Pro bono’s leading lady

By Michael Dempster November 26, 201326 November 2013

An in-house counsel finds her dream job — and the role of a lifetime helping others.

Pro bono’s leading lady

Photo: Paul Austring

As a young television actor, Stephanie Yang was cast in roles that stretched the imagination. 

“Time travel, aliens, stuff all over the map,” Yang says, remembering her high school and university days at YTV’s Incredible Story Studio where, between 1997 and 2002, “incredible” stories written by children were developed into TV shows and aired worldwide.

None, however, would match the lead role Yang would play after her acting days had ended.

More than three years ago at Regina’s pro bono legal clinic, Yang, now a young lawyer focusing on immigration matters, heard a heartbreaking story. Tahera Karimi, a young Afghan girl with cerebral palsy, needed help in a desperate fight to remain in Canada.

“When I first met Tahera, she could barely walk,” Yang recalls. “She was bent over almost in the [inverted] shape of the letter L. She had crutches. She couldn’t sit up straight.”

Tahera’s aunt had brought the girl to Regina for surgery to correct the damage done by an Afghani doctor who had operated on the wrong leg, Yang says. 

When the federal government said Tahera must return to Afghanistan, Yang led a team determined to keep her in Canada.

“Tahera would never have gotten the medical care she needed [in Afghanistan], maybe would never walk again and would likely never attend school,” says Yang, now 31. “It was a three-year battle but it was successful.”

This summer, Yang received the CBA’s Young Lawyers Pro Bono Award — fitting recognition for someone her colleagues say is a “crusader” in her drive to do and promote pro bono work.

“I can’t pinpoint an age where I was aware I should give back… it’s like it has always been ingrained,” says Yang, who says the work has provided her with some big smiles, but also cost her many tears and lots of sleep.

Yang was born just outside Regina, where her parents Steve and Moira sowed those volunteer seeds in her and her three brothers. Steve, half Filipino, half Chinese, is a first-generation immigrant who built a commercial cleaning business and later an overseas operation manufacturing steel and plastic goods in China, but always gave back to the community.

“Many new families when they arrived here, he gave them jobs, helped them out. I kind of grew up with that, and admired that he did that.”

Yang also inherited her father’s interest in business. In 2004, she earned a bachelor of commerce degree in marketing and her law degree in 2007, both at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

In 2008, she was called to the bar while employed at MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman LLP. The timing was perfect.

Saskatchewan was on the verge of an economic boom, she explains, and with it came foreign workers and a new need for immigration lawyers. When a partner put out a call for help one day, the young associate answered: “I can do that.” 

Yang is grateful for the support MLT gave her, both on the job and in her efforts to keep Tahera in Regina, but nevertheless left the firm in August 2012 for her “dream job.” Her friend, mentor and a principal at MLT, Conrad Hadubiak, was recruited to build the first in-house team at the Brandt Group of Companies in Regina.

Yang was hired to work primarily in immigration law and foreign recruitment, labour and employment law and civil litigation for Brandt, a privately held company with more than $1-billion in annual revenues and lines of business that include real estate development, financing, engineering, agricultural, railway and mining operations.

“When we first started, I’d say it was kind of like being hit with a fire hose because this company is growing so fast,” Yang says. “We are diverse, doing new things all the time. A big thing for me is getting a handle on being up to speed with the business.”

Brandt employs about 1,800 people, one-third of whom are foreign workers. “It’s been great to work with them, to help bring their families over and deal with any immigration issues,” Yang says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity at this stage of my career.”

Hadubiak, who first met Yang when she was an articling student, says the young lawyer’s energy lights up a room.

“In the first two or three months at Brandt, there were no less than four senior people who used the word — and she’s going to hate me for saying this — used the word firecracker when they were talking about her,” he says.

Nicole Sarauer, acting executive director at Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan, calls Yang “a bit of a poster child for pro bono.” She volunteers at the free legal program providing summary advice and was integral in creating the immigration and refugee panel program — areas where legal aid doesn’t provide services in the province.

“Stephanie’s helped train a group of staff Justice [Department] lawyers who form the large majority of our panel… she also takes on pro bono files through the program and is forever recruiting other lawyers, telling them the value pro bono has added to her life. 

“It’s very hard not to be convinced and get on the pro bono bandwagon when you hear Stephanie tell her stories and the ways she does it.”

Yang’s pro bono message, however, is wrapped in a worrisome question: “What would happen to these people if they didn’t have our help?”

It’s why she keeps a picture of an autistic boy, her first major pro bono case, and another of Tahera Karimi on her desk. They’re reminders of the critical service lawyers can and do provide.

“She changed my life,” Tahera says, after an after-school physiotherapy session. “If she hadn’t helped, I wouldn’t be able to go to school, which is what I really love.”

The Grade 11 student, gets mostly A’s, is fluent in English, rides the bus like other kids and because of regular therapy no longer needs a wheelchair.

Tahera says she’s blessed to have Stephanie as a friend — a bond that has outlived the case that brought them together.

“Tahera is just this fantastic person, and so sweet,” Yang says. “She’s doing extremely well and, yes, it’s early and you never know, but she even talked about maybe studying to become a teacher or lawyer.”

As stories go, everyone agrees, that would be incredible.

Michael Dempster is a freelance writer based in Calgary.

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