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Everyone's a critic

Cross Examined
|Written By Dean Jobb
Everyone's a critic

Rebecca Hiltz LeBlanc has performed for up to 10,000 people at a time, but these days she faces intimidating, single-member audiences — in the courtroom. “It’s much more frightening to be in front of one judge,” says the associate with the Nova Scotia firm Boyne Clarke.

But when she’s in the midst of a trial or on one of her frequent forays into the province’s Supreme Court chambers for motions and applications, her far-from-typical background as a soprano comes in handy.

“Litigation is not that far from opera singing,” the 36-year-old commercial and business law practitioner notes over tea at her firm’s Dartmouth offices. “You’re standing up in front of someone, and whether it be one person or 10,000 people, you’re still trying to convince them that what’s coming out of you is to be believed and that you’re right. You know how it feels to be applauded,” she says, adding with a laugh, “or not.”

Hiltz LeBlanc was called to the bar  in 2004, but already has an impressive record of service. She’s a director of a non-profit organization that helps people with brain injuries, recently joined the board of Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, and serves on the gender equity committee of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.

And that’s on top of being a corporal in the Canadian Forces reserves. She signed up 19 years ago, while in her high school band, lured by the offer of a professional-quality clarinet and a spot in the 36th Canadian Brigade Group (Nova Scotia) Band. “It’s a commitment that is still very meaningful for me,” she says, which explains why, despite her demanding career, she sets aside three hours every Monday evening, nine months of the year, for the rehearsals that are the reserves band’s version of weekly drills.

Meaningful, because the band keeps her connected to the music that has been such an important part of her life. Hiltz LeBlanc completed an undergraduate degree in vocal performance at Dalhousie University in 1996 and thought she was headed for a career as an opera singer. While studying languages at the University of Toronto the following year, she took voice lessons from soprano Wendy Nielsen, a Canadian who has sung with the Metropolitan Opera.

Along the way, she has performed “everything from Bach to Mozart” to Strauss, and the Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos (accompanied by eight cellists), and taken leading roles in The Marriage of Figaro and Giacomo Puccini’s Sister Angelica. She realized, however, an operatic career was not for her. “You just reach a point where you think, ‘OK, it’s time to make a decision. Do you want to carry on and travel the world — and by travel the world, I mean weekly — and be committed to that, or do I personally want a different level of stability?’” she says. The decision became easier when she met her husband, Mitch LeBlanc, a navy man who plays saxophone with the regular Forces’ Stadacona Band. That’s when she realized “a level of security was what I wanted.”

In the fall of 2000, she entered law school at Dalhousie. She had always enjoyed music theory and the academic side of her music studies, and “law just seemed like a natural choice for me.” Law also offered a chance to promote “social equity” and help people who are less fortunate. “There are people who have advantages that other people don’t have, through no fault of their own.”

After graduation, she articled at Boyne Clarke and was hired upon her call to the bar. She got a chance to make a difference as counsel for plaintiffs in personal injury cases, “helping people who have been hurt to navigate through the insurance system.” She gravitated to cases involving disputes over long-term disability benefits, pension entitlements, and veteran’s allowances, where a success can be the difference between comfort and poverty. Representing clients ranging from feuding neighbours to large corporations, she still feels she promotes social equity. Helping a company, she says, helps countless people through “the trickle-down effect.”

That’s the attitude Barbara Hart sees in Hiltz LeBlanc’s work as vice president of the Moving In New Directions Society (MINDS), which operates a residential house for people with brain injuries. “She is one of a kind,” says Hart, past president of MINDS. “She’s very, very competent, very understanding . . . she has never, ever failed to live up to the expectations that we’ve had of her. She’s been a true friend to the organization.”

Despite the demands of her legal career, she continues with the reserve band as a musician, vocalist, and MC for charity concerts and other events. Her commitment and loyalty impresses her band leader, Capt. Patrick Forde. “There’s times when she gets beyond busy,” he notes, “yet it’s very seldom that she misses a rehearsal.” He’s not surprised, describing the band as “a family outside of the family. It just becomes part of what you do and who you are and I believe that’s why she’s still in this band. . . .”

Hiltz LeBlanc says being able to perform leaves her with no regrets about abandoning her musical career and brings balance to her legal work and family life. Practising law “is so interesting and so stimulating that it would be very easy to just spend every waking minute and moment living, eating, breathing, sleeping it,” she says. Music “turns your mind to something else, so you don’t become singularly focused.”

“Being able to express myself through music or being in the military,” she adds, “life wouldn’t be life without that.”