Heather McCready is the Deputy Chief Enforcement Officer at Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and a member of the executive board of INTERPOL’s Pollution Crime Working Group. Her experience at ECCC includes leading an initiative to adapt principles of intelligence-led policing to an environmental enforcement context. Prior to her career as a public servant, Heather was an attorney at Ropes & Gray, LLP in Boston, where her practice focused on private equity transactions. Heather is a graduate of McGill University with degrees in Common Law, Civil Law, and Political Science. While at McGill, Heather was the Editor in Chief of the McGill International Journal of Sustainable Development Law & Policy. In 2013 she participated in the Strategic Management of Regulatory and Enforcement Agencies program, an Executive Education course at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Heather periodically gives guests lectors and presentations at law schools, the Canadian Bar Association, and the Canadian Institute of Resources Law. She is the co-author, with Karina Barker, of the chapter “Towards Intelligence-led Environmental Enforcement” in L. Paddock, D. Markell, and N. Bryner, eds, Compliance and Enforcement of Environmental Law, Elgar Encyclopedia of Environmental Law, volume IV.
Let’s start with the basics. What are you doing now? In a sentence or so, describe your work/practice(s).
I am the Deputy Chief Enforcement Officer at Environment and Climate Change Canada. We have approximately 250 staff across the country, including officers with peace officer powers, who work together to enforce Canada’s environmental laws and regulations. I am also on the executive board of INTERPOL’s Pollution Crime Working Group.
Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?
You know, I kind of think I did. I think it’s something that I thought about off and on when I was a child and throughout high school. I used to like to argue a lot so people would often say that I was going to end up being a lawyer. But there were periods of time where I thought I was going to do something else. For a while I wanted to get a PhD in political science and become a professor, but I think I was always heading towards law school, whether I knew it or not.
At what moment did you realize you wanted to take your legal education and career in your own direction?
I think it was during the two years that I was a lawyer in the US. I knew I wasn’t going to want to do corporate law for the rest of my life, but I thought that I would probably stay for about five years and learn important skills that I could take elsewhere with me. But I found, after about a year, that I wasn’t really learning what I thought I was going to. And it was also right in the middle of the US financial crisis, between 2007 and 2009, so it wasn’t a particularly pleasant time to be in corporate law. That’s when I started to think that it really wasn’t a right fit for me and that I should do something that was more true to who I am, sooner rather than later.
What were the steps you took and opportunities you seized in order to get where you are?
Ah well, I’d like to tell you that there’s some kind of formula, but it all actually sort of happened by accident for me. I ended up leaving the US and coming back to Canada, deciding to live off my savings for a little while, until I figured out what I wanted to do. I travelled a little bit and explored a whole bunch of different opportunities. But eventually what ended up being the turning point for me was going to a Government of Canada job fair and meeting some enforcement officers from Environment and Climate Change Canada.
I remember walking towards the Environment Canada booth and seeing two people in what looked like (to me) park ranger uniforms. I’m embarrassed to admit that at the time I didn’t know that Environment Canada had enforcement officers. I had never even thought about how environmental cases got to court. One of the officers, who is now a great friend and colleague, spent a lot of time telling me about the Enforcement Branch and the role of environmental enforcement officers. I was immediately hooked. The mandate is so close to my heart, the action-oriented nature of the work is very compelling for an energetic (and somewhat impatient) person like me, and the impact that officers have is incredibly inspiring. It just felt like home – it’s hard to explain. The fire that ignited in me during that conversation at a job fair in 2009 still fuels me today. I often tell our officers that they are superheroes, and I really mean that. It’s a privilege to work with them.
That job fair was one of those key moments where, if I hadn’t shown up, I think my life would’ve gone off on a really different course. Often when I’m asked about this by someone who is thinking about making a change in their life, I say, just show up for things, show up for everything, because you don’t know what’s waiting for you there.
What makes your current practice “lawfully uncommon”?
I think what makes it uncommon, is that I found a really great place for me where I can use my legal background, but I’ve also married it with something that I’m really passionate about, which is environmental protection. I do so in such a way that, although I’m not a lawyer anymore, I’m still able to use my legal skills to do something that is really important to me.
You know, I actually don’t think that this is all that uncommon anymore. I think it’s important for students to realize that. There are people all across government, and all across lots of different professions, who are using their law degrees in unconventional ways. I think we are starting to actually be more the norm and people shouldn’t think that following that path is so unusual.
Is there anyone influential in your life that helped you realize your goals? Mentors or role models in the field that inspired you?
I think throughout my life, it has always been teachers. I had lots of teachers in law school who were really important to me and helped me understand that I didn’t have to do something conventional. I think McGill is really great for that. And then, in my current job, it’s really the enforcement officers who I work with who continue to inspire me every day. It was meeting enforcement officers at a job fair, about ten years ago now, that really set me on this path. So it’s from them that I draw inspiration every day.
What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?
What I really appreciated about McGill Law was all the opportunities I had to be creative and esoteric and to push the envelope. It wasn’t a standard legal program and it really lit my creativity on fire. Which is actually one of the reasons I think that I didn’t enjoy law practice very much. I found law school so creative and so flexible but the practice of law was not like that for me.
What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?
I think looking back, I would probably say that it was all of the pressure that we put on ourselves as students. The competitiveness that all of us try to shy away from but would kind of fall into from time to time. Looking back on it, I realize that all of that was self-inflicted and we were all going to turn out okay. I really wish that we had all taken a few deep breaths and relaxed a little bit!
Were there challenges you faced in the transition from law school to the profession?
Absolutely. I think any time you jump tracks and try to do something different there’s a lot of self-doubt and a lot of wondering, “Oh my god, what have I given up? What is my future going be like?” And the blank empty space with a big question mark is pretty scary for a while. But looking back on it, I can see that I made a whole bunch of right choices. At the time, it was pretty scary, but I think that that’s really just part of finding where you’re supposed to be.
Do you still see the law all around you?
Absolutely! I remember when I was taking Torts in first year, someone telling me that it was like being in your first year of medical school where you think you have all kinds of funny ailments. I still see Torts everywhere but I also still see the law everywhere. Particularly now that I am in a slightly unconventional legal practice, I definitely see its application in all kinds of unusual places.
What advice would you give to a first-year law student?
Listen to your own advice. Show up for opportunities.
If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
Meditate in a forest.
No, because all of the bad choices I made got me to where I am, so I can’t really regret any of them.
The Lawfully Uncommon Series is supported by the McGill Career Development Office.