I’ve lived and practiced law across Northern Canada for nearly a decade. When I started this journey, it was just me, quite literally.
My arrival in the North began in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. I was based in the hamlet of Cambridge Bay, or Iqaluktuttiaq meaning “good fishing place” in the area’s traditional Inuit language, Inuinnaqtun. While it was the largest community on Victoria Island, the entire population was far less than you’d find in a square mile of Calgary or Regina, much less Toronto or Montreal. And on the day I arrived, I singlehandedly doubled the number of resident civil lawyers for the entire Region—an area consisting of 5 Inuit communities spread across nearly half a million square kilometers.
Crossing Borders to make a small Difference and the Path North
To put that geography into greater perspective, the land and ice spread across the Kitikmeot Region was double that of the entire country of Ghana—which happened to be the West African country where I had most recently been practicing law with a human rights organization before moving North.
In Africa, I found myself in an environment where the rule of law often existed in name only, conditions that created rosters full of clients but no access to the lawyers needed to represent them. I worked with clients who had been forcibly removed from their homes, minorities and disadvantaged groups whose legal rights were either forgotten or ignored. Being their advocate filled me with a deep sense of purpose and meaning. I emerged with a reconnection as to why I became a lawyer in the first place—to be someone others confide in and seek advice from, solve problems for people, and help improve their lives.
I returned to Canada with the vision and intent of serving my community in this same way—promoting access to justice. The opportunity to practice in the North presents that and much more.
BigLaw versus NewLaw versus North of 60 Law
Big city firms and opportunities indeed dominate recruitment in law school. As an aspiring lawyer, the conventional story goes that the goal should be to work in “BigLaw,” and ending up anywhere else somehow makes you a lesser lawyer. The result is that even students with no desire to work in such an environment upon entering law school often quickly succumb to the pressure. And I did it for a while too.
Working in “BigLaw” provided a slew of challenges, but it confirmed that I was right to pursue a brand of work that intrinsically made me happy. That helped prompt me to embark on the unconventional journey to Equatorial Africa that eventually landed me above the tree line and adjacent to the North Pole.
As incongruous as that path may sound, the most direct explanation for connecting-the-dots is that my experience dealing with injustice abroad caused me to dig into where it existed at home; while Equatorial Africa and the Arctic Circle may be a world (and climate) apart, the socio-economic, environmental and legal challenges are all too familiar. These are challenges that encouraged me to engage with the promise of a legal career.
While NewLaw and alternative business models and approaches to the practice of law tend to focus on the desires of young lawyers who want a life outside of work and not to base their existence solely on status and money, I think the chance to make a positive difference is the missing ingredient that the next generation of lawyers is increasingly demanding from the profession. And this is where practicing law in the North truly shines.
Practicing law up here is about far more than shorter commute times and better work-life balance. It includes the chance to be an integral part of your community. To do well for yourself by doing good works for others. So, while my journey to practicing law North of 60 is an unconventional one, it’s also growing in familiarity and attraction as a generation of new lawyers emerges that prioritize bringing meaning and purpose to their work.
The Northern Advantage
In addition to providing a great working environment, North of 60 law is an excellent incubator for developing young lawyers looking to take on meaningful and impactful work and files early in their careers. The bench isn’t deep enough to allow a new lawyer to spend the first handful of years in their career doing due diligence or carrying a senior lawyer’s briefcase to court. Up here, you close the deal, and you run the trial yourself.
And the North is where lawyers can still be generalists—indeed, most good Northerners are generalists by default. So while the need to be well-versed in a variety of legal areas can seem daunting to a new graduate, it’s also an exciting opportunity for those who haven’t quite figured it all out yet, or who like the idea of constantly learning anew instead of perfecting the best way to make the same widget every day.
Another benefit of northern practice is that these growth opportunities are provided in the North’s unique, friendly, collaborative environment. The northern practice has a frontier aspect to it; you feel that the legal system and local community evolve together. The legal community has a similarly collaborative tenor—a legal body that is largely collegial, not needlessly adversarial, and where sharp tactics are frowned upon rather than rewarded.
And I’ve witnessed young lawyers experience these advantages firsthand. For example, I previously ran a mentorship program with the UVIC law school that provided law students with the opportunity of a co-op experience working for a 4-month term of their legal education in a legal department. As a testament to the North of 60 practice advantages, I worked with nearly a dozen students while running that program, many of whom returned to the North to commence their legal careers after completing their law degrees.
These opportunities are only growing as the access to justice crisis in remote communities across the country becomes more pronounced, with new lawyers increasingly staying in larger cities. I know how these issues impact the North all too well. I was previously the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Aid Liaison Committee Representative for all of Northern Canada. And I’ve witnessed as law firms, and private practitioners across the North are becoming increasingly rare—with existing offices either shutting down or being bought by larger firms in regional centres, who then send a lawyer to the North for a few days every month or as files and projects require. This fly-in, fly-out model doesn’t work well for other industries, and the legal profession is no different. One result is that the access to justice crisis spills over into gaps in other areas of the community that lawyers traditionally fulfill—serving on boards, political councils and volunteering in various organizations, from community leagues to local non-profits. The absence of local lawyers is felt far beyond the walls of any courtroom.
Moving North of Summer
Young lawyers disillusioned with the profession or struggling to find jobs and opportunities that check all the boxes for a meaningful and satisfying career, need only look North. That’s not to say coming North doesn’t have its unique challenges. Friends and family are thousands of kilometers away, and mail never seems to arrive on time, to say nothing of the -50-winter chill. Still, its charms are unparalleled – the midnight sun, northern lights, and a chance to experience some of the last untouched wilderness.
Among the biggest highlights in my career since moving North has been watching other young legal careers unfold. An up-and-coming cohort of community-minded lawyers makes a positive difference. I see others following the path to practice North of 60, seeking to do good work in communities that remain small enough to retain the word’s true meaning. This fills me with optimism for the future. I never hesitate to take the time to highlight the benefits of northern living and remote practice opportunities for the strong cohort of civic-minded lawyers I see following the path to practice North of 60.
And if the path of a Northern lawyer sounds appealing to you, look no further than joining OKT’s Northern office based in Yellowknife for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information only and is not meant for use as legal advice for specific legal issues or problems. We provide this for educational purposes only. If you need legal assistance, please feel free to contact OKT for further information directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 867.447.0605.
Olthuis, Kleer, Townshend LLP
Port Moody, BC V3H 1T9
NICK LEESON is Counsel with OKT LLP, a law firm located in Toronto and Yellowknife. His practice is based out of Vancouver,
where he practices law for OKT across Canada, representing Indigenous clients and interests from coast-to-coast-to-coast.
OKT is a law firm that is committed to the representation of First Nation and Inuit governments, organizations, businesses,
and individuals exclusively. Our central philosophy is that there will be no real justice until First Nation and Inuit peoples
have control over their fates and futures, including their lands and economic and political decision-making. We are committed to
developing Indigenous leadership in the law and work actively to support the development of Indigenous lawyers serving Indigenous communities.
Nick Leeson’s bio is at the link below:
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