Practice Profile – Duty Counsel with Cyndy Barber

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Sep 092015

Cyndy Barber - ImageThis year LESA’s summer students (Kristine Gu and myself – Allison Boutillier) are interviewing practitioners to gain insight into the broad range of careers that a legal education can lead to. For the third interview, we sat down with Cyndy Barber to learn more about her role as Family Court Duty Counsel.

We asked Cyndy to tell us a little about her position, and she explained that duty counsel are lawyers, typically employed by Legal Aid Alberta, who appear in courts of first appearance to provide assistance to unrepresented parties. According to Cyndy, it is very important to ensure that things are done right at these initial stages:

Docket or chambers is often where people get their most significant – indeed their only – court ordered relief. People get child and spousal support orders, they get parenting orders, they get home possession orders, restraining orders. In theory, these are interim and can be changed at trial, but the reality is that very few matters get to trial, … so these orders are profoundly important – first because they are, in practical terms, final, and second because they are about basic necessities of money, safety, homes, and parenting.”

For the most part, duty counsel deal with these matters on a preliminary basis, moving them to a trial or another type of setting for resolution. Given the right circumstances, however, it is can be possible to completely resolve the matter at hand:

It sort of depends on the file. It depends on the people. It depends on the duty counsel, probably, and the time we have, because sometimes we are completely swamped [so] that we don’t have a lot of time to start negotiating terms of parenting orders, for example.”

Regardless of the task at hand, however, the matters that duty counsel deals with move quickly and, according to Cyndy, that makes knowing the law one of the most important parts of the job:

I think you have to know the law and you have to have some experience in court. I did a lot, a lot of court work before I got to this job. I was in Chambers often, and I think that gives you an edge. It allows you to just get into it a little quicker.”

When asked about her previous experience, Cyndy explained that she cut her teeth working in private practice. She articled exclusively in family law and spent a total of 14 years working in the area before taking a position at Legal Aid Alberta, providing telephone legal advice. After a time, Legal Aid Alberta amalgamated its services, and Cyndy’s role changed to include working part-time as duty counsel. Now she acts as duty counsel at Provincial Docket Court on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and, otherwise, is at the Legal Aid Alberta office providing in-person and telephone advice and brief services.

If there is one thing that Cyndy misses about private practice, it is really getting into the litigation and seeing a file through from beginning to end. Occasionally, while working as duty counsel, she will have a client come back to see her multiple times over the course of a matter. For the most part, however, she is only involved in preliminary issues while the matter is at docket: “we’re there to assist and to speak on their behalf, but we don’t represent them in the true term of representation.”

Even though she sometimes misses carrying a file, Cyndy would not give up her job to go back to private practice. She told us that, above all else, she enjoys spending time with her family, and, although she works hard, her position at Legal Aid Alberta does not require her to take work home on the weekends or to work the long hours that are sometimes required in private practice.

Over and above the work-life balance, working as duty counsel also has the benefit of being a very rewarding occupation.

I love my job. It’s great. I deal with a lot of great people. I work with a lot of great people, and I love how our system works. It works very well. It is very, very supportive for people who do not have counsel.”

Allison Boutillier
LESA Summer Student

Practice Profile – Family Law with Marla Miller QC

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Jul 302015

Marla MillerIn this latest instalment of our practice profile series, we continue to explore the different directions your legal education can take you by speaking with Marla Miller QC of the Miller Boileau Family Law Group. Marla shares with us her experiences and insight on becoming a sole practitioner, the family law practice, and the family law bar as a community.

At Miller Boileau, Marla and her colleagues have each taken on a unique role – be it a mediator, litigator, or collaborative family lawyer – to offer their clients a full range of services. Marla focuses on using mediation and collaborative family law to seek out a suitable arrangement for her clients and the parties involved.

At first glance, Miller Boileau may look and act like a small firm; however, it enjoys the structure of an association of lawyers. As Marla explained, “It is the best of both worlds in that there is support from … a group of family lawyers but you also have all the good things that come with being a sole practitioner.

Before starting her own practice in 1990, Marla worked at both a small and a mid-size firm. Her motivation to go solo came from her surroundings as well as her interest in the business side of a law practice. The idea of becoming a sole practitioner may be a daunting one, but Marla shares with us some advice that she kept in her pocket when starting out.

If you have the choice to work with a lawyer for five years and if you are doing good work and your clients are happy and sending you referrals, after five years you’ve done enough and seen enough that you have a good chance of surviving on your own.

In terms of a typical day, Marla is usually able to meet with two sets of clients, as most meetings take up a full morning or afternoon. The freedom and flexibility to set her own schedule is certainly important to her, but one of the things that Marla values the most as a family lawyer is also what sets the practice apart from others.

In family law, you can only make a bad situation better. When people come to you and are having a terrible time, you can help them get to a better place.

This ability to aid and guide people through a difficult situation is a driving force for many in their pursuit of a family law career. How to set off upon the path to reach that position, however, can be unclear. When students interested in family law ask her about articling, Marla’s answer may seem counterintuitive at first, but it is not without reason.

Don’t article at a family law firm. Instead, try articling at a general practice firm. You need to learn all the other skills in order to be a good family lawyer. Talk to the firm and tell them that, while you want to learn everything, you think you might want to end up in family law. They might already be sending the work off, and you could end up being an asset to the firm.

Students can also find comfort in knowing that the family law bar is supportive and that there are opportunities for mentorship and guidance. Marla reassured us that “if people have questions, they can probably call any family lawyer. It’s a very generous and collegial bar. We like to help people get to where they need to be in their lives. It’s what we do.

We appreciate Marla’s willingness to share her insight and expertise as well as her valuable advice for pursuing family law. We bring this chapter of our series to a close with something that has stuck with us and most certainly will stick with you. When asked about the impact her work has on her clients, Marla answered that, at the end of the day, being a family lawyer is not all about winning.

You close your file and go on to your next client, but whatever has happened is the story that these people have to live with. If you’re not helping the whole person and looking only at the legal problem, you’re doing a disservice. You do a disservice to the client, you do a disservice to their children, and, in the long run, you do a disservice to yourself.

Kristine Gu
LESA Summer Student

Practice Profile – Regulatory Board with Donna Tingley

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Jul 152015

Donna TingleyThis year LESA’s summer students (Kristine Gu and myself – Allison Boutillier) are interviewing practitioners to gain insight into the broad range of careers that a legal education can lead to. The first interview features Donna Tingley, a board member at the National Resources Conservation Board (NRCB) since 2006.

At the outset, we asked Donna to tell us about the NRCB and her position as a board member. She explained that the NRCB is an independent government agency responsible for reviewing non-energy natural resource projects, such as water, forestry, mining, and recreation projects. It also regulates confined feeding operations in Alberta. NRCB board members conduct hearings on these matters and participate in the overall management of the organization, including approving the NRCB’s budget and business plan.

As Donna explained, most of the board members are not lawyers. Instead, the majority come from technical backgrounds related to the matters that they hear, which is to say, natural resource projects and confined feeding operations. “One of my colleagues is an engineer, another one is a rancher – which makes sense, given what we regulate – and the chairman comes out of a municipal background. He was the mayor of Sherwood Park. That kind of range is typical.

When lawyers do sit as board members, they usually come from private practice, often having worked in fields that required them to appear before the boards they eventually sit on. Donna, however, took a more unconventional path to becoming an NRCB board member.

There is no question my legal career has been atypical. My background has never been in private practice. Right off the bat I started articling with – it was called the Attorney General’s Department – now, Alberta Justice. For a little while, I worked for the province in the area of Native Affairs on aboriginal land claims, but then I moved right into the environmental field, which is where I worked until I came here. I worked for 15 years with a non-profit called the Environmental Law Centre, mostly as Executive Director, and another 7 years at another non-profit called the Clean Air Strategic Alliance, where I was Executive Director as well.

Although atypical, Donna has found that her previous work in the environmental sector has allowed her to bring an important perspective to the NRCB. She worked extensively with public policy questions and now uses this experience to inform decisions about whether natural resource projects are in the public interest.

It was taking my experiences working in environmental law to a decision-making role where I can actually impact the outcome of some of these challenging environmental questions that I have worked on my whole career.

What’s more, working at the NRCB has allowed Donna to expand her understanding of the technical issues that the NRCB hears. As she puts it, “A lot of my time is spent reviewing material. It is not spent sitting in a court room situation, which is what everyone imagines. It is really studying these environmental assessments and trying to figure them out.

As difficult as that may sometimes be, Donna explains that the time spent going through lengthy and technical hearing materials is more than worth it.

It is really satisfying at this point to have an opportunity to be involved in decision-making. It is really difficult to think about what is in the public interest, but, at the end of the day, it is very satisfying.

We appreciated hearing Donna share her experiences, and we hope that you will too. Whether you are a practicing lawyer considering new opportunities or a law student looking at possible career trajectories, stay tuned for more practice profiles coming to the LESA blog.

Allison Boutillier
LESA Summer Student