Precedent Setter Awards 2016: Tanya Walker

Tanya Walker

Founder, Walker Law Professional Corporation
Called to the bar in 2006

Of all places, lawyers John Campion and Tanya Walker met in Saturday morning spin class. “If I’m not working, I’m there,” jokes Walker, the 38-year-old founder of her own Toronto-based commercial-litigation firm. When Campion, a four-time bencher at the Law Society of Upper Canada, met her, he saw “an opportunity to encourage a brilliant, worldly and diverse lawyer to run for bencher.”

Lawyer Tanya Walker of Walker Law Professional Corporation Walker is just that. After announcing (at four!) to her Jamaican immigrant parents her plan to be a lawyer like Clair Huxtable, Walker earned a business degree at McMaster University and then attended law school at Osgoode Hall. “We didn’t have deep pockets, but my parents did give me the push to work hard.” She resolved to graduate with minimal debt and own a home within two years — she did, and now shares a Harbourfront condo with her ever-supportive fiancé, Daniel. “It must be so tough to be with someone as busy as me,” she laughs, casually counting her hours — 70 to 80 a week — on perfectly manicured purple nails.

Running her own firm, which specializes in commercial litigation, for five years is all-absorbing, but balance has always been important. In her student years, she spent months backpacking through Europe. Even now, she says, “I organize my time very well and try to take a break every four months.” Walker has visited 40 countries.

The next chapter of her career will be historic. On Campion’s advice, she ran for bencher last spring — and though she came up just short, she is expected to become one this June when the current treasurer’s term ends, creating an opening in the bencher ranks. This will make Walker the first black woman to be one of the Toronto benchers in the Law Society’s 219-year history. “In a way, I can’t believe it,” she says, wiping away tears. “It really warms my heart that so many people believe in me.”


Precedent Setter Awards 2016Don’t forget to read about our other amazing winners.

 

 


Photography by Ian Patterson, hair and makeup by Jessica Haisinger, shot on location at Cluny Bistro & Boulangerie.

Best Practices: How Renatta Austin built a public-interest firm out of the Great Library

Renatta Austin can’t afford an office. And she might not be able to any time soon. But that’s kind of the point. The 29-year-old lawyer is hell-bent on building a solo practice that serves those with the least money, so if she’s making enough to afford office rent, she’s charging too much. Especially when her current base of operations — the Great Library on the second floor of the Law Society of Upper Canada — is free.

“It’s nearly perfect,” says Austin, as she ushers me into one of the library’s meeting rooms. Clients can’t get in after 5 p.m., but otherwise, the space is great for meetings. “It’s private, and clients don’t care about having bells and whistles,” she tells me. And it keeps her prices ultra-low: Austin offers unbundled legal services and charges flat fees, based on hourly rates between $100 and $150. Yet the library is more than a cheap meeting spot. It comes with access to Wi-Fi, law journals and a first-rate librarian. “You can run an entire practice out of this place.”

And since last fall, that’s what Austin has done, on top of working from home. It started as a part-time gig. Austin saw clients in the evenings, and worked nine-to-five as policy counsel at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. But after six months, she got antsy. Austin wanted to work for herself. By late summer, she quit her day job. “I’m relationship- and child-free,” says Austin. “There would never be a better time to make such a crazy decision.”

Renatta Austin

Renatta Austin at the Great Library, which she uses for office space

Every area of law has its own access-to-justice crisis. But Austin is tackling the one in administrative law — mostly education, a field entirely outside the remit of Legal Aid. She defends children who have been suspended or expelled (usually for fighting), and pressures schools to adequately accommodate students with special needs (by, say, providing them with an in-class assistant). Austin cut her teeth in the area shortly after law school as a volunteer at Pro Bono Law Ontario. Education files kept hitting her desk. “I absolutely loved it,” she says, smiling. “I’ve become passionate about helping young people.”

From the moment Austin started her firm, calls have flooded in from parents on almost every foothold of the economic ladder. Some make minimum wage; others earn $80,000 a year. None can find an affordable lawyer. “If you’re willing to work at a reduced rate,” says Austin, “you’ll have no problem getting clients.”

Austin hastens to add, however, that her firm couldn’t survive on those clients alone. Which is why, a few months into her practice, she cultivated a sideline in municipal law — in which she bills $300 to $400 an hour. Austin came by the idea while at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. For example, when a bill comes up for a vote, city councillors need legal help to determine if they have a conflict of interest. Austin found this problem most acute in small towns, “where most elected officials are part-timers who have businesses in the community.” Now she advises councillors and mayors — she wouldn’t name any — from rural municipalities across the province. “That’s the trade-off,” she says, matter-of-factly. “To make ends meet, I do some work that might be less fulfilling.”

Austin also refuses to work for free. In the early days of her firm, she offered pro bono consultations, but it went terribly. “If people don’t have a stake in their case, if it hasn’t cost them something, they’re difficult to manage,” she says. “They wouldn’t show up to meetings, wouldn’t return phone calls, would sometimes just disappear.”

When public-interest lawyers are willing to work for free, that unrestrained altruism can seed their downfall. “I’ve see it happen,” says Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, and an authority on access-to-justice. “When clients call in a crisis, lawyers often feel they can’t say no.” Austin, though, is prepared to do just that. “I love public-service work,” she says. “But I also have student loans to pay.”

Austin has put a lot on the line to start her firm. But why? Growing up in Roncesvalles Village, with her mother and father both working in public service, she never felt downtrodden or disadvantaged. So what drives her? “I’m sure my parents are also curious,” she answers when I ask her. Then she pauses, and struggles to find the right words. “Some people are just, sort of, meant to do public service. That’s part of me and I don’t know why.”

Whatever the reason, Austin is part of a pattern. “It’s always young lawyers who risk the most,” says Joanne St. Lewis, a bencher at the Law Society who has known Austin, through the Black Law Students Association, for a half-decade. “Renatta is re-thinking what it means to be a lawyer. And it’s gratifying to see: this is what re-invigorates us as a profession.”

Before our interview ends, Austin tries to answer my question again. “This is interesting work and I’m having fun. As long as that doesn’t change, I’ll keep doing it.”


Renatta Austin

Timeline of a young sole practitioner

2003: In high school, Austin begins a six-year volunteering stint at Hearing Every Youth Through Youth, which runs a teen helpline.

2005: Austin graduates from Bloor Collegiate, in downtown Toronto. “It was incredibly diverse. I met people from all walks of life.”

2009: With a degree in political science in hand from the University of Toronto, she enrolls in the faculty of law at the same school.

2012: Austin articles at the City of Toronto.

2013: To quench her thirst for more education, she enrolls in the Master’s of Public Administration a tWestern University.

2014: Austin makes two career moves. First, she takes a job at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. At the same time, she starts her own law firm, dedicated to low-income clients.

2015, Spring: At 28 years old, Austin runs for bencher at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Her campaign is inspired. She doesn’t win a seat, but earns an astounding 2,329 votes. “I spent no money, I was a second-year call, and I did better than lawyers with the backing of Bay Street firms,” she says.“So I think I did really well.”

2015, Summer: Austin quits her day job to make her solo firm her only gig.


Winter-2015-cover-smallThis story is from our Winter 2015 issue.

 

 

 


Photography by Anya Chibis

How to vote in the bencher election

At exactly 5 p.m. on Thursday, the bencher election will be over. 

That moment will mark the end of the 17-day voting period — and, in turn, the end of the incessant email blasts from candidates, each message trumpeting their policy stances and footnoted with a laundry list of endorsements. 

Though the campaign has been tedious, the election is critical. The next cohort of 40 benchers at the Law Society of Upper Canada will shape the profession for years to come. Over the course of their four-year terms, the benchers will have to determine, for instance, whether to let non-lawyers invest in law firms and the very future of articling. 

So, if you want those benchers to reflect your viewpoint, you have to vote. And, as the following primer on the voting process will show, doing so is both fast and easy. 

How to vote 

For starters, the bencher election takes place online, through a third-party website hosted by Computershare. 

To log in to the election’s webpage — found here — you need your unique passcode, which Computershare should have emailed to you a few weeks ago. (You may have also received it by mail.) 

So here’s your first step: dig in to your inbox for an April 13 email from Computershare. There, you’ll find your passcode. (If you can’t locate such an email, check your spam folder. And if that fails, call Computershare at 1-888-344-2805 to request a passcode.) 

Then, once you have logged in, all you have to do is vote. You can cast up to 40 votes — 20 for candidates inside Toronto and 20 for candidates elsewhere in the province. 

Click submit, and you’re done: consider you democratic rights exercised. 

Who to vote for 

With a forest of 97 candidates to choose from, casting an informed vote is a demanding task. But it can be done. 

Over at the Precedent A-List, you can browse the platforms of a wide range of candidates. Or, for a full lay of the land, the Law Society has published a huge voting guide, with a page on every lawyer vying for a seat at Convocation. 

For die-hard politicos, check out Precedent’s coverage of the demographic make-up of the current set of benchers. Plus, see below for stories on a few noteworthy candidates:

 

Joe_Groia_ZealousAdvocacy

 

Joe Groia — the arch nemesis of the Law Society —
is running for bencher. Find out why

 

 

Janet-Leiper

 

Bencher Janet Leiper launches a joint campaign with first-time
candidate Isfahan Merali to help promote a fresh legal voice

Editor’s Note: Decoding the bencher elections

Every time someone joins our staff, they get a vocabulary lesson. Most people on the Precedent team are not lawyers — they bring other skill sets, like marketing, editing, writing and design, and then learn the law part when they walk in the door. It’s a smart group of people, but there are aspects of legal reporting that are indecipherable to an outsider. And now that it’s bencher election season, our language is at its most obtuse. Case in point: We are electing benchers to lead the Law Society of Upper Canada. They will meet once a month under the leadership of the treasurer at Convocation.

It’s like a secret code. And so I explain: Well, a “bencher” is an elected representative. The “Law Society of Upper Canada” is really the Law Society of Ontario. “Convocation” is a meeting. And the “treasurer” is really the president. Ah, now it makes sense.

It’s not just language that makes the profession’s self-governing body inaccessible. As you’ll read in our coverage of the 2015 bencher elections, getting elected as a bencher can be pretty inaccessible, too. Running a campaign can be expensive and it’s tough to win without the support of a big firm. And yet, it’s in our best interest that Convocation represent the diversity of the profession. Not only when it comes to area of practice (right now almost half of all benchers are litigators), or gender (60 percent are men), but also when it comes to age. Today, only two out of 40 benchers are under the age of 50.

Over the next four years, benchers will have to decide whether to continue the Law Practice Program, and discussion will be heated about whether to allow alternative business structures in Ontario. With so much future-thinking on the docket, it would be nice to see some younger lawyers leading the discussion.

Of course, Convocation isn’t the only place where you can be a leader in law. In this issue, you’ll meet more than a dozen productive lawyers who excel at their careers and manage to fit the rest of their lives into their busy days. See our feature story “Making it work.” I promise you, you’ll be blown away by these amazing role models.

While the lawyers we’ve featured are awesome all on their own, you might notice they look especially great in this particular issue: Precedent has undergone a redesign. We’ve changed our fonts, updated our style and added new departments. We make this magazine just for you. We want to be sure that we continue to both inform and delight. I hope you agree that Precedent looks better than ever. Thank you to my dedicated staff (who now can discuss “benchers” and “Convocation” with the best of them) for working so hard to bring us something so clever and beautiful.

Sincerely,

Signature

 

 

Melissa Kluger
Publisher & Editor

 


Post Script: My secret productivity weapons

Metropass by mail

Every month, the TTC debits my account and mails me my pass. Even when I don’t get my money’s worth in terms of cost-per-ride, it’s worth it for the convenience.

OurGroceries iPhone app

This brilliant app lets you sort your grocery list by area of the store. Plus, you can keep recipes on your phone and add the ingredients to your list with the touch of a button.

Uber everywhere

The taxi app with estimated pick-up times, automatic billing (tip included) and, best of all, professional invoices. No more of those pesky blank receipts.


More from the spring issue:


Angela ChaissonEdible Witness by Jeannie PhanJesse Razaqpur secret lifeEmma Gregg House CallHarvey Specter suits wardrobe

 


Why Joe Groia is running for bencher

JOE GROIA SCUTTLES INTO THE BOARDROOM of his Bay Street law office in a hurry. He’s fifteen minutes late for our 9 a.m. interview.

“Hello, I’m Joe Groia,” he says, hand outstretched. “Give me one moment. I’m just going to grab a cup of coffee.”

Already seated at the boardroom table, I reach down into my briefcase and pluck out my notepad. By the time I look up, Groia is back, closing the door behind him, coffee mug in hand. The grizzled securities lawyer lowers himself into a chair at the head of the table and rests his hands in his lap.

In a relaxed, soft-spoken voice, he explains his eyebrow-raising decision to run, in April, to be one of the 40 lawyers elected as a bencher at the Law Society of Upper Canada. After all, this is an institution against which he has waged a heated, and very public, court battle for the better part of the last decade.

In 2011, after a drawn-out investigation, the Law Society ruled that Groia violated its courtroom civility rules for his behaviour, now more than 15 years ago, at the trial of John Felderhof, a Bre-X Minerals geologist charged with insider trading and publishing misleading press releases. (In 2007, Groia won an acquittal for Felderhof on all charges.) During that trial, the judge never reprimanded Groia, but another judge later wrote that Groia launched “attacks on the prosecutor’s integrity” and his submissions sometimes “descended from legal argument to irony to sarcasm to petulant invective.”

Groia has fought that ruling tooth-and-nail, sinking $1 million into his defence, in both time and legal fees. And yet, so far, he has lost at every turn — the latest defeat coming last week, when Ontario’s Divisional Court upheld his one-month suspension and a previous order that he pay the Law Society $200,000 in costs. (He is in the process of asking for leave to challenge the ruling at the Court of Appeal and, if necessary, will go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.)

Groia says that the Law Society, by going after him, has sent a chilling message to all lawyers that the Law Society can swoop down at any time and charge them for past courtroom behaviour — even if the trial judge never complained.

And so, Groia wants to serve as a bencher, in part, to curb the Law Society’s ability to retroactively police lawyers.

“I will fight this for as long and as hard as I can,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “Running for bencher is what I see as a logical extension of what I’ve done so far.” (For the record, Groia’s candidacy is well within the rules: he can run for bencher as long as he isn’t suspended “at the time” he signs his nomination form or on the day of the election.)

Groia is also baffled that his case seems to rank so high on the Law Society’s to-do list. “The Law Society demonstrates a zealousness in my prosecution, which surprisingly they don’t seem to demonstrate when it comes to lawyers who steal money from trust accounts,” he says, referring to a recent Toronto Star investigation that showed how the Law Society often fails to report the crimes of its members to police. (Earlier this year, LSUC treasurer Janet Minor met with Police Chief Bill Blair to improve relations.) “I can’t explain,” Groia adds, “how 40 very smart, well-educated professionals cannot, as a group, understand how far away from the needs of the public they have become.”

When given an opportunity to respond to Groia’s criticisms, Law Society spokesperson Susan Tonkin simply said that last week’s decision at Divisional Court, where Groia lost his appeal, “speaks for itself.”

 

GROIA WAS BORN IN 1954 AND GREW UP AT BLOOR AND LANSDOWNE. His mother worked at the post office and his father was a bellman. “Joe was fond of telling us, in the old days, the tale of his father who was the head bellhop of the Royal York hotel,” recalls Julia Dublin, a securities lawyer who worked under Groia at the Ontario Securities Commission, where he ran the enforcement branch in the 1980s. “It was a big influence on his life, I think.”

Indeed, Groia is proud of his “working-class” upbringing, believing that it gave him perspective and empathy. But he also recognizes that, in the legal profession, it’s much easier for young layers to land a big-firm job if they come from a rich family. “What I have realized is that when you come from a working-class family, and you don’t have the social network of a UCC [Upper Canada College] grad, you’re not seen as valuable of a hire because you aren’t seen as someone who can bring in business.”

His sensitivity to that inherent classism in the profession continues to inform his view of the legal world — and, by extension, his bencher platform, which touches on a range of issues, not just civility.

For instance, he wants to ban unpaid articling jobs — unless the firm promises not to charge clients for the student’s work. “What you’re not allowed to do, in my view, is have somebody come and work, don’t pay them, and then bill them out and make other people pay for their service,” he says, speaking firmly. “It’s shameful.” (This past year, there were about 50 unpaid articling positions across Ontario.) And Groia feels the same way about the work placements that students complete as part of the Law Practice Program — an initiative he otherwise supports as “the best solution on the table” to deal with the declining number of articling jobs.

Groia is also “absolutely in favour of Alternative Business Structures” — that is, allowing non-lawyers to own and invest in law firms. Not because he thinks it will improve access to justice or spur innovation in the law, but because, as far as he can tell, the corporatization of the legal economy has already occurred.

“The reality is, the large white-shoe firms operate as sophisticated businesses with sophisticated management structures,” he says, pointing out the fact that mega-firm Dentons is now made up of more than 6,500 lawyers. “I gotta tell you, I don’t see any real difference between a 3,000-lawyer partnership and an ABS with 3,000 shareholders and employees.”

And Groia does not feel any nostalgia for the smaller, tight-knit partnerships of earlier generations. “We all talk about the good old days when there were 12 partners, and you sat around the table and smoked cigars and there were no women in the room,” he says. Then, squinting his eyes, he adds: “I’m not quite sure why that’s the good old days.”

 

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Groia thinks the bencher election, at least for him, will amount to a referendum on his civility charges.

And, if that’s the case, he’s hopeful. Over the years, he says plenty of lawyers have come up to him in the halls of the courthouse to express support for how he handled himself during his legal troubles.

One such example is David Sterns, a partner at Sotos LLP and the second vice president at the Ontario Bar Association, who has publicly endorsed Groia’s candidacy. “When I ask myself why do I support him, it’s really because he’s shown character in the face of adversity,” he says. “He’s waged a lonely and costly battle with the regulator. And that takes a lot of character. It takes perseverance. I’m sure it’s been hell.”

And yet, all Groia has at the moment are those sorts of anecdotes. After the election, he’ll finally have some proof.

“If I lose the election, that will be it,” Groia says, matter-of-factly. “Then the profession will have said, ‘We don’t share Joe’s concerns. We don’t share Joe’s values.’ And life will go on.”

After close to an hour of chatting, Groia, still relaxed, calmly tells me he has to run to another meeting. With a plan in the works to appeal the decision against him once more, he is scheduled to talk strategy with his own lawyer, Earl Cherniak, a veteran litigator at Lerners LLP.

The moment we say goodbye, he springs out of his chair, darts out of the room and turns to his assistant. “Did you let him know I’ll be late?”


Read more of our 2015 Bencher Election coverage:

Janet-Leiper

 

Bencher Janet Leiper launches a joint campaign with first-time
candidate Isfahan Merali to help promote a fresh legal voice

 

 


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