Julia Hanigsberg / Lawyer to Kids Healthcare Champion

Julia Hanigsberg joined Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital as its President and CEO on January 12, 2015. Holland Bloorview is Canada’s largest paediatric rehabilitation hospital and each year serves close to 8000 children and youth with disabilities and complex medical needs. Holland Bloorview is an academic hospital fully affiliated with the University of Toronto and carries out its academic mission through the Bloorview Research Institute (a Research InfoSource Top 40)  and the Teaching and Learning Institute.

Julia with a patient at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation. 

Julia with a patient at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation. 

Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

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Definitely not! I didn’t have any lawyers in my family or in the circle of family friends unlike many of my classmates. I applied to graduate school and law school and decided on law school out of a sense of pragmatism. The real surprise was in first year when I realized I loved it. Over the course of my four years in the National Program (as it was then called) I took classes in both French and English, mooted competitively (Laskin), was Editor in Chief of the Law Journal, worked as a research assistant for a professor – all sorts of great experiences with great intellectual depth and the deepest friendships lasting until this day.

What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?

As close as I came to “big law” were summers at Ogilvie Renault (as it then was prior to merger to become Norton Rose) and McCarthy Tetrault, and a couple of months of articling at McCarthy’s in Ottawa. These were fantastic experiences where I learned from great lawyers and my peers. I clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada in 1992-93 (for Justice Peter Cory) which inspired me to apply to graduate school. I spent 3 years at Columbia Law School before moving to Toronto.

What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?

I loved my charter courses – remember I started law school in 1987 so the Charter was still in its early days! I was really intrigued by different critical approaches to law that at that time felt still pretty new: feminist legal theory, critical legal theory and critical race theory.

What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?

Not sure I want to incriminate myself but “lives in being plus 21 years” is all I’ve retained from common law property (and not sure I ever really understood what that meant).

Do you still see law all around you?

I do. At Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation hospital we not only provide services, treatments and technology for kids with medical complexity, disability and complex rehabilitation needs, but we see ourselves as drivers of social change.  Law and public policy are an important part of eradicating the stigma that children and youth with disability face every day.

You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them?

Be curious. Your legal training is part of this great toolbox you will take with you down many possible career paths. Learn about as much as you can on your way. And don’t hesitate to take on new opportunities and new responsibilities especially ones where there are big problems – that’s where the most interesting work happens.

Julia with a patient (who happens to be a Raptors fan!)

Julia with a patient (who happens to be a Raptors fan!)

What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!

There is no typical day. I’m really fortunate because as the CEO of Holland Bloorview, an amazing children’s hospital in Toronto, I work with an incredibly accomplished and multidisciplinary team. I love greeting new employees at the beginning of their orientation and talking about our vision of enabling the most healthy and meaningful futures for all children, youth and families.

As much as possible I talk to children and youth who we serve and their parents directly – they give me the greatest insights into what we are doing right and where we have opportunities to make more impact. I love spending time with the scientists in the research institute at Holland Bloorview because their work gives me insight into the future of care and inspires me keep working to get them the resources they need.

I’m often giving media interviews on new initiatives, working with CEOs of other hospitals or partners in social or children’s services to build out solutions for more seamless care and greater access to what kids and their families need, and I am frequently talking to government decision-makers. I spend a lot of time with funders of all kinds, donors, foundations and other community supporters to champion our work and to seek support and resources for all of the work our team does every day.

Because we are a kid’s hospital we like to have a fair amount of fun – funny hats, slab cake or fruit punch anyone?! -- which I document on Twitter and Instagram!

I’ve got some volunteer passions as well including advancing girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

I’d spend more time with my family.  I’ve got a husband and 3 kids who all have their own busy lives and I’m so lucky that when my dad retired my parents moved to Toronto to be close to me and my family. More time with them would be a precious gift.

Any regrets? (Yeah, we are retrospective like that).

I shouldn’t have stopped taking math. Seriously! So much of the work we do today requires data analytics, modelling, statistical analysis – I should have had more self-confidence as a young woman in my math abilities and not given up as soon as it stopped being a required course. And I’m still planning to learn some rudimentary coding skills so I can have a better understanding of the technology that impacts every part of our life.

Julia and her team wearing capes at the inaugural year of their annual fundraiser  Capes for Kids

Julia and her team wearing capes at the inaugural year of their annual fundraiser Capes for Kids