For the public good: Manitoba's law firms are living up this ideal through a robust and well-established pro bono culture to serve the public interest.
A lot of it owes to the work of the Public Interest Law Centre (PILC), part of Legal Aid Manitoba. With only four staff lawyers, the demand for legal services outstrips the centre's resources. For 17 years, PILC has worked with law firms on reducing systemic barriers in society in human rights, Indigenous law, consumer law and environmental law.
Five larger firms support the project – Pitblado, Fillmore Riley, Thompson Dorfman Sweatman, Taylor McCaffrey and MLT Aikins – and smaller boutique firms are also involved. According to Byron Williams, the centre's executive director, PILC estimates that lawyers, law students and academics donate the equivalent of $200,000 to $250,000 a year in pro bono services.
"This is a collaborative effort between the private bar and legal aid to extend the reach of our public interest work," says Williams. "It's fantastic – and I've rarely been turned down."
The Manitoba Bar Association also plays a role in supporting this partnership. Since 1996, it has awarded a Public Interest Pro Bono Award at its annual midwinter meeting, presented by the Chief Justice of Manitoba. Each major firm has received the award on multiple occasions over the past decade.
Thompson Dorfman Sweatman
Sacha Paul and Alyssa Mariani of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP were the 2018 recipients for their intervention before the Supreme Court of Canada on behalf of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities in Delta Airlines Inv. v. Gábor Lukács, which expanded the grounds for public interest standing.
While Paul has appeared before the Supreme Court – "they're fun and they're exhilarating" – he says other cases are just as meaningful when they help individuals to resolve an issue affecting their lives.
"Sometimes you take pro bono because you feel for somebody in terms of how they've been treated by a certain system. Those cases aren't going to be trendsetting," says Paul. "But sometimes the most valuable type of pro bono advice doesn't get you into a level of conflict and can resolve whatever the issue is."
He adds that conducting pro bono work can help to stir academic curiosity in lawyers.
"I think many, many people see the pro bono work is invaluable service, but also as a valuable way of thinking about law and in a manner that may be different than your usual practice," says Paul. "This allows you to deal with cases that wouldn't normally come across your desk."
"Our legal community is very supportive of pro bono projects, of the need to give back to the community," says Dayna Steinfeld, Associate at Fillmore Riley and the 2020 recipient. "The Manitoba community is small, and I think the firm places importance on its role and the importance of giving back. That seems to be working very well and fostering a culture of support for pro bono work."
Steinfeld, an Associate at Fillmore Riley since 2016, was recognized for her work on R v Le, in which the Supreme Court ruled that evidence seized from a young racialized man without reasonable suspicion cannot be used against him in court. Steinfeld acted as co-counsel for a coalition of local, provincial and national groups who were granted leave to intervene. The coalition gave written arguments to the court for its deliberations relating to rights under sections eight and nine of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Steinfeld, who practices in labour and employment, administrative, and human rights law, also takes on pro bono cases related to workplace harassment and sexual violence. Called in 2013, she encourages other young lawyers to take on pro bono files.
"It's an important way to gain really valuable experience in cases that might not otherwise come across your desk," she says. "For young lawyers, I think there's a lot to be gained on many levels from being involved."
Andrew Buck, Kathleen McCandless and David Silver received the MBA's pro bono award in 2019 for two files. Buck and McCandless were recognized for their comparative review, in collaboration with PILC, of communication standards in different jurisdictions– all part of an effort to legislatively remove and prevent barriers to accessibility in the province. Silver filed an appeal with the Tax Court of Canada challenging the eligibility test for the Disability Tax Credit (DTC) on behalf of a client with a mental health disability.
"What you will find at our firm is there certainly seems to be a willingness, and, in fact, encouragement for lawyers who indicate an interest in getting involved in pro bono to go and pursue those opportunities," says Buck, a Partner at Pitblado.
Buck has also worked for several years with Pro Bono Students Canada, which provides law students with the opportunity to provide legal information to clients.
"Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact that we have information that not everyone has. It's good to be able to share that with other people who wouldn't otherwise have access to it," he says.
John Myers and Elizabeth Mitchell of Taylor McCaffrey LLP were the 2016 recipients for pro bono advocacy that led to increased income assistance for persons living with mental illness or intellectual disabilities.
Myers says that Taylor McCaffrey takes on pro bono cases focused on equality rights, including housing, benefits for people with disabilities, benefits for couples before same-sex marriage was legalized, and access to justice representation. Myers completed applications for three Manitoba families for inclusion in Carter v Canada (Attorney General), the medical-assistance-in-dying ruling by the Supreme Court.
A 30-year member of the firm, Myers says Taylor McCaffrey continues to live the legacy of its founding partners.
"Our firm founders Reeh Taylor and D'Arcy McCaffrey were very much people who saw a law firm as something way more than a collection of people coming together to make money. A firm has a much broader community purpose than that," he says.
While pro bono work obviously benefits clients and stakeholders, Myers agrees that lawyers gain from the experience.
"I've been to the Supreme Court of Canada five times and four were public interest law cases," he says. "At the end of the day, you are giving a lot of your time and expertise, but what you get back from the experience and also working with the client groups that you get to work with -- you get way more out of it than you actually put into it."
MLT Aikins formalizes its pro bono programme
MLT Aikins LLP's approach to pro bono work is changing in real time. It has been traditionally left to individual lawyers at the firm. But according to Keith Ferbers, a partner in the firm's Winnipeg office, the firm is moving to a more formal process of tracking and accounting pro bono hours. Now, it is also exploring partnerships to offer legal assistance to the agribusiness industry on COVID-19 related matters.
"We are a Western Canadian based law firm and within Western Canada, the agribusiness sector and producers are a huge part of our economy. We've got long-standing relationships with many clients in that industry," says Ferbers.
MLT Aikins' lawyers havealso been working for years with the PILC. Ferbers has developed a pro bono niche helping sporting organizations and community clubs draft and amend bylaws.