Having convinced Dean Horace Read that she was not a dilettante, Wilson, along with five other female students, enrolled in first-year law in 1954. He was so pleased with her response to an exam question at the end of the first term that he read it aloud, adding the comment “I think I’ll make a lawyer of you yet,” according to Ellen Anderson’s biography, Judging BerthaWilson: Law as Large as Life.
Wilson graduated three years later, ranking seventh out of fifty-eight students, tying for the Smith Shield in legal argument, earning the respect of her professors for the intensity of her scholarly curiosity, and winning a graduate scholarship to Harvard. Once again the crusty Read dissuaded her. “There will never be women academics teaching in law schools, not in your day,” he insisted.
Despite her stellar grades, Wilson’s age and the paucity of her local contacts made it difficult for her to win an articling position. She finally found a place with a local criminal lawyer after her corporate law professor interceded on her behalf. When her husband’s naval appointment expired in 1958, the couple, who by then had left the Presbyterian Church for the more liberal United Church, moved to Toronto. That’s where John Wilson had accepted, almost on a whim, a job as an interdenominational fundraiser.
Wilson, who had been called to the Nova Scotia bar but had not yet practised as a full-fledged lawyer, had to article again in Ontario and write the examinations for bar admission. First, though, she had to find a firm willing to take her on as a student. After looking up law firms in the Yellow Pages, she cold-called Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. They grudgingly took her on after a stern admonishment that there was no possibility she would be hired after her call to the bar. She was thirty-five, a decade older than most articling students.
Once again, intelligence, hard work, and superior organizing abilities won the day. By the time she was called to the bar in May 1959, she had become indispensible for the depth and breadth of her legal research and her crossreferencing of client files and government statutes. Osler’s offered her a permanent position, the first female lawyer they had ever hired. She was made a partner in 1968 and a Queen’s Counsel in 1973, but she never became a senior partner or a member of the management committee.
Just before Christmas of 1975, Ron Basford, then the Liberal minister of justice, surprised Wilson – and many of her colleagues – by inviting her to become the first woman justice on the Ontario Court of Appeal. At her swearing in a month later, she said: “I hope you will forgive me if I confess an element of unreality,” going on to explain that she had never argued a case in court or “practised law in the way most solicitors practise.” She was not apologizing for her lack of litigation experience. On the contrary, she pointed out that the nature of her experience had helped her to remember that “people and the law are inextricably intertwined, and that the role of the profession is essentially to serve the needs of the people.” True to her word, she made a factfinding tour of Ontario prisons so that she could see for herself “exactly where we were sending people.”
In an era of huge advances in family law, her rulings on the Court of Appeal soon attracted the attention of lawyers and judges across the country, especially those who advanced the rights of women. She never pictured herself as a feminist lawyer and shied away from minority groups attempting to cling to her legal gown. Nevertheless, she ruled in favour of the divorced common-law wife of a beekeeper, arguing that she was entitled to a half-share in the business they had built up and run together; she wrote a minority opinion in favour of a girl who was denied a place on a boys’ softball team simply because she was a girl; she found in favour of an East Indian mathematician who claimed she had been discriminated against in job interviews because of her race and wanted to sue in a civil action and claim damages. In all of these cases Wilson found intriguing and innovative legal arguments, no doubt the product of all those years in the research department of Osler’s.