Valuable lessons come from working for free

Valuable lessons come from working for free
This year I will have been called to the bar for 10 years. Such a milestone necessarily results in reflection, and so I have been thinking about the lessons I have learned and the valuable experiences I have had.

One that stands out, among what I have learned from mentors and teachers, clients, and opposing counsel, has been the pro bono work. I have not done much, not as much as one should, but I have tried to be involved in at least one pro bono project or case on a consistent basis.

Pro bono work is an important cornerstone of our profession, it is part of the duty that we have as members of a privileged group, and it is an important tradition that young lawyers should feel honoured to be a part of, but it’s also more than that. Pro bono work should be done for its inherent benefit to the community and those clients who otherwise might not be able to access our courts and, consequently, justice.

However, there are more reasons to get involved as a young lawyer, as early as one can and as often as one is able.

A new perspective

I am a defence lawyer practising nearly exclusively in the area of personal injury. The reality of such a practice means that one is most often representing institutional clients in response to claims commenced by an individual.

I love my clients and feel strongly about their entitlement to the best defence possible and their right to take a matter to trial in order to put the plaintiff’s case to the full test. I have no desire to practise on the other side. However, pro bono work has put me on the other side.

Through the Pro Bono Ontario amicus project with the Court of Appeal, I have often ended up working with the plaintiff and, to my surprise, my desire to advocate fiercely for the client and obtain the best outcome possible was just as strong.

This sounds so basic — to advocate to the best of our abilities. It is the very definition of our job, but like everything when you are learning, doing is so much more effective than just knowing. The benefit of this perspective in my practice has been that I work harder to understand the opposing party’s point of view.

Truly understanding that the other lawyer feels just as strongly about his or her client’s position as I do about mine has taught me that I cannot approach a negotiation or settlement discussion on the basis that the plaintiff’s position is simply wrong. An effective advocate requires intellectual empathy and I believe this has made me a better defence lawyer.

Feeling good about helping someone

Again, this sounds trite, but helping someone else goes a long way in helping one’s self.

The very unglamorous reality of a downtown lawyer’s job is that we often find ourselves pushing paper. We spend a lot of our days writing letters, sending e-mails, drafting factums, proofing contracts, and preparing research memos. This is often stimulating work, but we have to admit that sometimes it is not.

As a new lawyer who imagined being in the courtroom, sitting in the office can feel like a bit of a letdown at times. In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty good problem to have, but staying motivated during the occasional monotony of a legal practice means that junior associates sometimes need more.

When I started with Law Help Ontario, the PBO legal clinic that provides assistance to self-represented litigants at the Ontario Superior Court, I was overwhelmed by the breadth of subject matter and number of cases one might deal with in just one day. But what I was mostly impressed by was the feeling of satisfaction I had at the end of that day.

Meeting with a client, discussing his or her problem and, to the extent possible, assisting him or her with a solution or advice all in one sitting can be incredibly rewarding. For me, a shift at the clinic had a rejuvenating effect by reminding me that, although it often happens in slow motion over an extended period of time, we are effectively problem solvers, and when you can solve a problem for a client, whether large or small, that is a job well done.

Bringing this attitude back to the office has helped me stay focused on the big picture, even when I feel mired down in the day to day.

Gaining practical experience

So many of us relatively young lawyers have heard the stories from senior counsel about how they were doing multiple trials a week when they were in their first few years of practice. We are told that we need to get the same experience if we want to advance in our careers, but we know that there are fewer and fewer opportunities available.

We all know that the increasing cost of litigation has meant there are fewer trials and, given that the number of lawyers has increased, even when they do occur it’s sometimes harder to get involved if you are very junior.

I have been fortunate with trial experience, but there have been less frequent opportunities to get on my feet for an appeal. In this respect, I have benefited greatly from the amicus projects at the Court of Appeal and the Divisional Court.

Counsel volunteer to act as duty counsel on motions involving self-represented litigants. Although receiving a file just a couple days before the hearing and doing your best to not only make sense of the file but put forward an argument helpful to both the client and court is intimidating, it can also be an exhilarating experience.

Spending the day in the Court of Appeal arguing five motions — two of which I did not know about until I arrived in court that morning and one of which literally walked in off the street — continues to be one of the best days I have had in my career.

Gaining confidence in my ability to quickly assess the factual situation and communicate a position to the court has been invaluable.

For me, the best part of law school was the work I did with the legal aid clinic because it got me out of the classroom and taught me what I really wanted to do was be on my feet. As a lawyer, I am grateful to be part of a profession that sees pro bono work as a duty and responsibility we owe to the greater community.

However, young lawyers should know that they don’t have to wait until they are more experienced before they give back. Take advantage of the opportunities as soon as you can and do not hesitate to reap all of the rewards.

Guest columnist Jennifer Hunter is a litigator and partner in the Toronto office of Lerners LLP. She practises in the areas of health law, insurance defence, municipal, and professional liability.

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