The number of people representing themselves in family and civil court has dramatically increased over the last few years throughout Canada. For example, an Alberta study in 2012 found that more than half of family law files involved a self-represented litigant.
Self-represented litigants pose a challenge for lawyers, their clients and the judicial system in general. Here are some tips on how to deal with them.
Not all self-represented litigants are the same
Lawrence Pinsky lawyer at Taylor McCaffrey LLP in Winnipeg, says there are at least two types of self-represented litigants.
“First, there are those who can’t afford a lawyer. They are self-reps, not by choice but by no choice,” he says.
“Second, there are the self-reps who are self-reps by choice because they feel that one does not need any sort of education or objectivity to be a lawyer or they really want to have their voices heard or they have personality disorders,” says Pinsky.
“I don’t think it’s fair to lump both of those groups together,” he adds.
Having good mentors can be key to a young lawyer’s success. But Stephanie Okola, a Toronto-based lawyer and mediator, says that the mentors themselves can also benefit from this relationship.
Okola, who specializes in litigation at Okola Law, says that her experiences as a law student and junior lawyer inspired her to mentor others.
“I completed my law degree outside of Canada and then came back and qualified to practise law in Ontario,” she says. “Without mentorship, that process would have been impossible for me.”
Okola now uses this experience to help others who are going through the same process.
Many lawyers find themselves trapped in the so-called “golden handcuffs” where their inflated lifestyle requires them to stay in a high-pressure career.
But some young lawyers are trying to combat lifestyle inflation.
Leah Klassen, who practices wills and estates and family law in Ajax, Ont., describes herself as someone who “tries to rebel against the traditional view of a lawyer.”
But even Klassen says that she sometimes feels societal pressure to look, act and spend like a lawyer.
“When people hear that you are a lawyer, they expect you to live a glamorous lifestyle,” says Klassen, who began her legal career in February 2016 as an associate lawyer with Marie G. Michaels and Associates. “Sometimes I find myself justifying spending money on my appearance – things like manicures and my wardrobe. I think that has a lot to do with the perception that lawyers who look good and wear designer clothes are successful. I don't actually subscribe to that, but I find myself justifying those kind of purchases anyway.”
Within their first five years, 57 per cent of female lawyers and 49 per cent of male lawyers leave private practice, according to data collected by the Law Society of Alberta. Experts say the numbers are likely similar across Canada.
This is a big problem for law firms, says Lorene Nagata, the founder of NagataConnex Executive Legal Search, a legal recruitment firm.
“It’s hugely expensive to lose associates,” she says. “Associates usually only start to make money for the firm in their fourth year of practice. Prior to that, it’s really an investment for the firm.”
Turnover within a law firm can also be frustrating for clients and bad for morale, says Nagata, who is based in Toronto.
Nagata and Allison Wolf, a lawyer coach with Vancouver-based Shift Work Strategic Inc., have some tips for law firms to increase their retention of associates.
When Mikaila Greene graduated from law school in 2012, she was overwhelmed by the debt she had accumulated.
“When I first graduated, I was very scared to talk about my debt. I felt very ashamed,” says Greene, a lawyer in Thunder Bay, Ont. “I felt like there was a lot of stigma around debt. It’s only been recently since I started to pay it off do I actually feel comfortable talking about numbers.”
Greene is not alone. A 2014 survey by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario showed that about 70 per cent of Ontario law school students graduate owing an average of $71,000 on government or bank student loans. This number does not include those who borrowed money from family and friends to fund their legal education.
Greene, as one of the top 10 students in her year at the University of Ottawa, initially owed about $85,000 – 75 per cent in bank loans and 25 per cent in government loans.
“And this was after scholarships, graduating awards and bursaries – I spent many hours chasing bursaries trying to get some financial relief,” she says.