Confidence, separating work from personal, helps BLG litigator create work-life balance

Kirsten Crain's busy practice covers cases ranging from Lac-Mégantic to breach of contract

Confidence, separating work from personal, helps BLG litigator create work-life balance
Kirsten Crain, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP

Unlike many, working from home more is not necessarily Kirsten Crain’s preference. Indeed, speaking from her house on a weekday afternoon, the partner and litigator at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP is keen to explain this is more the exception than the norm.

“I have always tried to separate my professional life from my personal life,” says the mother of three girls aged 12 to 18.

“I’m somebody who has never been the kind of person on the phone with clients at dinner time, or always checking emails when I am at home trying to be a mom.”

Ottawa-based Crain, 48, is an experienced trial lawyer with a broad practice that includes complex litigation cases such as these:

And while Crain is “super busy,” including acting as a director of The Advocates’ Society and sitting on BLG’s partnership board, she prefers to stay at the office and not come home until she is ready to switch back into personal-life mode.

“I prefer not being a litigator at home. I like being a softer person there,” Crain says. She admits she was “pretty good” at compartmentalizing her life this way until COVID-19 threw in a wrench because she had to do more work from home, something she hadn’t done much before.

Crain quickly acknowledges how she organizes her life works for her, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t be successful by using different strategies for combining family life with a busy practice. And she especially wants younger lawyers or law students “not to give up on their dreams” because they think it might be too hard.

“I want to encourage people to have the confidence to believe that they are going to achieve what they want to achieve in life,” she says. “If you have enough moments when you persevere and succeed, that gives you the confidence to believe you can handle this situation.”

Crain, pregnant with her third daughter when she made equity partner at BLG, acknowledges that women historically have borne the burden of being family caregivers even while working at their careers. However, she resists the characterization of the work-life balance question as a “female” issue.

“I think this is a parenting issue,” says Crain, adding she is a strong advocate for male and female lawyers to take the parental leave to which they are entitled.

“Honestly, for some women, the best thing a spouse can do is take parental leave,” Crain says, noting her husband, who is a lawyer with the federal Department of Justice, has taken leaves.

First, it sets the tone in the workplace that the challenges are about being a parent and having a career rather than solely about working women. Secondly, it helps a female parent get back into work mode. “My husband taking leaves was essential for me getting back to work because I could pass the torch to him. And it allowed me to go back with less of a heavy heart about leaving the children.”

Even now that her children are older, Crain says knowing she can count on her spouse for support is essential to her success as a litigator. “Certainly, if you’re in a big trial, you’re pretty much cooked on the home front,” she says. “You’re in court until 5 pm, then absorbing the case and preparing your next witnesses, and then you’re back at it the next morning.” 

Crain also acknowledges that while there are times when she will work many hours a day, there are other times when work-life balance is more “normal.” She also aims to keep her weekends free to be with family and ensures that vacations, like a recent one to Italy, are special times.

With hybrid workplaces becoming one of the consequences of COVID-19, Crain says “flexibility is here to stay.” However, she adds that flexibility needs to include some boundaries, such as some days in the office, to keep a firm’s culture going.

“We’re in the talent business, and you want to attract the best and brightest, and these best and brightest want to have meaningful relationships and lives outside of work, like anyone else,” she says. So as an employer, "you may have to find accommodations to make that work."

She points to a situation at her own firm where an associate working with her on an upcoming hearing had a chance to go to Hawaii during its second week.

Crain says she felt it was important for this hard-working colleague to take that opportunity, “so we subbed her out and brought somebody else in for the second week.” That cost time and money to bring the replacement up to speed, but in this situation, “it was the right thing to do.”

However, Crain says that the in-office experience is integral to a law firm’s culture, even as it moves to a hybrid workplace. “Relationships happen in between working hard together in a shared space,” she says, adding that these moments are essential to teamwork. “With remote work, it can tend to be transactional.”

Working together late to get critical work done can be challenging, but it also can be inspiring, Crain says. “You’re working together at 7:30 at night, and there’s that last push, and it’s made easier by the shared esprit de corps, the shared meals of takeout food, working shoulder to shoulder,” she says. “You don’t want this to happen all the time, but working in that environment sometimes creates something great.”

Growing up in Ottawa, Crain says, she knew from an early age that she “wanted to be an advocate.” She adds she “never really had any doubt that this was the path I wanted to follow – to become a lawyer, and specifically an advocate who did trial and courtroom work.”

After studying undergraduate economics at McGill University, Crain went on to do a graduate degree at the London School of Economics (for reasons “other than wanting to become a lawyer”), then returned to McGill for her law degree. She was admitted to the bar in 2001.

Following her second year at law school, Crain took a summer position with a New York law firm, working in mergers and acquisitions “to try that out and have exposure to something else before I definitively decided what I wanted.” She says it was a great experience, “but it cemented where I wanted to be – in the courtroom.”

She started as an associate at Lenzner Slaght LLP, a boutique litigation firm where she worked with “lions of the profession” Crain says she “just loved it – it was tough work but a terrific experience.” She also learned the importance of taking on various cases and focusing on how to argue on behalf of clients.

“The speciality is advocacy – what you bring is your ability to argue, supported by the right sub specialists, experts, and witnesses,” she says. “I never wanted to be pigeon-holed into a narrow area of the law.”

Traditional litigation also means taking complex information and arguments and using all of a lawyer’s legal skills and experience to clearly explain the client’s position to a judge and/or jury.

“As a generalist litigator, you need to really be able to absorb the concepts, absorb the science on whatever the case is about, and learn enough to communicate the argument persuasively and to cross-examine the other side’s witnesses.” However, Crain says she would never take on a case in a highly specialized area without working with lawyers at her firm who specialize in those areas of law, such as intellectual property.

“That’s where the whole concept of teamwork comes into play, because it’s really exciting to be able to pull together different skill sets, make a team and present a great case to the court.”

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