Michelle Kelly recognized as a changemaker | NEXUS Magazine | Alumni | Faculty of Law | UNB

Global Site Navigation (use tab and down arrow)

Faculty of Law

Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers in Canada: Michelle Kelly recognized as a changemaker

Over the course of a distinguished 20-year legal career, Michelle Kelly, K.C. (LLB‘03) has devoted herself to championing equity, diversity, and inclusion and working tirelessly to address gender-based discrimination and harassment. Michelle was recently recognized for her impactful work, being named one of Canada’s Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers by Canadian Lawyer Magazine. She was honoured in the “changemakers” category, which celebrates lawyers who have been leaders, innovators, or catalysts for positive change within the legal profession.

“I was very surprised to be honest. I remember reading through the bios of the other finalists in my category and just saying ‘wow.’ It really is amazing just to be nominated alongside these incredible humans.”

Michelle was nominated for the award by her Halifax firm, Cox & Palmer. She joked that her family took over from there.

“Don't underestimate the power of my family. My husband is originally Jamaican and immigrated here 10 years ago. I think between Greg getting all of Jamaica to vote for me and my parents getting all of PEI to vote for me, Canadian Lawyer was forced to recognize me.”

As you will read, Michelle embodies the humble quality of many UNB Law grads.

Discovering a passion for advocacy

A native of Summerside, PEI, Michelle grew up in a small city with big aspirations. She attended Queen’s University for her undergrad, and it was while in Kingston that she had her ‘aha moment’ and decided to attend law school.

“An interesting aspect of living in Kingston is that there are several prisons near by. I did a tremendous amount of volunteer work in the penitentiaries, and that's what led to my realization that I wanted to go to law school to try and affect change. It really is an eye-opening experience to see how incarcerated individuals live.”

Despite thoroughly enjoying her four years at Queen’s, Michelle, a true Maritimer, knew she needed to return to the East Coast for law school.

“I had a wonderful experience in Ontario, but it gave me the feeling that universities were these big institutions, and you’re only there to learn. Then, I landed at UNB. It was pure magic, and it really did show me that universities aren't just institutions; they can be families.”

Upon her arrival at UNB Law, Michelle was seeking to continue her advocacy work, searching for new opportunities to support marginalized groups and to give back. It was a chance meeting with librarian Melinda Renner that pushed Michelle towards the issue of women’s rights.

“Melinda invited me to help with the work she was doing with women’s reproductive rights with the Morgentaler Clinic, which led me to join the Women and Law Society. Through this work, I really started to see the way women were being treated in society, and that set me on the journey to fight for women. Melinda, if you are reading this, you are a force; you set me up for being the true feminist that I am today.”

Building positive spaces for women within the firm

After three incredible years at UNB Law, Michelle joined Cox & Palmer (then Cox Hanson O'Reilly Matheson) in Halifax. She has remained with the firm for her entire career. One of the first initiatives she spearheaded after joining the organization was promoting a more inclusive environment in-house. Along with fellow young associate—and classmate—Robin Aitken (LLB‘04), Michelle set out to redefine networking within the firm.

“Robin and I recognized that many of these networking events—Superbowl parties, golf events—were geared towards men, and as a result, were mostly populated by men. We set out to create a networking experience that women would gravitate towards and participate in.”

The pair introduced their first ‘Cloud Nine’ event, a spa trip for female lawyers and clients. For Michelle and Robin, it was all about changing the dynamics of networking so that it was more inclusive. Their events have evolved over the years, but the goal has remained the same; create spaces where everyone feels comfortable and welcome.

“We started way back when Robin and I were new associates, and it's permeated the last 20 years of my career.”

Addressing gender-based discrimination and harassment in the legal profession

Michelle has played a pivotal role in addressing gender-based discrimination and harassment in the legal profession through her work with the Gender Equity Committee (GEC) for the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society. She became chair of the committee at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020.

“In 2019, our committee had put out a survey to all members of the profession in Nova Scotia. The report that came back—I think was about 120 pages—contained some of the most detailed and specific accounts of both discrimination and harassment faced by a number of our members in the profession.”

Michelle and her fellow committee members were emboldened by the information; they owed it to their members to take significant action. At the time, the Federation of Law Societies had begun making amendments to the model code of conduct—a guide that then each jurisdiction can implement. Michelle chaired a subcommittee of the GEC tasked with a word for word review of the proposed changes.

“They were doing quite a good job, being very detailed even in just defining what is gender-based discrimination and what is sexual harassment. One thing that stood out for me was the idea that you cannot treat men and women differently under a parental leave policy. It's not for the Law Society or a firm or anyone to decide who should be the primary caregiver of a child. It’s important that we recognize that families look differently. There may not be a dad, there may not be a mom, and it doesn’t make it any less of a family.”

Michelle and her colleagues pushed back on language, providing alternate wording based on a trauma-informed lens. Much of their work has made the final code of conduct document.

“We did not accept the wording holus bolus. For example, the code states ‘submission to behavior cannot be seen as consent.’ There are certain words that are trigger words, and submission is one of them. We proposed the wording ‘acceptance of' as opposed to submission to try and make it more appropriate to any reader, and especially those who have experienced this type of behavior.”

Work with the Mass Casualty Commission

Michelle served as Lead Counsel Document Management for the Mass Casualty Commission, the joint public inquiry created to examine the April 18-19, 2020, mass casualty in Nova Scotia. In the weeks following the tragedy, Michelle felt a ground swell of interest within the community and the province for a public inquiry.

“This was all happening during the Desmond Fatality Inquiry. I had sat as the President of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women while that tragedy happened. I was very familiar with some of the circumstances, and I had perceived links between the two—both involving violence against women at the heart of the tragedy. As things started to progress, I wanted to make sure that a gender lens was being applied.”

Cox & Palmer was approached to offer litigation support services, which included the gathering, organization, and release of documents.

“It morphed into something much greater. A public inquiry is much different than regular litigation in that this is in the public eye and transparency is at the forefront. We quickly saw that we were dealing with the most graphic and sensitive of materials.”

Michelle was brought on as the lead for document management. Over 90,000 documents with over 600,000 pages came through her office for processing. She was tasked with reviewing these documents for sensitive material. Working with a homicide detective, she pored over each document, line for line, to determine their importance to the narrative and their potential to re-traumatize the public. Sensitive information not relevant to the narrative was omitted, and sensitive information imperative to the inquiry was summarized in a way that was consistent with the original document, but trauma-informed to ensure that the story was being told but in a way that was appropriate for public consumption. All said, Michelle worked on the documents for nearly two years.

“Again, it was imperative to be trauma-informed so that we weren't re-traumatizing anyone—whether it was someone who you know was a family member, lived through the mass casualty, someone who watched it unfold, or someone who had had a similar experience. We wanted to make sure everything was desensitized so that minimal further trauma would be caused.”

A family connection to advocacy

Michelle’s commitment to advocacy has deep personal roots. Ten years ago, her husband Greg immigrated to Canada from Jamaica through a spousal sponsorship. She worked endlessly to ensure a smooth transition to life in Canada. Navigating this process was an overwhelming experience. Advocating her husband’s immigration to Canada and confronting the barriers that new Canadians face served as the catalyst for her personal and professional mission—which was compounded with the birth of her daughter, Zoe.

“It just opened my eyes to what we can do as individuals, what we can force private entities to do as good stewards of the community, and what we can force government to do. It was very personal how I started on the journey, but it's become so much more than just me, Greg, and Zoe.”

Changemaker is just one of the many titles that has been bestowed upon Michelle during her career. Soon, she will go by Coach. She is looking forward to continuing her work in promoting gender equity, this time, on the soccer pitch with her daughter.

“I have a seven-year-old and she is the biggest soccer fan in the entire world. It’s very easy to see the way sport treats women and men differently, and it is hurting my heart.”

Michelle has signed up for the Telus She CAN Coach program, a national coach recruitment, development, and training project designed for women.

“I think how women coach is very different than how men coach. I think our young girls deserve the opportunity to see themselves in their coach. It’s all about making sure girls have the same space that boys have in sport. Even slight language shifts really help create space for our young girls to feel the same type of empowerment that sport provides our young boys.”

Final thoughts for those hoping to make a difference

For Michelle, it’s important for the next generation of legal professionals to be agents of change. She urges students and recent grads to recognize the immense privilege that comes with a law degree, and to use this privilege for good.

“Because of your position in society you are going to have the ability to affect change. People listen to you. You are going to be able to have a voice that others don't. We as lawyers must take that privilege very seriously and we must use it to help those who don't have the same voice that we are blessed with."

Another key piece of advice she shares for students is to always be on the lookout for what interests them; search for the causes that they are passionate about. They may come as a surprise, from a simple conversation with a stranger.

“I am thankful to Melinda Renner, who all those years ago helped me find my voice. Twenty years later, I still have a serious amount of passion about making the world a better place for everyone, but especially for women.”