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Employment & Labour

Therapeutic background helps solve clients' problems

Nothing surprises Ottawa employment lawyer Ella Forbes-Chilibeck.

Before finding her calling in the law, the founder of Forbes-Chilibeck Employment Law had a two-decade career as a behavioural consultant, working mainly with young offenders and individuals with mental, physical, and emotional challenges.

“I’m not in the least bit conflict-averse,” Forbes-Chilibeck tells AdvocateDaily.com. "There’s very little I haven’t seen or heard, so nothing is going to surprise me.”

Despite serving a different demographic in her law practice, she says her therapy work still informs her second career.

“As a therapist, someone would walk in with a bag of internal issues, and I would apply a set of tools to help them,” Forbes-Chilibeck explains. “I’m applying a different set of tools now, and the problems tend to be more external than internal, but the results are usually the same.

“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to fix things for people,” she adds.   

The experience also helped Forbes-Chilibeck develop her mediation skills, which come in handy for her current practice, with its focus on employment, human rights and disability benefits law.

“I can also be compassionate while keeping good boundaries, which is something I find other lawyers sometimes struggle with,” she says.

Forbes-Chilibeck originally applied to law school back in 1989 but decided to put it off due to the arrival of her first child. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that she returned to the idea.

“It was something I thought I would always regret it if I never applied, so I did,” she says.

Initially accepted by the University of Ottawa on a part-time basis to help her manage a home that included two children and two dogs, Forbes-Chilibeck soon switched to the full-time stream.  

“I was too impatient to wait that long,” she explains.

Forbes-Chilibeck made her mark at law school, penning two heavily cited papers that called on her cross-country experience.

One paper on the justice system’s treatment of people with fetal alcohol syndrome, inspired by her time in Prince Rupert, B.C., became a go-to text for the federal Justice Department. And she says she still gets calls about another focused on land transfer and title issues in Northern Saskatchewan  — the area where she grew up — and rural Canada generally and its dwindling female population.    

After flirting with criminal law as a complement to her work history, Forbes-Chilibeck gravitated towards employment law during a second-year program, and never looked back. After articling at a boutique employment law firm, she spent a number of years at a full-service firm in Ottawa before finally branching out on her own.  

“It’s been wonderful. I have a full-time assistant, Chris Ellis, and am very busy,” she says. “I regularly get people approaching me about expanding or forming a partnership, but I presently enjoy the autonomy too much.”

Forbes-Chilibeck is also licensed to practise law in Nunavut, as a result of her work for residential school survivors.

And she sits on the executive of the Ontario Bar Association’s employment and labour law section. In that role, she frequently writes and speaks at events on topics including accommodation, access to disability benefits, workplace harassment and discrimination.

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