Calgary Lawyer and Entrepreneur Donna Gee Gets Things Done - LawNow Magazine

Calgary Lawyer and Entrepreneur Donna Gee Gets Things Done

Day one anywhere is stressful. For most graduates of law school, that first day of law school, looking back with the passage of years, would probably seem a bit of a blur, if indeed there is a memory at all. There’s the obligatory first assembly, where the Dean tells everyone how lucky they are to be there, representing one in about 10 applicants who had vied for that seat you are in, all of whom had GPAs as good, if not better than yours. You are told that you will learn how to think like a lawyer and rid yourself of any preconceived ideas you had of what law was all about.

Being assigned a seemingly insurmountable number of cases to read will come soon enough. But for today there’s that “Meet & Mingle” BBQ where you will check out, and be checked out, by your classmates, most of whom are assertive, competitive Type A’s who are used to being good at whatever they endeavour; otherwise, they wouldn’t be here. The ego-crushing experience of seeing your first C will come later, at Christmas, following sleepless nights where you will work harder than you ever had, for marks that just don’t reflect the toil you put into getting them.

For Calgary lawyer and entrepreneur Donna Gee, her first day at the University of Calgary’s law school in September of 2001 represents a more vivid memory. She recalls finishing an overnight shift as a nurse at the Foothills Hospital, then coming home to wake her son Ryan and get him ready for his first day of Grade 1. She attended an initiation BBQ at Ryan’s school, then rushed to the law school for orientation and her own Day 1 BBQ. “Ryan and I were both newbies. I don’t know who was more nervous,” she laughs.

Little in Donna’s background would hint that one day, as a mature student in her 30s, she would attend university to study law. Only one person in her family, an uncle, had obtained a post-secondary degree. Although Donna grew up in a mixed ethnic household (her father is Chinese, and her mother is European), she self-identifies as Chinese. She fondly recalls her grandmother on her father’s side as having had a profound influence on her growing up. “My grandmother embodied grace and control in a very soft way. She was a widow, with eight children to look after while she ran the family business, a greenhouse in Banff,” Donna says.

Looking back over the years, it is now clear to Donna how nursing and law complement each other in her practice. Her grandmother’s sense of responsibility and the importance of taking care of business were important lessons for Donna. The eldest of three daughters, Donna left home at 18 determined to make her own way in the world. Donna’s life over the next few years followed a pattern typical of many women living and working in Calgary during the 80s. As Calgary and the rest of Alberta slowly pulled out of the economic rubble after the collapse of the price of oil and the disastrous National Energy Program, Donna found work in the burgeoning private sector, doing customer service and administrative work.  At one point, she was the Client Services Manager for a big leasing company and editing lesson notes for the Society of Management Accountants.

After a decade in the workforce, Donna recalls feeling the urge for a change in direction. So, she decided to pursue a diploma in nursing at Mount Royal College. After successfully completing the program, she enrolled in a Bachelor of Nursing program offered by Athabasca University. Life could very well have continued along a comfortable path but for a life-threatening event that happened shortly after Donna’s 30th birthday. In her nursing program Donna had learned about the signs of possible cancer. After noticing what she describes as “a tissue abnormality” she consulted her family physician. She ran some tests. Unfortunately, on July 29, 1994 (a day Donna recalls like yesterday), she called her in to inform her that she had colon cancer. Many women consider turning 30 as a huge watershed moment. Few though at 30 contemplate looming death.

The cells in Donna’s body had declared war but giving up was not an option. “When the doctors gave me a 50/50 chance of survival, I decided to focus on the 50% in favour of life. My son was my responsibility and I needed to be there for him,” Donna says. Months of chemotherapy followed, during which Donna had to pull back from her demanding work schedule. Things got tight financially. However, with the memory of her strong-willed, independent grandmother raising eight children on her own to guide her, Donna made a decision that testifies to her character. She would tough it out on her own, living off her student loans until she got better. “Moving back home was not an option and I didn’t want hand-outs from anyone,” Donna says.

Donna laughingly describes writing the LSAT as “the worst day of my life.”German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche has said: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”  Donna beat cancer and came out stronger. After working in the Foothills and Rockyview Hospitals over the next few years, Donna came to realize how vulnerable the elderly and psychiatric patients are, especially those with legal matters that were going unaddressed. She began feeling a stir to do something about that, leading her to look introspectively at everything, including her expectations for herself, Ryan’s future and where she saw herself in five years’ time.

Subsequently, Donna decided to apply to the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine, where she was conditionally accepted. However, a friend made what would prove to be a pivotal suggestion. He suggested that Donna go to law school.

Not having any prior experience with law or lawyers, Donna recalls having no idea what the process would be like. She had worked a series of night shifts almost every day up to the day she wrote the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Donna laughingly describes writing the LSAT as “the worst day of my life.” After receiving her results and seeing how well she had done, Donna recalls feeling torn about what to do next. “I was at a crossroads. I didn’t know which way to go. So, I thought I’d just leave it to God to sort out. I applied to only one law school, the University of Calgary, and decided to wait and see what happens.” When she received word of her acceptance, Donna realized that law was her destiny. So, she traded her medical scrubs and clogs for three-piece suits and briefcases.

After working in the Foothills and Rockyview Hospitals over the next few years, Donna came to realize how vulnerable the elderly and psychiatric patients are, especially those with legal matters that were going unaddressed. Following admission to the Law Society of Alberta, Donna went on to build a thriving practice in the areas of Elder Law, Family and Surrogate matters. Driven by an entrepreneur’s spirit, she established her own legal association, the North Calgary Legal Centre (NCLC) in 2010. Then, in early 2016, Donna and former Alberta Justice Minister, Jonathan Denis, Q.C. shared thoughts about starting a boutique litigation practice. Months of planning and searching for a suitable location followed. On December 1, 2016, the Guardian Law Group LLP (GLG), officially opened with Donna as Managing Partner. Located at the edge of East Village in downtown Calgary, GLG offers services in all the major practice areas of practice: Family Law, Real Estate, Criminal Law, Business Law, and Personal Injury, plus Donna’s favorites: Elder Law, Wills and Estate litigation, and Guardianship and Trusteeship Matters, including Dependent Adult Matters. Donna says she is proud to advocate for people who society has marginalized or forgotten. “I care deeply about issues facing seniors, such as loss of loved ones, declining independence, declining mental capacity, abandonment and abuse from caregivers or family members.”

Looking back over the years, it is now clear to Donna how nursing and law complement each other in her practice. She regularly draws on her nursing knowledge when dealing with clients during their twilight years, a time when we tend to be at our most vulnerable.  As past-president of the national Elder Law Section of the Canadian Bar Association and past Co-Chair of the Southern Alberta Elder Law Section, Donna has advocated and spoken extensively on issues affecting the elderly, such as testamentary capacity and empowering seniors. Donna even applies her health care knowledge at her firm; she is developing wellness and nutrition programs for the partners, associate lawyers and support staff. “Private practice can be grueling and stressful. A huge responsibility is placed upon the lawyer to achieve the client’s results.  We as firms need to provide the support to our teams to keep them well in a stressful profession,” Donna says.

Although most people at Donna’s stage of life look to the next 10 years content to keep their heads down and earn money for retirement, there appears to be no slowing down for Donna. “Many of today’s seniors are active well into their 70s and beyond. I want to help them realize their full potential, not see them warehoused somewhere in a one-size-fits-all setting,” Donna says, “this includes ensuring they have access to caring and effective legal representation.”


Brian Seaman
Brian Seaman
Brian Seaman has been a past contributor to LawNow Magazine. He is a freelance writer and legal researcher.

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