If we were to analyze the components that make an excellent litigator, Sarah Armstrong would be the ideal model. This is someone whose major promotions — most recently, equity partner at Canada’s third-largest firm — happened during and right after maternity leaves. She’s Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP’s vice-chair of litigation, and one of the firm’s most dedicated mentors. “I suppose my edge is that I work hard and I’m focused.”
“Sarah is so modest,” says Laura Cooper, a partner who’s observed Armstrong’s ascent since she arrived as a summer student in 2001. “She’s the complete package. She’s smart, strategic, assiduous and really cares about the client. But she’s also a team player and dedicated to volunteer work.”
Trace back Armstrong’s communityminded generosity to growing up in the tiny town of Haileybury, north of North Bay. But her determination can probably be attributed to her youth spent standing up to her three brothers and competing as an ice skater. She studied political science at McMaster University and interned at a law firm near home to see if she liked the profession. She did, and applied to law school at the University of Toronto.
Armstrong started in the litigation department at Faskens as a first-year associate and right away found mentors who pushed her. “I was quite junior when, an hour before an arbitration hearing, the senior lawyer told me that I would be examining an important witness that day,” she recalls. Her champions kept offering her opportunities that built up her confidence and made her hungry for more.
When there’s no challenge afoot, she finds it. In 2006, she took a leave of absence to join her husband Jeff Murray in New York City when his firm, Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, seconded him there. But when she could have been skating at Rockefeller Center and hanging out at museums, she instead took on two major cases, working remotely from NYC and flying back to Ontario for hearings.
Armstrong has tackled commercial and contractual disputes, class actions, arbitrations and administrative cases. She acted as lead counsel for a successful claimant in a commercial arbitration over a post-purchase price adjustment. She was also co-counsel in a lengthy wrongful dismissal claim, and co-counsel in a multimillion-dollar commercial dispute between large international corporations.
Meanwhile, Armstrong twice took the top spot in the firm’s annual mentoring awards, based on the number of hours lawyers dedicate to coaching junior staff. She’s one of two partners responsible for the internal legal education program for litigation associates and the business development training program for all associates. She says she’s just doing what senior partners did for her years ago, making herself an “accessible person.”
That accessibility extends to her work with clients, particularly her decade-long pro bono relationship with the Child Advocacy Project. Through the organization, she represented a grade 9 student undergoing kidney dialysis who had been denied funding to be taught in-hospital while remaining enrolled at his school. She also defended a 15-year-old with severe autism who had been excluded from school for over six months.
While litigating, mentoring and volunteering seem to come easily to Armstrong, it’s adding parenthood to the mix that’s proven to be her greatest challenge: she says she juggles work and life with sons Wilson, 4, and Andrew, 10 months, “with great difficulty.” It’s an honest answer, and that kind of honesty is an essential component of a truly great model.
Year of call: 2003
Current position: Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP
Favourite legal character: Alicia Florrick of The Good Wife
If I weren’t a lawyer, I’d be: A doctor
Pet peeve: Incomplete Lego sets
Greatest extravagance: A personal trainer
Most treasured possession: My Knebli ice skates
Photography by Stacey Croucher