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Changemaker and visionary: Cherrill Edwina Shea receives UNB Alumni Award of Distinction

Cherrill Edwina Shea (LLB ’72) has been recognized as a 2022 recipient of the Proudly UNB Alumni Award of Distinction. Cherrill has had a long and interesting legal career that involved complex business litigation in Canada, the United States, and Europe. She also worked in the cellular telephone industry in the U.S. and was a pioneer in the mobile data industry in the 80s and 90s in North America, Europe and Australia. She has been an ardent supporter of UNB Law, where she has made a lasting impact through scholarship support and as a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council.  She is planning the creation of a centre at UNBLS focused upon civil liberties and civil rights with funded chairs.

Her contributions are perhaps best characterized by a former classmate and long-time friend, retired Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick Gladys Young (LLB ’72), who, at the 2022 UNB awards ceremony, said: “Cherrie was and continues to be an inspiration and role model to women. I think what she has proven and demonstrated is that irrespective of gender, irrespective of your place of origin, with determination you can excel and you can succeed in whatever field you choose to practice in—and wherever that practice may be.”

Cherrill recently sat down with Nexus to share some highlights and insights from her fascinating career in law and business.

Building a legal career as a female in the 70s

Cherrill built upon an all-New Brunswick education to forge a career well beyond the borders of the province. Born in Saint John, she earned her BA at UNB in 1969 and her LLB from UNB Law in 1972—as one of just five women in her class.

“When I attended UNB Law, the faculty was entirely male, and women among the students were few—and unwelcome by some,” recounts Cherrill. “When told that we were taking the place of men or that we would make fine legal secretaries, we were not deterred. All five of the women in my class worked in their chosen profession until their retirements in government, as a judge, or in private practice. Law school taught us that we had to exceed by a wide margin and that, if an opportunity arose, it had to be seized then and there.”

Cherrill began her career at what is now Stewart McKelvey in Saint John, where her work was focused on litigation. While working as an articled clerk (a condition to bar admission) and supplementing the clerkship’s meagre income by working each evening as a waitress at the now-long-gone White House Lodge, Cherrill’s first opportunity to distinguish herself arose.

The McKelvey firm was engaged by a New York City firm to act for a notorious financier, Bernie Cornfeld, who was embroiled in a massive corporate litigation with another notorious financier named Robert Vesco. For peculiar jurisdictional reasons, the litigation had to be brought in Saint John.

“I was assigned to assist in the case, and, accordingly, on every court day, I put on a black robe and attended the proceedings to assist Neil McKelvey, QC, and each evening I traded my robe for a waitress’s uniform and trudged off to the White House Lodge to serve guests steaks and seafood I could not possibly afford.”

One Friday evening after court, Cherrill went to the restaurant when Vesco’s lawyers from New York, Washington, D.C., and New Brunswick arrived for dinner. She recognized them, but they did not recognize her. Three years in law school had taught her that these lawyers, all men, were about to make a mistake and that their likely indiscretion was her opportunity. She did what every law-school-trained waitress would know to do in the circumstances and contrived to serve their table and listened.

While serving Vesco’s lawyers, she learned that they had arranged to put one over on Neil McKelvey by serving emergency motion papers on Neil’s firm late that day after business hours—when they knew that Neil had gone sailing on the Saint John River for the weekend. The motion was returnable on Monday morning in Fredericton when, they were certain, Neil would not be present since he would know nothing of the motion. Cherrill took that information that night to another partner in the firm who had a boat with a radio, and the pair called Neil to advise him of the plot. Neil sailed up the Saint John River to Fredericton and was waiting on the courthouse steps when the plotters arrived for the hearing on that Monday morning.

“They never knew how their plot was foiled and would never admit that their indiscretion was their undoing or that they were outwitted by a waitress for whom they left an ungenerous tip. They would hardly have understood that their design unraveled because women law students at UNB had been hardened by experience and knew to act decisively when the need arose.”

Later Cherrill moved to New York City and worked at a law firm in corporate and securities litigation. She worked on major complex litigation and arbitration matters in the U.S. and Europe for diverse corporate and commercial clients including matters involving oil transportation and storage that were conducted in Europe against state oil companies that defaulted in their payment obligations. These disputes were often between parties coming from different legal systems. The disputes could be framed as contract issues, but with no clear agreement upon what law applied, no generally accepted business practices, no common objectives of the parties, differing languages, and wildly different views of facts, truth, and evidence.

War, oil, and arbitration

“During the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Syria lost access to the Iranian oil pipeline and was forced to pick up their oil at Iran’s Kharg Island oil terminal in the Persian Gulf—which was being bombed by Iraq. My husband and I represented two Greek ship operators, cousins, who specialized in high-risk shipping, and who had won a lucrative Syrian contract of affreightment to move the oil from Iran to Syria without specifying the means.”

From a mechanical standpoint the trade was very effective. Oil was picked up at Kharge Island by huge tankers that moved the cargo to the Red Sea where it was transshipped to small tankers that could transit the Suez Canal and deliver the oil at a Syrian Mediterranean port. However, from a commercial standpoint the trade was troubled from the outset. For every delivery of crude oil, the Syrians claimed a shortage having a value slightly in excess of the cost of freight, paying Cherrill’s clients nothing.

“As the freight due grew, our clients sought to work out the issues but could not, and finally turned to us. They explained that they were due $19 million (US) for unpaid freight. Our clients informed us they were to take one more load of crude oil worth $80 million, and we said to pick up the oil and do not deliver it; the Syrians will then talk to you. And, of course, the Syrians did, after making threats of imprisonment.”

An agreement was reached that the matter of the unpaid freight would be decided by the International Chamber of Commerce in an arbitration which the Syrians insisted be in Damascus or Paris at their sole option. The critical element of the agreement was that the Syrians would put up a letter of credit for $19 million at a London bank payable against an arbitration award.

“The Syrians, no fools, chose Paris for the arbitration to our great relief. Our clients chose one arbitrator—a professor of law at the Sorbonne—the Syrians chose one arbitrator—a professor of law at the University of Damascus. Those two chose a third, the then recently retired Chief Justice of France, who held the arbitration sessions in his office at the Palais de Justice. We chose a French lawyer to work with, and the Syrians brought in a number of government lawyers.”

The arbitration sessions went for two weeks every three months for two years. Witnesses were heard in French, English, Greek, and Arabic. Arguments were made in French. Cherrill and her team pressed for a conclusion to the arbitration before the expiration of the critical letter of credit, and, with only days to spare, received an arbitration award of $21 million (freight, interest, costs, etc.). They swiftly presented the award at the bank in London that issued the letter of credit, but the bank, an Arab bank, refused to honour its own letter of credit upon diverse grounds including the Syrians’ motion to set aside the arbitration award on the ground that the chief justice was senile.

“We hired solicitors and barristers in London to work with to compel payment by the bank on the letter of credit. We succeeded and collected the funds after which we met the Syrian lawyers again who asked how we would address the uncollected portion of the award. We said that we would seek to arrest a Syrian vessel in the Suez Canal and collect the balance. They said, ‘If you do that, we will kill you.’ We did, and they didn’t.”

A leader in telecommunications

Later in her career, Cherrill, at the request of clients, became a member of the senior management of an entrepreneurial telecommunications company in the U.S. that pioneered in the cellular telephone and mobile data businesses. In that role, Cherrill worked on securing telecommunications licenses necessary for network operations. 

“It was an interesting time but it was very difficult being an entrepreneur and battling against the landline telephone companies which had all the money in the world. In each case, tricky regulatory issues were involved, and, in Europe and Australia, substantial resistance from established carriers complicated the processes.”

By the time the dust had settled, the company had secured licenses across the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Australia and was later sold to Bell South, a major U.S. telecoms operator.

A lasting relationship with UNB Law

“I owe UNB both for my formal education and for the less formal, but equally valuable, instruction in the need for judgment, integrity, and resilience. Some legal careers are shaped by client relationships that mean, in practice, that lawyers become involved in whatever legal issues a client has to face. For lawyers whose careers are defined by ever-changing client needs, the value of a law school education is not limited to the substance of the law, but, rather, extends to preparation for confronting problems for which the answers are not to be found in books and libraries.” 

Cherrill has long been a supporter of UNB, through volunteerism and through the establishment of the generous Cherrill Edwina Shea and Carl Robert Aron Scholarships. Looking back upon her experience and her commitment to UNB, Cherrill said: “The standing of women has, of course, changed greatly with time. Still, challenges remain and can be met only by well-educated people, including people whose financial circumstances, like my own, made the cost of education a challenge in itself. I hope that the scholarships that I have been funding ameliorate the financial difficulties of promising scholars’ obtaining needed education. I am also working with UNB to assure a continuing focus upon the study of and support for civil rights and liberties and the rule of law because those matters never lose significance.”

Cherrill said: “To the law professors who said that I was taking the place of a man, my answer then was and is now: “You got that right!”  But to them, I also say “Thank You” because they helped to prepare me for what was to come in a long and interesting career. My support of UNB is in some part an expression of that thanks.”

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