An inside look at how Toronto lawyers have moved their practices onto Zoom // Best Picture
On Tuesday September 8th, 2020Print
On Tuesday September 8th, 2020Print
Once the coronavirus pandemic forced the world into lockdown, lawyers across the city started to conduct team meetings and client consultations over Zoom. The transition was not so simple. Video calls would descend into chaos as children (or pets) screamed in the background. Technical problems caused constant delays. And the profession’s dress code was tossed aside, since it’s clearly absurd to wear a full suit in the kitchen. To capture this bizarre moment in time, we spoke to four lawyers about how they’re doing, what they’ve been wearing and how they’ve decorated their Zoom-ready “offices.”
Peter Aprile is a tax litigator, meaning he likes order. A few days into the lockdown, he started to play the Star Wars theme at 8:50 a.m. each weekday to summon his eight-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son to their homeschool lessons. Aprile did the morning shift, and his wife took the afternoon. In mid-June, help arrived. The parents brought a family friend (who’s also in teachers’ college) into their bubble, so she could watch the kids during the day.
Aprile was well prepared to take his practice onto Zoom. “Our work has always been some portion remote and Zoom-based,” says the founder of Counter Tax Lawyers. “So we’re closer to business as usual than most.” His work-at-home outfit has been consistent. “I wear the same thing every day: a black T-shirt, black sweat top and a black pair of jeans.”
His children have enjoyed appearing on video calls. His son, for instance, told one of Aprile’s colleagues a particularly embarrassing story. “In Japan, my wife and I had got ramen at this hole in the wall,” says Aprile. After leaving the restaurant, they were sick to their stomachs. “My kid finds this story hilarious! And the person on the other side is having a great time, so what do you do?”
It’s probably not surprising that a lawyer whose Twitter bio reads “Cats, feminism, law, the Bachelor” would have a (sometimes) naughty kitty as a pandemic officemate in her downtown condo. In May, Teagan Markin, a second-year associate at Borden Ladner Gervais, tweeted: “While I was on a video call today my cat looked me dead in the eyes and then tried to take a bite out of my succulent. What he didn’t count on was my low commitment to professionalism on video calls. The succulent is fine.”
Markin’s cat, Stanley, also helps her write legal memos by lying in front of the keyboard. “He hasn’t passed the bar, but he only gives legal information, not legal advice,” she says. “So it’s okay.”
At this point, Stanley hasn’t yet bombed any business calls. “But every Friday some of the associates will have Zoom drinks,” says Markin, “and he’s definitely made some appearances there.”
On the topic of wardrobe, Markin is adamant. “I’m not suiting up, that’s for sure!” she says. “If it’s a client, I usually wear a classic sweater or my go-to grey turtleneck. Today, I had a video call with a group of counsel, and I wore my Dalhousie Law baseball T-shirt. They were also in T-shirts and sweatshirts, so I calculated correctly.”
Mark Polley’s new legal assistant is enthusiastic and hardworking. There’s just one problem: she only writes in block letters. With crayon.
“My six-year-old transcribes letters for me,” says Polley, a partner at Polley Faith LLP, of Mae, his new officemate. “She also loves popping into the frame of my Zoom calls and waving, but people have been pretty understanding.”
He says that while there have been a few hiccups during the lockdown — read: epic kid meltdowns in the background — working from home with his family of five has been pretty manageable. (He and his wife also have a 12-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son.) “I brought my stand-up desk from the office and put it in our sunroom,” says Polley. “It’s quite airy and nice in there.”
The biggest challenge of communicating on Zoom, he says, is missing out on the IRL cues that he usually relies on when he’s working with clients.
“We work so hard as litigators to pay attention, maintain eye contact and read body language,” explains Polley. “Suddenly, a lot of that is thrown off. You can never really tell if someone is looking at you or typing an email.”
When the world shut down, Charlene Theodore, an in-house counsel with the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association — and, as of this month, the president of the Ontario Bar Association — was so bogged down in work that she could hardly think about anything else. So she didn’t put much effort into her home-office setup.
“At first, it was just: dining room table, laptop, phone and go go go go,” says Theodore, who lives on her own in a one-bedroom condo. But after she realized she was going to be under lockdown for a while, she decided she could do better. She got a desk pad to protect her custom-made table from spills, put out some colourful pen holders and flowers and added some of her favourite trinkets.
Since her workplace doesn’t have an overly formal dress code, Theodore has been leaning into the comfort quotient while working from home. So what’s her favourite video-call outfit? “I have a pink dashiki, which is a tunic-style garment in a traditional African print, that’s been on repeat,” she says. “I love that it feels like me, and it’s bright so it makes me feel cheerful. But it’s not something I’d ever wear to the office.”
This post has been updated.
This is a story from our Fall 2020 Issue.
Photography by Rachel Wine