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Finding your specialty

Defined area of practice has its advantages, lawyers say
By Saul Chernos
March 18 2016 issue

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Even in high school, Suzanne Deliscar knew she wanted to fashion her love of languages into a possible legal career.

Proficient in French thanks to an immersion program, Deliscar added Spanish to her repertoire and found herself drawn to courses in social studies and culture.

After completing a double-major in history and Latin American studies and graduating from law school, the question was how to attain her chosen niche.

Choosing an area of practice is something lawyers often tussle with after they’re called to the bar. When you’re young, and the world’s your oyster, the array of options can seem dizzying.

Whether you’re eying criminal or civil law, or any number of sub-specialties, articling is a good time to sample different areas even if it will soon be necessary to dispatch some of them to the field of bygone dreams in order to build a practice that’s manageable.

Deliscar, a sole practitioner with offices in Brampton and Orangeville, Ont., limits herself to family law, wills and estates, and civil litigation.

While these areas came to the fore by happenstance when she articled, what proved more challenging was integrating French and Spanish into her practice.

“I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do it,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody else who was doing what I wanted to do.”

With a few years of legal experience under her belt, Deliscar launched her own practice.

“I knew I needed to go out on my own to create the kind of atmosphere where law and languages would be intertwined and part of my every day work life,” Deliscar explains.

While she translates and notarizes documents and offers advice in French and Spanish for some clients, she says she wants to incorporate languages even more into her practice.

In St. John’s Newfoundland, Lynne Butler has established a niche in wills and estates.

“I’ve been in this area ever since I first started in the ‘80s,” says Butler, who worked with larger firms and served as a trust company’s in-house will planner before setting out on her own a year ago.

Maintaining a defined practice offers advantages all-round. Butler says she doesn’t have to follow new developments outside her field, and clients benefit from her depth of knowledge.

Specialization also offers an opportunity for niche recognition. Butler has written nine books, maintains a blog, and offers seminars.

“I get calls here from people across the country who want to talk about executorship,” Butler says. “They know me as that wills lady, that lawyer who writes about wills.”

Working with two other lawyers in Picton, Ont., Alexandra Mayeski considers herself a litigator first and foremost, with the bulk of her work involving estates. However, as a recent transplant from Toronto, she carries on with a few other lines close to her heart, helping clients navigate government access-to-information legislation and taking occasional cases with a boutique health law firm where she once worked full-time. In the heart of Prince Edward County’s burgeoning wine country she also represents wineries, something she actually started while working in Toronto.

“When you’re in a big firm in a big city you have the luxury to specialize and be a leader in small niche areas, but in a smaller community if your practice is too narrow it can be challenging,” Mayeski says.

She adds that local residents often want a family lawyer or firm to service all their needs, including real estate transactions, wills and even small-scale corporate issues.

While a diverse practice requires extra diligence on the lawyer’s part, there’s often crossover, say when property in an estate is transferred to a new owner, Mayeski says.

Still, Mayeski sets boundaries. If a client has a trademark issue or wants to pursue injury-related litigation, for instance, she refers them to a trusted expert.

“You’re doing your client a disservice if you take on something you know absolutely nothing about,” Mayeski says.

Sometimes, an entire firm limits itself to a single specialty. In Aurora, north of Toronto, Boland Howe bills itself as “trial lawyers for the injured.”

“We take complex cases where trial is a real possibility,” says lawyer Darcy Romaine. “We have also built ourselves a reputation for advancing claims against municipalities and against long-term disability insurers.”

In personal injury law you have to become a pseudo-expert, Romaine says, explaining that complex technical issues often come into play. “You have to be able to speak the language of engineering, finance, medicine and law, to understand what your expert is telling you and be able to cross-examine the defendant’s expert.”

Insurance rules are also continually in flux. “There’s always new regulations, new case law, so you need to stay abreast of those issues,” Romaine says. “Then there’s the actual trial work which takes years and years and tons of experience to perfect.”

In Port Hope, east of Toronto, Bruce McMeekin works solo representing companies and their personnel who find themselves in trouble. Think workplace safety, environmental rules, even white collar crime.

“I help them deal with the regulatory framework, and if they fall off-side I help them during audits and if they’re penalized,” he explains.

Despite his own intensive focus, McMeekin sees a need for storefront neighbourhood lawyers who offer a range of basic services in small communities. A young lawyer might start with an established firm, learn the ropes, and then chart their own course when the time is right, he says.

“There’s tons of potential clients out there who need a will done, have a tax issue, want to set up a company or have to do annual filings.”

The bottom line, again, is setting boundaries.

“You might deal with a Criminal Code offence like ‘theft under’ but not take on an indictable matter that’s going to wind its way up to the high court for prosecution,” McMeekin advises. “Stay in your range of competency. If you start taking on things you’re not competent to do, that’s when you find yourself in trouble.”

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