Chelsea Cottreau has always been interested in the law. But it took a trip across the ocean for the Shelburne County native to find her niche.
Born and raised in Woods Harbour, Cottreau graduated from Barrington Municipal High School in 2008 and then entered Dalhousie University as a political science major.
At the start of one of her courses, intro to law, her professor quoted a line from William Shakespeare’s Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
That line got her attention, and she found herself “completely engaged” in the course. “I realized that law is what maintains society all around the world,” Cottreau says. “It affects all of us and it’s a profession where you can really impact someone’s life.”
After completing her bachelor of political science (honours), with a minor in law and society in 2012, Cottreau entered Dalhousie’s master of public administration program, where her focus was on policy development and government design.
During her first year in that program, Cottreau received the devastating news that two of her friends were aboard the Miss Ally when it sank in a February 2013 storm off the coast of Nova Scotia.
Lobster fishing runs in Cottreau’s family. Her father is a lobster boat captain, as was her grandfather. Her brother and cousin both work for her father. So the deaths of those five Miss Ally crew members hit Cottreau’s family, and all the families in the close-knit fishing community, hard.
As the first one in her family to attend university, Cottreau felt it was important to use her knowledge to improve safety standards in the fishing industry. With a goal of pursuing maritime law, she took an internship at the Coast Guard College of Canada located in Westmount, which is across the harbour from Sydney, Cape Breton, in the summer of 2013.
During her internship, Cottreau learned that the University of Southampton, in England, has a strong maritime law program. So, on a whim, she sent them an inquiry letter, and to her surprise, she was accepted. Next stop: England!
Early on in her studies at Southampton, Cottreau realized that she didn’t enjoy maritime law as much as she had expected to, so she switched to common law and graduated from law school in July 2016.
“(Southampton) was a good place to be because lots of things were happening in Europe during that time,” Cottreau recalls. “For example, Britain left the EU [European Union] while we were writing our exams.
“I enjoyed my time there, but I also knew I wanted to move back home and be closer to my family.”
Celia Melanson, who has had her own law practice in Shelburne since 1995, had been following Cottreau’s career for years. Melanson’s son, Arthur, and Cottreau are good friends. So Melanson invited Cottreau to join her practice as an articled clerk. “Articling” means working under a practising lawyer, much like an internship.
Because Cottreau received her law degree in England, she needed to go through an extra certification process before she could begin articling for Melanson in Shelburne in September 2017 until she was called to the bar. “You (article) for a year, then take a three-week bar course and then you write your bar exam,” Cottreau explains.
Cottreau was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar on Oct. 19 and has since joined Melanson’s practice as an associate. She will divide her time between Shelburne and Halifax, where her boyfriend lives.
“I love working here, because I’m from here,” Cottreau says. “I love meeting with the clients. You don’t have to build a trust with them because they feel they already know you.”
Cottreau appreciates the practical experience she has gained by working with Melanson. “I’ve had more hands-on experience working with a small practice than I would have with a large firm. I learned a lot more about the legal process this way.”
Melanson is equally grateful to have Cottreau working for her. “I’ve been able to do a lot more on files, with Chelsea here. I have someone to bounce ideas off of and it’s always good to have a second set of eyes to look things over.
“Plus, with Chelsea being younger, she brings so much energy and excitement. When you’re starting out, you have that, but then over time you get comfortable. So, it’s good to have her enthusiasm.”
Also, Melanson notes that while the number of law school graduates is about equal between women and men, it has been a challenge to keep women in private law practice. Many women leave private practice to work in government or private-sector jobs that offer more benefits and maternity leave.
Melanson’s practice focuses on family law, real estate and wills and estates. Cottreau is interested in expanding Melanson’s practice areas to include criminal law. So, at the outset, Cottreau will be practising family law, criminal law and wills and estates.
“Having a great boss and co-workers makes the job that much more enjoyable,” Cottreau says.
“It makes going to work not feel like work at all. As my dad always says, ‘if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.’ ”