By Doug Small
Article appeared in the Canadian Bar Association National Magazine, June/July 1998.
"As a successful litigation partner at the prestigious Lang Michener law firm in Ottawa, Eugene Meehan doesn't have to ride a bicycle to work. But he does.
Nor does he have to make toast for his family over a coal fire in the hearth of their old inner-city home. But he does.
That he does reinforces the notion that, as a Scot, he suffers from what he himself describes as a "genetic predisposition" to frugality, a key element in his winning campaign for the CBA vice-presidency.
Yet there are also sentimental reasons for these mild eccentricities. He's been riding a bike all his life. Cycle commuting keeps him in touch with ordinary folk (he's on first-name terms with many Ottawa bicycle couriers) and his roots. He rose at 4 am and bicycled 30 miles over the moors to the University of Edinburgh the day he took the law school entrance interview that would start him on a life in the law.
More poignantly, making toast over a coal fire recalls the winter hours he spent with his grandmother Madeleine, a French woman from Normandy who met his grandfather, a Scottish soldier, during the First World War. She spoke no English or Scottish this grandmother — "even when she spoke English, I learned French," Meehan says — but the two were very close. In an indirect way, she taught young Eugene valuable lessons about crossing language and cultural differences, and getting along. His eyes mist and there's a catch in his rich Scottish burr. When he remembers their time together. "Every time I put a coal fire on I think of making toast with my grandmother. Every single time."
He's made good use of the adaptation skills she taught him, shifting readily from a teenage job in a Scottish whisky distillery — "it put me off booze for life" — to law school, from Scotland to Canada — "I'm educated beyond my intelligence" — and from university lecture podium to legal practice. And now, at age 46, he's on his way to the top two jobs at the CBA, vice-president next year, president the year after that.
Of himself he says, "I am first, foremost and permanently a lawyer" and "just damn proud" to be one.
He's studied law: LL.B., University Edinburgh (1975); LL.M., McGill (1976); University of Ottawa (1978); LL.D., McGill (1984). He's taught it: University of Alberta (1978-86), University of Ottawa (1986-90). He's written it: eight books and more than 30 articles. He's practised it: in Alberta and now as a partner at Lang Michener doing general litigation and Supreme Court of Canada agency work for lawyers and firms outside the city. Plus he's served from 1990-92 as Executive Legal Officer to the Supreme Court of Canada; doing, he says, whatever the Chief justice told him to, everything from monitoring jurisprudence to dealing with the press.
When he becomes CBA president (1999 - 2000), he'll be selling the law, using his dry wit, determined nature and executive position to draw public attention — one lawyer at a time — to the scores of practitioners who put in hundreds of hours serving charities, communities and the country.
"When we put forward individual role models in a positive way, people will respond positively to that."
He looks on the legal profession as "a service industry, a service club. We have a higher calling if we want to accept it."
He does. That's why he's making a personal and financial sacrifice to "give something back" to the organization that he says serves as "the voice for lawyers and jurists, the voice that speaks for us, protects us and defends our interests."
His firm and family (lawyer wife Giovanna and four young children, Marc, Mélanie and Morgan from his first marriage and step-daughter Naomi) fully support his commitment to the CBA and agree it's the thing to do. As parents of a blended family, he and his wife understand and live daily the challenge of balancing professional and family life.
It will be a frugal term. He'll be riding his bike to the office, and the bus to and from the airport as he travels the country to branch meetings, law schools and community colleges in search of new CBA members.
His membership-building trips will be financed with money that would otherwise pay for ceremonial visits to foreign countries. He plans to spend the year in Canada, a portion of it with lawyers in smaller firms not now in the CBA who may be unaware of the practical benefits of membership. He'll work to expand those benefits.
"We have to make membership literally worth the price of joining, in a practical way," he says. "As a Scot I know and understand about practical savings."
Right down to bicycle commuting. And cooking with coal."