2020 - What a Year to Start a Practice

  • January 22, 2021
  • Ben Fulton, principal lawyer

Going solo is a time of uncertainty at the best of times. The initial few months present challenges for seasoned professionals, experienced with the law, but not necessarily the ins and outs of running the actual practice. Setting up client accounts and ensuring that the mixed trust account bears interest that is forwarded to the Law Foundation of Ontario is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most people reading this will be familiar with the annual reporting requirements, currently undergoing some reform to have a unified date, instead of separate dates for Continuing Professional Development (CPD), The annual report, and the civil reporting requirement. This seems good, one date instead of three. This might reduce some of that feeling of being overwhelmed that is certainly not unique when it comes to setting up practice.

The general consensus within the business community is that it takes one to two years for a business to really grow legs. The first year is a time for putting everything back into the business and expecting the business to grow. Generally speaking business advisors will tell you to have alternate plans for income, even if it is just living off credit, while the business takes it’s time to pick up. But what does it look like when that first year is 2020?

I started my solo practice in a big way in December of 2019, about six months after being called to the bar. It took a few weeks to get all of the banking and HST requirements in place and by January of 2020 I was fully equipped with my braille business cards and LawPro Insurance. I had done a good job of networking during my articles, and I was starting to get referrals even before I had hung my shingle.

The challenge of starting out in solo practice as a new lawyer is that you are learning about running the business, at the same time as you are learning a lot of the procedural aspects of the practice of law. This steep learning curve also accompanies the struggle to determine one’s personal work/life balance, and like many starting professionals I was putting a lot of time into the work side of that equation. Things were starting to pick up. I was getting the referrals, scheduling court dates, and starting to get more than one appearance a week, which I thought was pretty good for only having been in business for two and a half months.

Then suddenly, COVID struck. Thursday, March 12, 2020 was the last day that I physically set foot in a court room. I had a number of appearances scheduled for the second half of March, and I was thinking that things were shaping up nicely, then all of my matters were adjourned sine die.

I know I was not alone in this boat, as people scrambled to make sure that there were remote appearance options, and the courts found ways to hear matters. First the really urgent matters, of which I had none, and then the less urgent matters, of which I had a few, and then finally the not so urgent matters, which makes up the majority of my docket.

From the very beginning of the first lockdown in March I realized, as did many others, that we would collectively need to figure out a way for the courts to continue to operate during this pandemic. Remote options would have to be utilized and a switch to e-filing was needed. In fact a switch to e-filing was long overdo but the question then became: What exactly are the changes that are needed, and how do we implement them?

Being onboard with a switch to remote appearances from the get go I was one of the few people who engaged with the infamous court call system. To the best of my knowledge that program has been scrapped entirely. I am grateful that I never personally had to use it myself. I was negotiating to conduct one of my not so urgent matters remotely, and the court call system seemed like the system we would have to use. It was cumbersome, and expensive, and thankfully zoom was the platform that won out. 

Webex is another platform that seemed to emerge during this period of figuring out how to conduct remote hearings. The city of Toronto was using this platform, and may still be using it for remote hearings, but this multiplicity of platforms raises another concern. This is a challenging time for many, and adding to the existing challenges the necessity to learn more and more platforms and systems places a number of individuals at a disadvantage.

As a blind lawyer, I need to learn a number of hot keys and commands to navigate zoom professionally and competently, such as alt A to mute or unmute or alt-y to raise your hand, etc. Learning another host of commands for each new platform takes time and brain power away from the more substantive aspects of your case. I am glad that zoom seems to be winning out and that is seems to be becoming the universal option. We need to generate a certain degree of continuity when it comes to offering remote proceedings.

Another formatting concern of mine has to do with the e-filing requirements. Currently the court directives that I have read list pdf’s as the preferred format, only allowing word documents for Factums. Through discussion with registrars I have been able to have the courts accept .doc format, but only as an exception to accommodate my disability.

Institutions are responding to the ongoing pandemic in a number of different ways. The Criminal Lawyers Association (CLA) created a list service for lawyers with disabilities to voice their concerns with the measures being taken as a result of COVID-19. The Advocates Society (TAS) created a Modern Advocacy Task Force to gather feedback and provide recommendations for the reform of the Canadian justice system. Through both of these venues I have advocated for word documents .doc to be considered the preferred format, thereby placing myself and other blind lawyers on an even footing, instead of being relegated to a secondary and stigmatized status.

Another cause for concern involves the way that the court directives that I have read are asking lawyers to undertake to submit paper versions of everything that is being e-filed, at some unspecified date when it is again safe to do so. My personal opinion is that adhering to this plan will create a horrible backlog and a completely unnecessary mess. I would hope that before long that requirement is not only scrapped, but that all of the previously given undertakings will be waived and nobody will be forced to re-submit in paper what was already filed electronically.

Perhaps better e-filing systems will need to be created and maintained to ensure that the data is properly secured, but I don’t think we can realistically go back to filing reems of paper. It is important for us to focus on formats that will do the most to promote access to justice, and inclusion within the law. There is a lot changing right now, and it is up to us to direct that change in directions that are sustainable and maintainable for now and the future.

About the Author

Ben Fulton graduated from Osgoode in 2018 with the Dean’s Gold Key Award and was called to the Ontario Bar in 2019. He is currently practicing Human rights law in Mississauga, and the GTA. His practice deals mostly with boards and tribunals, as well as diversions for minor criminal offences. He enjoys providing commentary into advocacy and access to justice.

His report about Human Rights Advocate David Lepofsky received the Centennial Flame Research Award and can be found on the government website at:  

https://www.ourcommons.ca/Committees/en/HUMA/StudyActivity?studyActivityId=9427082

 

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