WHEN CAMILLE LABCHUK’S BOSS TOLD HER to give up criminal law, those words were hard to hear, but she knew he was right.
It was the spring of last year, and the 31-year-old had been articling and working for James Silver, a veteran defence lawyer in Toronto, for two years. In that time, Silver saw Labchuk evolve from a near-novice into a sophisticated lawyer, who he trusted as his deputy on everything from shoplifting cases to homicides. “She can look at a scenario and find a solution others might not,” says Silver. Still, he believed it was time for her career in criminal law to end.
Silver knew why Labchuk enrolled in law school at the University of Toronto five years earlier — and it wasn’t to work in criminal law. Labchuk had long dreamed of launching an animal-rights practice. “That was her passion,” he says. “I was her second choice.”
So when Silver told Labchuk to go solo, she knew he had her interests at heart. “He told me, ‘Start your own firm. You’ve wanted to do it forever. It’s scary, but take the jump.’” And, last July, she did.
Labchuk had good reason to be reluctant. There isn’t much money in animal-rights law. Animals, of course, can’t hire lawyers. So to protect their interests, Labchuk represents clients who work to advance the welfare of animals, such as activists and non-profits. And these groups have paltry legal budgets, if they have one at all. “I used to say that, in criminal law, clients never have any money,” says Labchuk. “But when it comes to animal law, that’s really true.”
Labchuk, however, has something few aspiring animal-rights lawyers could: celebrity. “Camille is the best-connected person in the animal-welfare community I’ve ever met,” remarks Kevin Toyne, a commercial litigator at Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP, who helms a small but growing animal law practice at his firm. Labchuk is so well known because, before law school, she had a remarkable political career.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM Mount Allison University in 2005 with a degree in psychology, Labchuk returned home to Prince Edward Island. She didn’t know what to do next. That’s when her mother, a long-time environmental activist, introduced Labchuk to Elizabeth May, a little-known environmentalist running for the leadership of the Green Party. “I had never met anybody who had such a command of facts at her mental fingertips,” says Labchuk. The two gelled right away, and May hired Labchuk as her sole staff member. When May became party leader in 2006, she hired Labchuk, who was just 22, as her press secretary.
“I’d ask her a question and, within 10 seconds, she’d have the answer,” recalls May. “She was always ahead of me in knowing what was going to be the big story for the day.” After the 2008 election, Labchuk told May she wanted to attend law school. “I couldn’t get over the thought of trying to function without her,” says May. But she supported the move, even writing Labchuk a letter of recommendation for her application.
After two years as May’s lieutenant, Labchuk had met everyone in the political universe — including major players in the animal-rights movement. And in law school she volunteered for animal groups as often as possible. By the time Labchuk launched her firm, she had a ready-made network of potential clients, all eager to embrace her as their champion.
“With Camille, she gets it,” says Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoocheck, a charity that protects wild animals. Despite a tiny budget, he hired Labchuk, who he’s known for five years, to explain exotic pet laws to municipalities in southern Ontario. She may be junior, he confesses, but her passion is invaluable. “She’s sharp as a tack, she learns fast and she does her research.”
Because of her notoriety, Labchuk is also the first lawyer whom activists call when they get into trouble. Last November, for instance, police charged seven protestors with mischief after they blocked the entrance to a Toronto slaughterhouse. The activists hired Labchuk, who got the charges dropped. “When this case came up, of course I thought of her,” says Paul York, one of the protestors and a PhD student at the University of Toronto. “She has the same convictions as we do. She’s basically one of us.”
At first, Labchuk expected to defend the protestors for free. But York managed to crowdfund more than $10,000 from donors around the world to cover her services. To make ends meet, Labchuk takes on the odd criminal case, but she expects crowdfunding to play a larger role in her practice over time. “I think crowdfunding could be the next big thing for social justice lawyers.”
LABCHUK STILL TAKES ON pro bono work, with her eye on high-profile cases that get animal-rights issues in the press. In March, she filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau against Canada Goose. She alleges, in the complaint, that the iconic parka company misleads shoppers when it claims that the fur on each coat comes from humanely killed coyotes. In her view, the trappers’ snares induce severe suffering. (Canada Goose says it’s committed to the humane treatment of animals and buys coyote fur from certified trappers.)
Her complaint made a splash, hitting media across the country. Then in late March, Labchuk took a vacation to Costa Rica with her partner, Stephen Maher, a columnist at Postmedia. On the trip, they noticed that the Daily Mail, in the United Kingdom, ran the story. It caught Maher off guard. That kind of publicity, he knows, is a big deal for a lawyer so junior. “This wasn’t a notice in NOW magazine,” he quips.
Bringing this sort of work into the public eye is one of the central reasons Labchuk became a lawyer. Which is why she seeks out “groundbreaking test cases that result in positive change for animals.”
Watching Labchuk’s career from afar, her former boss is full of pride. As the animal-rights movement picks up steam, Silver says Labchuk is poised to be one of its most prominent leaders. “It’s an amazing opportunity to be at the bottom of the mountain right now,” he says. “Who knows what she’s going to discover at the summit?”
Year of call: 2013
Favourite legal character: British TV barrister Rumpole of the Bailey. We both fight for underdogs
Favourite item in closet: Way too many pairs of stylish, cruelty-free shoes
Greatest extravagance: Long summer sailing vacations
Pet peeve: Toronto traffic
Most treasured possession: My cat, Sadie
This story is from our Summer 2015 issue.
Photography by Nick Wong