Louise Fournier is Associate Litigation at Greenpeace Southeast-Asia, where she works on Greenpeace’s climate justice efforts in the independent national regional offices. Louise is trained in civil law and common law from McGill University and has a master summa cum laude in international environmental law from the University of Edinburgh. Before joining Greenpeace, she worked in a law firm representing Indigenous people from northern Quebec in their ancestral rights, treaty rights and land claims litigation and interned at the UNFCCC Legal Affairs. Louise is fluent in Mandarin, French and English. She is a registered attorney in the State of New York.
Let’s start with the basics. What are you doing now? In a sentence or so, describe your work/practice(s).
I am Associate Litigation Counsel for Greenpeace’s Climate Justice and Liability campaign, where I implement and help coordinate innovative legal campaign strategies across Greenpeace’s national and regional offices to achieve systemic shifts in corporate behaviour and government policy in the climate field, mostly through climate litigation.
People around the world are already experiencing the impacts of climate change every day, especially in those communities that have contributed the least to the crisis. Everyone has the right to a safe and healthy environment, but now this right is under threat from climate change. Working with national and regional Greenpeace offices, we are assisting the growing number of communities that are taking legal action to secure their human rights and hold governments and fossil fuel companies accountable for the climate crisis.
Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?
I come from a family of lawyers (my father and my sisters are also lawyers), so I actually did not want to go to law school, but rather study neurosciences. Eventually, when I realised that it was just as unwise to prevent myself from going to law school only because of family tradition, I decided to apply. When I started McGill, I was only 19 years old, so I did spend my early twenties in the library. On the other hand, I also met two of the dearest people in my life at McGill.
At what moment did you realise you wanted to take your legal education and career in your own direction?
During my time at McGill, I was working in a boutique law firm in Montreal, O’Reilly et Associés, which specialises on ground-breaking indigenous land claims in Canada. There, I honed the skills needed to develop litigation while also constantly finding creative legal strategies to shift the balance of power in “lost-cause” cases. It is also where I developed an interest in environmental law and knew that I would like to study this legal is more in-depth.
That’s why right after I graduated from Mcgill and passed the NY bar, I moved to the University of Edinburgh, for a master of law on Global Environmental Law and Climate Change. The year abroad in beautiful Scotland opened my eyes that I loved the intersection between international environmental law, human rights law and climate policy and that I would try my best to pursue a career in that field.
What were the steps you took and opportunities you seized in order to get where you are?
Earlier I said I spent my early twenties at the library, but that was not entirely true. I would have to admit that I spent way more time at the fencing gym than at the faculty. At the time, I was on the high-performance national team for women’s epee and participating in world cups and championships. I also represented Canada at the University Games. I was training on average 20-25 hours a week, on top of a normal load of classes and weeks of missed classes when we had training camps or competitions abroad. My last two years at McGill fell during the Olympic qualification period for Rio 2016, so my focus shifted mostly to trying to make the Olympics - my lifelong goal and dream. More than a lawyer, I wanted to be an Olympian. When I found out that I did not qualify I was absolutely crushed. I had never really failed anything before or experienced such an intense disappointment, and on top of it, my grades were at an all-time low. It took me some time to get over it, with help from my family and friends. Now I see it as a great life lesson - I learned that I am resilient, that time heals all wounds, that I am not defined by my successes/failures and to be kind with myself.
I went on to do my masters at the University of Edinburgh, as well as transitioning into a fencing retirement by competing for the University’s varsity team. Along with the lighter workload, my increased interest in the law and a positive, stress-less student-athlete life, I was able to take all the opportunities I never could when I was on the national team. I did an internship in the legal team of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, where I worked on international climate negotiations, before doing another internship at Greenpeace international, where I worked on a variety of projects, from business law and law of the sea to human rights law and climate policy. I fell in love with the work at Greenpeace and had the chance to work on climate litigation, on which I had written my master's thesis.
What makes your current practice “lawfully uncommon”?
I work as an international climate lawyer who helps communities around the world bring national climate lawsuits, at one of the world’s largest environmental NGO. I think just explaining my role makes it “lawfully uncommon”.
One of the things I love the most about my job is how truly international and intersectoral it is. I work with national political experts from around the world, along with the national lawyers, to understand what is the best legal strategy there. This is transsystemia pushed to the extreme! At the same time, I am not only doing legal work, I also create events to strengthen relationships and campaign on the international scene for ambitious climate action that has human rights at the core. A typical day for me could be a legal review of a non-violent peaceful protest in South Korea, a meeting with the Greenpeace team in Poland and speaking at a conference about the world’s first inquiry on the responsibilities of majors fossil fuel and cement companies, brought by Greenpeace Philippines and community members. One of the most important requirements for my role is the ability to think outside the legal silo and have the mental flexibility to understand the national political and legal situation, and to be ready to take on a campaigning role.
Is there anyone influential in your life that helped you realize your goals? Mentors or role models in the field that inspired you?
My father, Pierre Fournier (McGill 1967), was one of the most influential people in my life. He had a passion and curiosity about life and was invested in whatever was important to me - from ponies to fencing to environmental law. He was an outstanding litigator and I learned a lot from his charming demeanour in court and in life. For example, he once told me that to make an audience laugh means that they will listen to you, a tip he used regularly on judges. As much as he was a successful lawyer, Batonnier (president) of the Montreal Bar Association and renowned litigator, he always made sure that he had a good work-life balance. While he passed away two years ago, his passion, empathy, ambition and sense of humour will also stay with me.
What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?
The first time I heard about climate litigation, in Professor Jodoin’s sustainable development class, was like a lightning strike. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the health and medical law classes with Professor Khoury, my ethics class where I studied neuro ethics and my first-year constitutional law class. I also had a deep passion for judicial review of administrative action (still very useful), which warranted some teasing from my friends.
What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?
There was not much that made my blood boil or snooze while at law school (... when I was at law school).
I did find that for a Faculty that prized itself for freedom of expression, there were enormous amounts of peer-to-peer censorship. Debates on current matters tended to be black-or-white, with any nuance being denounced as unacceptable and the person ostracised. It felt like a very naive and vindictive approach that was the opposite of a “safe space”.
Were there challenges you faced in the transition from law school to the profession?
Working as an international lawyer, it can take a while before being able to find a permanent position. I am lucky to have a supporting partner that was fine with me moving countries every six months.
Do you still see the law all around you?
I don’t, actually. I see the climate crisis all around me, from the scorching heat waves to the loss of biodiversity - it makes me scared, angry. But knowing that communities made vulnerable by climate change can create a real environmental, political and social transformation by using strategic litigation makes me hopeful and determined to bring about climate justice. Only work in the legal field is not enough, there must be mobilisation and a push from society. This is what we call the court of public opinion.
What advice would you give to a first-year law student?
As a first-year, you are still so excited about the law, but very quickly the number of readings and general cynicism and exhaustion can catch up with you. Try to maintain a balance in your life and instead of seeing the law everywhere, continue to explore the rest of the world. Instead of seeing the law as an end, remember that there are bigger societal problems and that the law is only but one tool for change.
Finally, make time for friends. You will be spending a lot of time with your classmates, and you have the opportunity to make lifelong friends with whom you can laugh together about the time when you thought your whole world was confined to McGill law.
If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
I would call my friends and family and my grandmother in China just to chit-chat about their daily lives.
There are no regrets when you give your best. Cliché but true.
Read more about Louise’s passion for climate justice!