Ontario’s Family law contingency fee ban hurts women


By: Kathryn Marshall

Contingency fee arrangements, a.ka. the lawyer only gets paid if the legal action is successful, are an important part of access to justice. They allow people to hire a lawyer when they do not have the funds in hand to pay the retainers and fees normally required by lawyers. These types are payment arrangements are very common in civil litigation such as personal injury suits where successful litigants are awarded damages.

However,  in family law in Ontario, contingency fee payment agreements are not permitted (also the case in criminal law matters). The reasoning behind this is explained by Brendan Crawley, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General, who told the Toronto Star that the ban is in place to prevent “inappropriate share of often scarce family resources.” 

Unlike in personal injury matters, the pool of money that a lawyer would get paid from in a family law contingency agreement would be the families’ own nest egg.  Understandably, this creates a great deal of concern, especially where there are children and other dependents involved.

However, according to lawyer Stephen Durbin from Durbin & Associates, the ban is prejudicial to stay at home moms who may not have the same resources as their ex-partners to pay for family legal proceedings. The result can often be that women are forced to represent themselves in court, making it very difficult for them.

Ontario is the only jurisdiction in Canada with this ban, and Durbin, along with a group of other Ontario lawyers, have written a letter to the Ontario Government asking that the ban be lifted.

Their hope is to level the playing field and allow women greater access to justice when going through a family legal matter.

In some jurisdictions such as British Columbia where contingency fee arrangements in family law are permitted, court approval must first be granted to have this type of arrangement. Perhaps Ontario should institute the same system. This would allow for greater access to justice for all while also adding a level of protection to ensure these types of fee arrangements are not used inappropriately.

How to write a great lawyer bio

By: Kathryn Marshall

Chances are when you start working at a new firm, the first thing you will be asked to do is write your bio.

As a lawyer, your bio is really important. When you Google most lawyers by name, their bio is often the first thing that comes up.

Other lawyers, and most importantly, potential clients will scope out your bio to try and get a sense of who you are, what you do, and how effective and experienced you are.

Many lawyers write their bio’s in a CV format, with their education, credentials and awards at the top, and their experience and hobbies/interests/personal stuff at the bottom. Bio’s often read like a list of education, credentials and achievements. What lawyers should be doing in their bios is telling the story of who they are. It should read as a narrative, not a list, and the stuff lawyers normally put at the bottom of their CV should appear at top of their bios.

Simply put, a great lawyer bio reads like a story in a newspaper, not like a boring CV.

Here are some tips to write a standout bio:

  • Cut the legalese. Write your bio for people who don’t have law degrees. Keep it clear, accessible and straightforward.
  • The first paragraph of the bio is the most important paragraph. You should explain who you are (ex. civil defense lawyer), why you became a lawyer (ex. Because you believe in the pursuit of justice and To Kill a Mockingbird is your favorite book) and what you are passionate about (ex. Advocacy and long boarding). You want people to keep reading on, so make it interesting and give readers a glimpse of who you are as a person.
  • The second paragraph of your bio should highlight your experience, because experience is very important in this line of work. This can include your years of practice and notable career highlights and accomplishments.
  • The third paragraph of your bio should go over your credentials, where you went to law school, when you were called to the bar and any professional certifications you have achieved.
  • The longer the better. Many lawyers have the tendency to keep their bios on the short side. But when someone is looking for a lawyer and is prepared to spend a lot of money, they want to know as much as they can about the person they are interested in hiring. That being said, you don’t want a 2,000 word bio.
  • Include a recent good quality photograph. A strong, relatable biography needs a good photo to go with it, so invest in a professional photographer to take a good snap of you.
  • Contact information. This is critical, it should be clear, bold and easy to find. Put it at the top of your bio.



What I wish I knew in Law School


This was originally published by Canadian Lawyer Magazine

By: Kathryn Marshall

As law students, we’ve all been given endless advice on how to ace exams, excel in moots, and land a job.
Many of these tips are geared towards how to do well in law school. What about things students should do while in school to better prepare themselves for their first few years in practice?

As a recent graduate, here are some simple, practical tips I wish I had known when I started law school:

Legal research is the most important class you will take.

Most professors probably tell you their class is the most important one, but in the case of legal research, it’s actually true. As an articling student and junior associate, you will spend a lot of your time researching and writing memos. Often you’ll have tight deadlines and have to research areas of the law that are completely new to you. Knowing where and how to find things quickly will be crucial. Legal research may not be as glamorous or interesting as your criminal and international law courses, but it will be something you use daily. So pay close attention and try as best you can to make it fun.

Don’t sell your textbooks or throw out your class notes.

If you do, you will regret it the first day you start your articling and need to look up that case or legal principle you vaguely recall covering in first-year torts or contracts. Hold on to your helpfully highlighted and tabbed textbooks and class notes — they will be great tools for quick and easy reference. Not all law firms have their own library, and if they do, they may not have the most recent editions of law textbooks you probably had to buy in school. It’s tempting to sell your books when you’re a cash-strapped student, but sell something else instead and hold on to your mini law library.

Your network is just as important as your marks.

It may be hard to believe, but it’s true. In law school the emphasis is all on marks, but making contacts and utilizing them to seek out job opportunities is just as important. Unlike marks, your personal network is unique to you. No one else out there has the exact same network you do, but plenty of people have As and Bs. You may not know it right now, but your next job offer could come from someone you already know. So spend time staying in touch with and growing your network. It will pay off one day.

Take essay courses.

We all seem to avoid essay courses in law school because they can be very time-consuming when you are juggling so many courses at once. Plus, most of us with undergraduate degrees in arts feel we have probably written enough papers to last a lifetime. However, writing law papers is a different skill set from writing history or political science papers. Writing law papers is great practice for all those lengthy legal memos and opinions you will be writing as an articling student and young lawyer. There’s no need to sign up for all paper courses, but taking more than the mandatory minimum is a good idea.

The life of an articling student and the practice of law are very different from law school. All of what you learn in your three years as a law student will help — but keeping these easy tips in mind can help you get ahead and land as an articling student on both feet.

Is it time to bring in Bencher election campaign spending limits?

By: Kathryn Marshall

The Law Society of Upper Canada Bencher election is over. Thankfully this means no more campaign pitches appearing in our facebook feeds and in our email inboxes. Now that the dust has settled, people are starting to question the money that goes into running a bencher campaign. In an article published in the Law Times, a current bencher Jeffrey Lem says that he would not be surprised if some candidates spent close to $75,000 out of pocket on their campaigns.

While many candidates likely only spend a few thousand dollars on their campaigns, it is surprising to think that some are spending almost as much if not more money then provincial or federal election candidates.

There are currently no spending limits for bencher candidate campaigns. Candidates can spend big money on everything from pricey email lists and flashy campaign websites to targeted facebook ads. It can all add up quick. The concern is that the lack of spending cap is making it harder for young lawyers without the big bucks to run a winning campaign.

How much is too much to spend on a bencher campaign? Where do we draw the line?

Maybe it is time to bring in a reasonable spending limit to level the playing field and make it easier for young lawyers to get elected.

Ultimately, merit and qualifications should win the day – not campaign spending.

Should Canada Introduce 2 Year Law Degrees?


This column was originally published in Canadian Lawyer.

By: Kathryn Marshall

To get ahead in a crowded field you need to stand out. That’s true for businesses, athletes, brands, and even law schools.
Over the past few years, the number of law faculties in Canada has expanded, with Trinity Western University being the latest to announce its plans to open a law school. While there is ongoing debate over the need for new schools amid reports of students struggling to find articling placements, the demand for law studies remains strong.

Instead of opening more traditional three-year programs, what Canada should do is introduce an accelerated law degree program.

A shorter two-year program would appeal to a market of future lawyers different from the norm. Older students in their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s looking for a change in career but hesitant about going back to the classroom for three years, plus a year of articling, would likely be attracted to a fast-track program.

The difference between a two- and three-year program may not be a big deal when you’re fresh out of undergrad, but when you’re older and may already have a family, mortgage, and career, time is more valuable and the decision to take a step back from those crucial earning years to further your education is much harder.

As you age, the opportunity cost of education increases — the difference between a two- or three-year program could be a deal breaker for some people.

Other professional programs have already gone the route of modifying their schedules to shave off time. Many business schools now offer one-year MBA programs geared to mid-career professionals, and some medical schools offer a fast-track MD program.

Canadian law schools have been making changes to their programs, but many are making them longer, not shorter. While new combined degree programs are very attractive, they lengthen instead of shorten time in the classroom.

While this is great news for students who want to get an MBA or master’s degree while in law school, what about students who are only interested in an LLB/JD, and want to earn it as quickly as they can?

Unlike some other professional degrees, law school is very much defined by the “full university experience.” Any graduate can tell you law school isn’t just about learning how to be a lawyer. The campus life, moots, clubs, study-abroad programs, guest speakers, and rugby are a big part of it. The law schools know it, too — just look at any law school’s promotional material.

In many law schools, there’s as much emphasis on studying the law as a discipline as there is on learning practical lawyering skills. The traditional three-year degree program gives students time to pursue elective courses like legal philosophy and comparative law, and get the most out of the extracurricular student life.

These activities certainly enrich a legal education, however not all students —especially older students — are looking to have a full university experience when they go to law school.

Some students simply want to get their law degree and begin work as soon as possible. Since many students do not summer at firms, a two-year program could be run by slotting in an extra term during each summer. It’s a market need that has not been filled in Canada.

Several U.S. law schools have already begun to offer two-year accelerated law programs. Northwestern Law in Chicago, considered a top-tier school, has a fast-track JD program that offers courses geared more towards the work environment, like accounting and leadership, and requires at least two years’ professional work experience before admission.

A shortened JD program wouldn’t just be for the benefit of students, it would benefit the legal field as well by attracting a market of potential lawyers who already have some work experience in management and leadership, which they can contribute to the field early on.

An accelerated program would also recruit students who have probably taken more time to really consider whether law is the right career path for them, which could reduce attrition and dropout rates.

There’s lots of talk these days about how law schools can evolve to meet the needs of a changing economy and legal market. How about changing to meet the needs of a new generation of workers who are more likely to change careers instead of sticking with the first thing they did right out of school?

With these new law schools opening up in Canada, introducing a two-year degree program could be a great way to differentiate from the pack and offer a unique legal education experience.

Lawyers defeat controversial new articling motion

At the Law Society of Upper Canada AGM on May 13, 2015, lawyers voted against a controversial motion that would have forced law firms of 8 lawyers or more to hire an articling student(s). Further, the motion would have required law students to be randomly assigned to firms. The failure of the motion comes as welcome news to many lawyers who expressed their concerns about a system that would remove free choice from the articling hiring process.

Law Society motion wants firms to be forced to accept articling students

This column originally appeared in the Law Times.

By: Kathryn Marshall

How to fix the articling problem is the ubiquitous topic of discussion among lawyers. From the LSUC’s controversial new “two-tier” articling program, to calls from many lawyers to scrap articling all together, the debate has become extra heated in recent years.

A group of 15 Ontario lawyers are about to shake the debate up even more with an extreme proposal that, if put into practice, would have disastrous outcomes. On May 13 they will be tabling a motion at the LSUC’s AGM that proposes making it mandatory for law firms of 8 lawyers or more to hire an articling student who will be randomly selected and assigned to that firm.

The rationale is that it will make things fairer for everyone and cut back on the rivalry and anxiety felt amongst law students as they compete for coveted articling spots.

This is, by far, the most flawed solution that has been proposed in the great articling debate.

Firstly, it kills competition, and that’s a bad thing. A healthy dose of competition motivates people to work harder and be better. It goes without saying that law school is a competitive environment. It is the natural outcome of putting hundreds of ambitions, bright students together for three intense years. From grades to moots and even law rugby, students are pitted against one another from day one and strive to come out on top. It should come as no surprise that law students are competitive when it comes to job opportunities too. Just like there are only so many A’s to go around, there are only so many jobs available too. So students need to ensure they are doing the right things both inside and outside of the classroom to give themselves a competitive edge.

Secondly, it wrongly assumes every student is entitled to a job. Getting a university degree does not mean you deserve to have a job waiting for you at your doorstep the moment you graduate. A degree from a good school certainly gives you an advantage, but you still need to go out and hustle to land a great gig. Law grads, like all other job seekers, need to make their own opportunities. When I was searching for articles, I ended up getting hired by a firm that hadn’t hired a student in 9 years. I was able to convince them that taking on a student was a great move, and that I was the right person for the job. Students shouldn’t expect a job to land in their laps, they should get out there and network, hit the pavement and even cold call if necessary.

Thirdly and most importantly, it strips both the students and the law firms of their free choice. Many articling jobs lead to permanent law positions. One of the most important factors in hiring a new inexperienced lawyer is whether that person is a good fit for the firm. Personality plays a big part in this. If students are being randomly paired with law firms, neither the firm nor the student has any say in the hiring process. Students cannot seek employment at firms they gel with, and firms cannot hire students they feel would fit in well with their firm culture. This is a recipe for unhappiness in the workplace. This could have a very detrimental impact on the legal profession as a whole, which already struggles with an attrition problem.

Hopefully this motion will be scrutinized and swiftly voted down. While there is no doubt a problem with the articling system in Ontario, going to the extreme and forcing students on firms and vice versa in a random lottery system is not the answer.

Kathryn Marshall is a lawyer and columnist. She tweets about all things related to the law in Toronto at@TOLawsome.

In 140 characters – LSUC Bencher candidates on why you should elect them

By: Kathryn Marshall

We asked and they answered! Bencher candidates say why they would make a good bencher in 140 characters or less:

Tanya Carlton @TanyaLCarlton New call, solicitor, previous professional experience, aware & understand A2J and Diversity issues and want to bring about change

Mitch Kowalski ‏@MEKowalski  Passion, vision, leadership, wide and varied perspective, good governance, good decision-making

Steven Benmor ‏@SteveBenmor I don’t need 140 characters; only 30: I really care about the legal profession. That’s it.

David Howell ‏@dwhowell1 Experienced, thoughtful, practical Hamilton solicitor and immed past Pres @HLAlibrary

Sandra Nishikawa ‏@nishikawasandra @TOLawsome Fresh ideas AND experience getting things done collaboratively esp. re #diversity & #a2j

Tannis Waugh ‏@tanniswaugh I’m collaborative and bring a vastly under-represented voice to the table.And…I can teach the other benchers how to bench press

Bob Tarantino ‏@bobtarantino I believe in enhancing accountability – of LSUC to its members and of the profession to public it serves. http://www.bob4bencher.ca 

Doug Downey ‏@douglasdowney Experienced, straight-forward and concise: http://www.dougdowney.ca 

Isfahan ‏@Isfahan_Merali  I have shown my commitment to equity, inclusion and access to justice in all my professional career + service to profession.

Rebecca Durcan ‏@Durcanrebecca Experience (work solely with regulators) Fresh eyes (2002 call) Commitment 2 helping public by helping profn (Esp small firms)