Sophie Acheson / From Law School to Urban Planner

Born and raised in Montreal, Sophie completed a BA in political science and economics in 2001 and civil and common law degrees (BCL/LLB) in 2004, at McGill University.  Discovering her passion for city planning and community building, she obtained a Master of Urban Planning at Dalhousie University in 2007. Since then she has been working as an urban planner in Ottawa, both in private consulting and the public sector. She is currently a Senior Planner at the National Capital Commission, a federal crown corporation responsible for the planning, development and stewardship of federal lands in the capital region. 

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

Not really. When I completed my BA at McGill, I realized I had no career direction and two more years of varsity hockey eligibility, which was to be honest my key priority at the time. I had taken courses that got me interested in the field of law, in particular constitutional law. More importantly, I was obsessed with the show Judging Amy… so I thought it might be a good fit!

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

During my third year of law school I went on exchange at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. As I discovered the city and travelled to new places I developed an interest in urban development and how it shapes the human experience. When I came back home I had one semester left and no job lined up. Instead, I decided to pursue a Master of Planning at Dalhousie University. 

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

My favorite class was family law. It was taught by a practitioner; I was always more interested in practical applications rather than theory.  

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

I once made the mistake of registering for a 3-hour evening class… turns out that is definitely not my most alert time of the day.  

Do you still see law all around you?

Definitely! At the municipal level, the ground rules for urban planning are set out in provincial legislation, and planners work closely with zoning by-laws. I regularly work with lawyers to resolve real property matters related to easements, covenants, and rights-of-way. My background definitely makes me feel less lost in the legalese, and I sometimes get to pull out some legal knowledge from the depths of my brain. 

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

Get involved beyond the classroom, for example law school clubs; you may discover new interests and they are a great networking opportunity. 

Sophie while at McGill.

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

Currently I am leading a really interesting planning initiative – the Capital Illumination Plan. We are seeking to enrich the nighttime experience in the national capital through architectural and event-based illumination projects. The plan will also include guidelines to reduce light pollution, recognizing the adverse impact of artificial lighting. Most of my work right now is focused on completing the plan.

After work I typically head to my CrossFit gym for a workout and spend the night with my partner making dinner, watching Netflix, or heading out to the beach on hot summer nights. We also love to explore the great food scene in Ottawa. What I appreciate the most about my job is that it is fairly easy to disconnect from it once I leave the office.

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

Drink my coffee in bed every morning while catching up on social media. 

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

I took a winding path to where I am at career-wise but I am really happy about the end result… so no regrets! 

Have an alternative legal career trajectory you'd like to share with us? Get in touch!

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