As far back as Katherine Cooligan can remember, she wanted to be a lawyer.
Not only did she like to argue that black was white, or so her parents teased, but she shared her dad’s hard work ethic to never call in sick, to never be late. She was prepared to put in long hours and to devote herself to her clients. Little did she know she would also be tragically tested in a way that few lawyers are.
Cooligan, 54, was born and raised in Ottawa. She spent her summers and school breaks working as an assistant at a law firm whose partners included her uncle, the late Garret Cooligan. She gained exposure to the different fields of law, but there was one area in particular that she was drawn to due to the personal nature of the work. It was family law.
Today, Cooligan is one of the top family law lawyers in town, handling mostly high-net-worth divorces that deal with the division of property, child custody and child and spousal support.
She’s also a trailblazer, both as the first woman and the first family law lawyer to lead the Ottawa office of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. She joined the firm in 2006 as its only family law partner.
In 2014, she became regional managing partner in Ottawa by a vote of her Ottawa partners, which followed her term as manager of the litigation department.
Cooligan and the regional managing partners of the Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal offices sit on the national management committee that oversees the firm nationally. BLG is Canada’s largest law firm with more than 700 lawyers.
“It’s challenging, exciting – there all kinds of ways to describe it – but it’s also, honestly, an honour,” she says during an interview at BLG’s scenic downtown Ottawa office on the 13th floor of the World Exchange Plaza.
“When I decided to take this role on, I did question whether I could be successful in the role and whether or not I wanted the stress of the role, but I took the challenge because I knew I would learn from it and figure it out. I knew I would get there.”
Being appointed to a senior management position has inspired Cooligan to keep growing as a leader and, in particular, to encourage more women to take on leadership positions.
While she’s thrilled with how high she’s risen in the ranks, it’s her proven track record as a litigator that she’s most proud of.
“Nothing has more impact on a family’s life than getting a good result for young children when dealing with bitter custody cases,” says Cooligan.
“In the last few years, I have had several very lengthy high-conflict custody trials with very young children that were very difficult and for which I had success in every case – and by ‘success,’ I mean in the best interests of that child.”
Cooligan graduated from Ridgemont High School before earning her undergrad degree at Carleton University. After getting married, she attended law school at the University of Ottawa.
She then joined Gowlings, where she articled, and remained with the multinational law firm for 16 years.
It was a bittersweet experience – more bitter than sweet – when she made partner, because it coincidentally fell on the same day her five-month-old son Justin died on Sept. 19, 1997. Justin had been born with multiple heart defects and spent his brief life entirely at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
Cooligan, who practically lived at CHEO during that time, struggled during this profoundly painful period of her life. After a short bereavement leave, she made the decision to return to family law litigation.
“I loved my work – I really did,” she says. “I could not have worked as hard as I did had I not enjoyed it as much as I did, so I did go back.”
At first, she found it hard to watch other parents in their tug-of-war custody battles and the harm that they were inflicting on the perfectly healthy child they’d been blessed with.
Cooligan, who is the main provider for her family, is the mother of three: Jade, 24, Jasmyn, 19, and Jordan, 17. Justin had been her second-born child (the only two days she takes off work are his birthday and the anniversary of his death).
It was always important to her that she and her kids remain close and connected, whether it meant bringing them with her to out-of-town conferences or having them join her at her office with their DVD players or homework. “As much as possible, I integrated them into my work life,” she says.
She got enormous help on the home front from her parents, Milton Cooligan, 89, who was a civilian employee with Ottawa Police by the time he retired, and Dorothy Cooligan, 86. The Cooligans both grew up on the farmlands of Luskville, Que., and currently live in a bungalow on her street.
In 2016, many years after her first marriage ended, she married again, to Jim Houswerth, who moved from Chicago to be with Cooligan.
Interestingly, when people used to ask Cooligan’s children what they wanted to be when they grew up, they would all reply: “Not a lawyer.” They’d seen her work too many evenings, weekends and holidays.
“I work really hard, but I love it.”
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CATHERINE COOLIGAN
1. Cooligan and her family are loyal supporters of CHEO. She’s on the board of the CHEO Foundation, for her second time, and she and her kids are longtime volunteers at the CHEO Telethons and Teddy Bear Picnics.
2. Cooligan has this advice for women interested in leadership roles: Go for it. “Don’t let the fear stop you. Too many women won’t take the challenge unless they know they’re going to be successful. Take the role when it’s presented to you and then draw upon your resources to make yourself successful. Don’t wait.”
3. Years ago, Cooligan was convinced by another young mom to take a cake-decorating course together. “I was working, like, 3,000 hours and cake decorating was the last thing I wanted to do, but I did it and I absolutely loved it,” says Cooligan, who has made it a family tradition to bake and decorate birthday cakes for her kids. She’s been known to whip them up in the middle of the night after she gets home from work. If you apply her hourly rate as a lawyer, each cake is probably worth about $1,500.
4. Cooligan hosts female networking events, called Tea with BLG, using old-fashioned tea cups and saucers that she collects and gives to her guests to take home. She got her inspiration from her maternal grandmother’s involvement with fundraising teas held in a little church basement in Luskville.
5. Cooligan is part of the new Capital Build Task Force launched earlier this year by the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce (now the Ottawa Board of Trade) to push forward city-building projects, such as the redevelopment of LeBreton Flats and the expansion of light rail to Gatineau. If that’s not a spicy enough tidbit for you, she also likes watching professional bull riding.