In addition to running a busy criminal law practice and teaching as an adjunct professor at Queen’s University, Osgoode grad Paul Burstein has taken the reins at the CLA. Precedent caught up with the new president as he settled into the job.
Why did you become a lawyer?
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a tax lawyer. But when I came to the end of undergrad I realized I hate business. So I decided I wasn’t going to go to law school and worked in sales instead. I loved the art of persuasion, which was what sales was at a very elementary level. But every night I’d come home and I’d watch Perry Mason, and it dovetailed with what I was doing because he was a master of persuasion. And so I decided, hey, you know what, maybe being a lawyer is still what I want, but a courtroom lawyer. In particular I wanted to be a criminal lawyer — because growing up, as a teenager, I had more than my fair share of friends who got in trouble with the law.
What are some of the challenges facing the CLA?
Historically speaking, the defence bar was a non-homogeneous group of very independent-minded folks. It’s probably part of the job description. As a result, it’s always been very hard to organize the defence bar to follow in one direction. The boycott is probably the best example of that occurring and is certainly a sign of things to come.
What did the CLA hope to achieve with the Legal Aid boycott?
No one on the board relished the idea of starting a job action in order to get the government to take notice. To its credit, finally, the government did the right thing — and the right thing wasn’t just to recognize the chronic underfunding of the plan, but to sit down and talk to the Association to help better understand how significant the problem really was. Hopefully, moving forward, this sets the tone for a new approach to the future of the Legal Aid system.
What advice do you have for young criminal lawyers?
First, understand that you’re not alone. If you are feeling isolated, call up the Association and we’ll make sure that you get connected with someone. Second, if you want to develop your skills faster, spend as much time as you can watching other lawyers in court. Don’t think that you’re using your time wisely by sitting out in the hallway, drinking coffee. Spend your time watching other lawyers cross-examine witnesses and make submissions. And third, be nice to everybody. Don’t treat anyone — the Crown, court staff, other defence lawyers — with any level of disrespect. You never know who may become a judge or a justice of the peace.