Jessyca Greenwood

Jessyca Greenwood, the legal guardian

Despite the personal and financial cost, Jessyca Greenwood has built a career defending those with mental illness
Despite the personal and financial cost, Jessyca Greenwood has built a career defending those with mental illness

After her first year of law school, Jessyca Greenwood spent the summer at the University of Windsor legal clinic. Right away, her colleagues noticed her unique talent: when someone with a mental health problem came through the door, she could explain complex legal issues in a way they understood. It required patience and empathy not taught at school. Greenwood, though, learned these skills as a child.

Two decades earlier, her baby brother had an adverse reaction to a vaccine, triggering violent seizures. Doctors put him into a medically induced coma for a year. He suffered permanent brain damage and couldn’t speak until age nine. Greenwood, 18 months his senior, grew up helping her parents look after him: putting him to sleep, making food and teaching him how to communicate. Those experiences with her brother, who now lives in a group home, shaped the trajectory of her career.

After graduation, she articled at a criminal law boutique in Toronto that specialized in mental health work. The firm threw her into action. By her 2009 call, she’d been lead counsel on almost 30 criminal trials. That same year, she married a court officer she’d met two years before. In 2010, she started her own criminal practice. As Greenwood recalls, “I felt ready.”

She opened a small criminal law office in Leslieville and made every effort to build a reputation. “I did jail visits every weekend to see clients,” she says. “I didn’t take many days off.” Soon she earned a name defending clients with mental illness. “If a lawyer had a case that they didn’t have the time for — a client with special needs takes more time — they would send it to me.”

In less than five years, her career has taken off. Last summer, she upgraded to an office on Bay Street and she now takes on articling and summer students.

Still, Greenwood does not describe her job in utopic terms. For one thing, the time she spends with her special-needs clients rarely equals the pay, even when the work is covered by legal aid. “Some clients call me 50 times a week and I might spend half an hour on the phone. The collect-call bill alone is significant.” All told, 70 percent of her clients have mental health problems, and the other 30 percent — a mix of traditional criminal work and civil litigation — is the only reason her practice is profitable.

The job also demands intense hours. As a parent of a one-year-old son and three-year-old daughter, it weighs on her: “Just because I’m successful doesn’t mean I’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s great to work 12 hours a day and not see your kids.’”

So why do it? Well, she says, someone has to speak up for her clients. She says there’s a lack of understanding of mental illness. And it’s gotten worse as the Harper government has pushed for more mandatory sentencing and less discretion in the hands of judges. “The propaganda of the day is all about retribution rather than rehabilitation.” This attitude, she says, has infected the courts: when politicians are less empathetic, so too are prosecutors and judges.

Greenwood says the country has forgotten what prevents crime: “It’s social programming, not warehousing people in jail.” She’s seen clients transform just by receiving access to the right medication. “They can go from being dishevelled and walking around the street with no shoes to taking university classes and volunteering.”

For now, Greenwood shows no signs of stopping. But, it’s not easy. “When I’m on a serious case, someone’s liberty — basically the rest of their future — is on me. And the pressure is enormous.”

Jessyca Greenwood

The lowdown

Year of call: 2009
Current position: Counsel at Greenwood Defence Law
Pet peeve: Bad driving
If I weren’t a lawyer I’d be: A wedding planner. I love throwing big parties
Favourite legal character: Patty Hewes from Damages
Favourite item in my closet: A bright orange Coach trench coat
Most treasured possession: The good old-fashioned books in my library


Photography by Nick Wong