The next profile in this series features Janis Criger and offers a glimpse into the life of a "retired" lawyer. Janis also discusses her transition from working at a firm, to taking a break from law to raise her children, to becoming an entrepreneur and starting her own solo practice (and more!):
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business:
I ‘retired’ from active practice in 2015.
I use quotes around ‘retired’ because in 2015 I was elected as a Bencher. This was a very happy thing, as I really enjoy the work. My work now consists of Small Claims judging for two to four days monthly and being at the Law Society about five days monthly. In addition, since I don’t have a practice to tend to, I am flexibly available for Law Society Tribunal work, of which I do quite a bit. I’m really enjoying those two adjudication positions, along with the policy and governance work at the Law Society.
I write reasons for a lot of the cases I sit on, so all told, I probably work 10 – 15 days monthly. Law Society reasons are published on CanLII, if anyone wants to check them out.
2. Why did you go to law school?
I worked in clerical and administrative positions for about five years before I went to law school. None of them really suited my personality or allowed me to use my brain much.
Law school offered the chance to learn interesting, new and complex things that I could use to solve problems for other people. It turned out to be a really good fit.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
More chance than design, I think. For whatever reason, I am not a person who mapped out a career plan. At each turning point in my career and life, I picked the thing that I thought would allow me to use whatever skills I had to be productive and help others, while meeting my and my family’s needs. Money and recognition were side effects, both of which still surprise me.
I enjoyed working as an associate at a firm but did not enjoy having someone else raise my children once they arrived. I felt I was missing all the good parts when my children were young, so I took a couple of years off, then started my own practice in my house. I worked from home for eleven years while my sons grew up.
My break from law coincided with the rise of personal computing and the explosion in productivity software. I used the time off to get up to speed on technology (if you are not doing law, you still need interesting, new and complex things to learn).
By the time I started my practice, I’d been out for about ten years and retained my clerical/administrative skillset. This worked out very well. On July 1, 1995, I started my sole practice with a large, custom-built desktop, a multi-function print/copy/fax, a handheld and a folding keyboard for notes on the go, and a cellphone the size of a brick. In 2007, I hired my first part-time assistant, mainly to assist with scheduling.
A year or so after I started my practice, I became aware that the Hamilton Small Claims Court was looking for Deputy Judges. It wasn’t considered high status work but I thought I could serve the public and give back to the profession by doing that, so I sent a letter to my local Regional Senior Judge and got sworn in. I’ve always thought of it as important work. I’ve been sitting for almost 22 years now, and I still enjoy being on the front line of the court system, helping others solve their problems.
I ran for Bencher because I thought it was a great way to contribute to the profession and the public, again in a way that suits my kind of intelligence – curiosity about complex new items. I was very pleasantly surprised to be elected, and I will run again unless something unforeseen happens.
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
In career terms, I’m proud of having argued before the Supreme Court of Canada in Nichols v. American Home, even though I lost 7-0 there. Up to that point I’d been doing quite well, but there was a dissent at the Court of Appeal and leave was granted. I argued that case in 1990 while I was 32 weeks pregnant with my younger son. It is still cited today on the issue of an insurer’s duty to defend its insured, which causes me equal parts of chagrin and pride when I see it.
I’m proud that I’m in my eighth consecutive three-year term as a Deputy Judge in the Hamilton Small Claims Court. I’ve served hundreds of self-represented litigants, assisting them in solving their disputes with neighbours, tradespersons and, sometimes, friends. I’m proud to be the face of the Canadian justice system for new Canadians who have come from places where the administration of justice is less impartial than it is here. Those litigants sometimes cry when they realize the case is being heard fairly. That’s very moving. I’m proud they trust me with their disputes.
I’m proud that I managed to make practicing law balance with the other parts of my life, so that my family’s needs, my clients’ needs and my needs were all properly met over a period of thirty years.
I’m flattered that my colleagues thought I’d make a good Bencher, and proud to be one.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
There are lots of challenges, both big and small. Some of the small ones are remaining unheard in meetings, being told you’re not available enough because you have children, being constantly asked ‘are you still working part-time’ when you’re putting in 40 hours or more a week at your home office.
Then there are big challenges: balancing life and law, running or overseeing a business (actually very different from practicing law), keeping everything organized, avoiding burnout.
There are, however, significant opportunities and rewards. Lots of people can identify problems; fewer people can solve problems. If you made it through law school and were called to the Bar, chances are you can solve problems. That’s a valuable skill in any setting. Which setting you choose is limited only by your imagination.
A law degree and a call to the Bar also open doors in the corporate (for profit, not for profit and charities) and political worlds, where you can drive social change for the better. People listen to lawyers.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Spend some years with a mentor/employer, even if your preference is sole practice. You need to learn the ropes before you go out on your own.
If you are going out on your own, develop a business plan. Work out how much it will cost you, per hour, to practice law. Divide your projected overhead by one-half of the hours you believe you’ll bill in your first five years, so that the projected cost per hour is higher than it otherwise would be. Make sure you are charging and collecting more than that for each hour you bill. It’s important to make sure you get paid and are making a profit. You can’t help others with their problems if you are consumed by your own.
Make friends with your colleagues. It’s important to have people to talk to who understand this mercurial career that somehow chose all of us. The advantage of being female is you can talk business, you can talk law and you can talk babies all in the 20 minutes before court starts without feeling any sense of incongruity.
Network, particularly with other women. Amplify other women every chance you get and ask that they do the same for you. Be a card-carrying member of the sisterhood and speak honestly to other women about why they need to be members too.
Look after your physical health, which is the easier part. Looking after your mental health is more difficult. Law is demanding and things will happen that will upset you, knock you off-balance, make you doubt yourself and make you doubt others. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back in there because, most times, people aren’t looking at you, they’re worrying about whether people are looking at them. If you come to a point where you just can’t face the day, get help right away. The M.A.P. is always there, and there are many publicly and privately funded options available to assist.
Thank you Janis for agreeing to participate in this series and for providing some valuable career advice.
ICYMI: Previous posts profiled May Cheng, Nicole Chrolavicius, Charlene Theodore, Dyanoosh Youssefi, Shannon Salter, Bindu Cudjoe, Elliot Spears, Jessica Prince, Anu K. Sandhu, Claire Hatcher, Esi Codjoe, Kate Dewhirst, Jennifer Taylor, Rebecca Durcan, Atrisha Lewis, Vandana Sood, Kathryn Manning, Kim Hawkins, Kyla Lee, and Eva Chan. Sign up to have these profiles sent directly to your email address and stay tuned for the next post soon!
I started this blog series because I was tired of hearing about women leaving law and wanted to hear about women leading in law. The "Women Leading in Law" series focuses on good news stories and highlights amazing women succeeding in the legal profession. Each post includes the profiled lawyer's answers to six questions. Prepare to be inspired! The series will continue until December 2018.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of FLEX LEGAL, a network of freelance lawyers.