Black woman to head a Bay Street firm, Hussey recognizes the importance of diversity in leadership.
“Because I’ve had this experience myself, I do know that it is important to be able to see yourself in leadership. It’s important to see various styles of leadership and various types of people – a diversity of people in terms of backgrounds, beliefs, interests, and personalities,” she said.
Even if being the first Black person in a leadership role has symbolic importance now, Hussey says she hopes that one day, it will not be considered unusual.
“I think a lot of Black people would say the same thing that I say: there are a lot of so-called firsts, because, while there have been many Black people who are leaders, it is not standard. Ideally, there will be a time when nobody is a first; everybody is just a leader,” she said.
Be open to many definitions of success
For students currently studying law at McGill, Hussey advises to remain open to many options, and many definitions of success.
“Realize that the path you think you want to be on is not the only path and is not necessarily even the best path. You have set yourself up for success by working hard and trying different things — taking opportunities as they present themselves,” she said. “Just because your life doesn’t work out exactly as planned, it doesn’t mean failure; it might just mean a different definition of success.”