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A place of one’s own

|Written By Claire Hepburn
A place of one’s own

Otto von Bismarck, the great Iron Chancellor of Germany, was once overheard muttering, “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” Can the same be said for the making of a lawyer?

Ten years ago, when all I knew about lawyers came through the glossy filter of my television, I imagined a recipe of sorts: two parts intelligence, three parts arrogance, four parts ambition; gently fold in the law, add a pinch of Latin, dress in black robes, and voila: a lawyer!


Saddled with ridiculous misconceptions and a glaring lack of pragmatism, I approached law school as an academic pursuit, something that would give me a degree rather than a profession at the end of its three years. So for the first 18 months, I foolishly watched as half of my classmates hungrily chased down dreams of seven-figure salaries, while the other half earnestly plotted career paths that would bring peace to the Middle East. I, however, decided to spend the better part of my days in a hazy stew of self-doubt and existential angst.
Then reality sunk in, or, rather, the deadline for articling applications hit, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I had to leave the safe bubble of academic life. I followed a well-trodden path to an articling position that could be best described as Bay Street light. Same work, fewer hours, less pay. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad gig: no overt cruelty, the work was decent, and the coffee good. But I was restless and jumpy.


Listening to my cohorts recount tales of slavish associates eternally sweating for Mephistophelean partners, I felt foolish for wanting to leave my comfortable position. Confessions of my foggy and unfocused years at law school aside, I did start out, like most of us do, with a sincere desire to help people. Yet, in the course of all the chaos and confusion we’re subjected to as fledging lawyers, it’s often difficult to know exactly how we’re supposed to realize our early and uncluttered aspirations.


When facing a crossroad in our professional life, we are often forced to look more closely at our motivations; what drives us, what makes us happy. Some of us crave stability and security, others long for excitement and constant change, while others need to feel connected to a cause.


A wise professor once told me, when we’re feeling lost and can’t see the forest for the trees, go back to first principles. So that’s what I did. My first experience dealing with clients came when I volunteered as a caseworker at my law school’s legal clinic.  Working directly with clients, guiding them through the tangled web of the law, gave me a sense of purpose and a feeling that I was actually helping people.


To borrow a cliché from the corporate world, I decided to prop my ladder up against a different wall: the frenetic world of family law — a field with no shortage of people who needed sound legal advice. During my Bay Street light days, I’d communicate with clients through a veil of meticulous and over-edited reporting letters. For the institutional client, it was understood that their priority was to achieve the best result at the lowest cost. There were no messy emotions and no painful struggles to gain access to an impenetrable system.


The family law client, on the other hand, was an infinitely more complex creature: each one ruled by a labyrinthine series of emotions, each one carrying their own set of needs and expectations. For some inexplicable and delightful reason, I excelled at the practice of family law. I felt at home in its messiness and melodrama.


With a few bumpy starts, I learned to handle the emotional volatility and unpredictability that gives family law a bad name. But it never felt right to charge a client $200 an hour because she made just too much to qualify for legal aid. For a CEO making $500,000 a year, paying a lawyer is just the cost of doing business; but for a single mother with two kids trying to get by on an income of $47,000, legal advice is an unaffordable luxury. This, for me, went to the very heart of injustice.


After a couple of years of practising family law, it became impossible to ignore the vast contingent of people who were being shut out of the system — a system that was supposed to protect the most vulnerable, not make them weaker. As lawyers, we are primed to see injustices in the world. If you look closely enough, you can see them everywhere. Whether we work on Bay Street or in a poverty law clinic, we’re all toiling under the same banner, and, as members of the bar, it’s our shared task to make sure the system runs as smoothly as possible. But it would be false to say that where and with whom we work doesn’t make a difference.


The anxiety I felt over the inequities of our system spurred me on to look for a position in a legal aid clinic. It was a most happy convergence, then, when I learned that the University of Toronto’s legal clinic, Downtown Legal Services, was looking for a lawyer to supervise students under its family law division. Now a staff lawyer at DLS, I get to play a meaningful role in making family law more accessible to a growing class of people. As an added bonus, I have the wonderful privilege of working with law students. Still driven by visions of how the law ought to be, my students constantly remind me of what it means to strive for the highest ideals of our profession.


I recall one incident when two of my students were telling me about a discussion they had had with opposing counsel. He told them a slippery story that stretched the truth. Or, in laypersons’ terms, he lied. For me, this was just further evidence of the win-at-all-costs attitude I’ve encountered far too often. For the students, this was an egregious act that brought our justice system into disrepute — reflecting how quickly I’d learned to tolerate dishonesty in our profession.


Now, coming up on five years from my call to the bar, I’ve sat on the doorstep of Bay Street and set up shop as a family law lawyer. But, as a clinic lawyer, freed from the constraints of the billable hour, I finally feel I am using my strengths to make the legal profession more accessible to those who need it. I won’t become rich working in a poverty law clinic, but money is only one form of currency. The tension between high pay and a higher calling will always exist — rising law school tuition and lucrative big-firm salaries will make sure of that. What I have learned on this tumultuous journey — LSAT scores, bell curves, and bar ads aside — what really counts is . . . well, I’ll let you fill in the blank.

Claire Hepburn is a staff lawyer at Downtown Legal Services in Toronto.

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