Today's profile features Kimberly Whaley, founding partner of Whaley Estate Litigation Partners. Kim is a force to be reckoned with in the areas of estates & elder law! Read on for Kim's story and her helpful and practical advice on how to build your own law practice:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
In or about 2001, I joined an all-women LLP where I ran my own practice and later in or about 2004, started my own firm, in both instances, specializing in Will, Estate, and Trust Disputes; Fiduciary Litigation; Dependants’ Support Claims; Fiduciary Accounting litigation; Capacity Proceedings; Guardianships; Power of Attorney Disputes; Consent and Capacity Board Tribunal Matters; End-of-Life Decisions & Medical Assistance in Dying; Elder Law; Elder Financial Abuse; Solicitor’s Negligence; and, related wealth succession litigation and appeals. I also run a mediation practice restricted to these specialized areas.
I have had the good fortune of having had my practice recognized by the Canadian Lawyer, Top 5 & Top 10 Estates and Trusts Boutique in Canada since 2014, and numerous recognitions by peers including in, Global Law Experts, Best Lawyers, Law Day, Lexpert, Who’s Who, Chambers and Partners Canada, National Law Journal’s List of Divorce, Trusts and Estates Trailblazers, Canadian Lawyer, Corporate International Magazine Global Awards and Martindale-Hubbell. I am a certified specialist (CS) in trusts & estates law by the LSO, and a qualified TEP (trusts and estates practitioner) with STEP worldwide, an academician with the International Academy of Estates & Trusts Law, and a distinguished fellow of the Canadian Center for Elder Law.
As a woman lawyer, a single mom, and having being legally trained in England, I faced a few challenges in starting my Ontario legal career in 1998. Balancing being a lawyer, business owner and mom took some effort. For example, I recall, the conundrum of having to deliver my child to school on time, yet, having to be at an 8:30 am court in chambers appointment at the same time, this of course, took routine juggling - preferring of course to be at court meant taking my child to court and delivering her to school afterwards……Late! And, on another occasion, hoping that as she sat in the front row on Christmas Eve day at 361 University as I argued a motion that she did not leave, or talk to me, or for that matter anyone else! If only these were the extent of my struggles, maybe they are just the fondest memory struggles!
2. Why did you go to law school?
Cliché as it may sound, I went to law school to give a voice to those unable to advocate for themselves. A strong sense of right and wrong prevailed in my inner psyche, and, incensed by my own perceptions of the wrongs, wanted a career opportunity to permit me the ability to right some of these wrongs, not standing idly by waiting for someone else to do the fixing. I liked education. My favorite year of schooling was the year I completed my Masters of Law in International Human Rights Law. I had the good fortune of an extraordinary academic mentor who challenged me and pushed me and who has reached great achievements in his own life and careers: Sir Malcolm Evans (Professor). I had an amazing, rewarding experience that taught me to think, and explore. I am not going to sugar-coat this, I really wanted to work in the Hague-still do! Nevertheless, the journey takes us in many directions with many avenues of exploration, and where I am now in the journey still fulfills my reasons and rationale for having gone to law school in the first place.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
I am where I am through chance and circumstance, not necessarily by design. I was born and raised in Canada. However, after graduating from Western I worked for a year in Toronto for the Royal Bank after being fired from the family business that I worked in from age 5 (yes age 5!), albeit I never ever wanted to work in it - so finally 16 years later…success, I was fired! I then moved to England to attend Law School, did an LLM, and worked at Allen & Overy and then Beale & Company. I was a construction litigator and with an affection for architecture, enjoyed my professional career. It was not an original choice, but an opportunity I was given and I chose to pursue it.
After 10 years in England, I moved back to Canada to restart my legal career including doing abridged articles and attending the Law Society’s Bar Admission Course, writing four full law school courses & exams by self-study and working in the corporate department at Borden & Elliott, all the while becoming unexpectedly very pregnant with my now aged 21 beautiful daughter, Sammi.
I was unsure of my plan….maybe to pick up my career as a construction litigator….though BLG was gracious enough at the time to offer me a job in their then busiest department -Mutual Funds! The thing about “plans” is that they do not always work out the way you expect. I sought advice from senior lawyers about what areas of litigation were (a) growing; and, (b) underserviced. I was looking for a way that I could build upon my business skills and practice law. The area of Estate Litigation kept coming up, so I started to investigate opportunities in that field. After spending a few years at two boutique firms learning all I could about estate litigation, I rather foolishly, started my own firm in or about 2004. I started out with my amazing Bibi Minoo - my estate clerk who was with me at then, Dickson MacGregor Appell and has been with me for virtually my entire estates career, and one associate lawyer in a tiny little office!
We have now grown (we grow and we contract) to include me (just a girl I always say!), and 12 professionals, 5 litigation clerks, an office manager, office coordinator, in-take coordinator, a team of IT support, a book keeper and a marketing web/blog manager as well as others from time to time…My first associate left me and is legal counsel at the Ontario Court of Appeal - I forgive her though! I enjoy mentoring my team. We moved offices in November 2013, growing from 1500 square feet to 6000 square feet….with an astounding increase in rent and consequently, in the occurrence of night terrors!
There have been both rewards and challenges in growing my practice, but I wouldn’t change a thing…well, that I would admit to anyway!
The most rewarding for me personally, is the mentoring and teaching and watching young lawyers grow, learn, and come into their own. It might sound cheesy, but I love watching the transition to independence and confidence. My daily goal is efficiency and to maintain and improve on a comfortable and nurturing work place, a place to thrive and grow and learn…. Once I achieve this, if ever, hopefully I can resign to someone who will accept my resignation!
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
My most significant achievement is actually my beautiful, clever, talented daughter, Sam. Being a mom has truly been my most rewarding job, passion, and hobby all in one. I am more proud of her than anything else in my life and I am privileged she still lets me hang out with her!
I have loved teaching legal courses at Queen’s University, the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall and last year, taught the inaugural Estate Litigation Course at Western University.
Most persistently however, I love being an avid and passionate advocate for the rights and protections of the elderly. Intent on educating the public at large, government advisors and officials, community groups including medical professionals, the Police, financial sector professionals, government, ministers, and other community-based groups on the many criminal and civil abuses of the elderly. Currently I am involved in advocating for seniors during the COVID-19 issues facing seniors in long term care and like facilities. I feel honored to have been the Civilian Co-chair of the Toronto Police Seniors Community Consultative Committee (TPS SCCC) since its inaugural year in 2017. This advisory committee is a liaison group that consults with the Chief of Police on issues of abuse affecting older and vulnerable persons and uniquely trains and educates both the Toronto Police and Ontario Police on issues of elder abuse.
I have presented in every province in Canada (this is how I have seen our country), more than once on issues of elder law and elder abuse and developed my own webinar series on capacity. I have presented at international conferences on ageing throughout the Unites States, in Turkey, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
I consult regularly within stakeholder groups including the Seniors’ Roundtable Ontario Securities Commission, Seniors Expert Advisory Committee (SEAC), the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly (NICE), the International Federation of Ageing (IFA), the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly (ACE), banking institutions, the Baycrest Foundation where I was made an honourable member. I blog, tweet, am active on social media and have a newsletter, released monthly for over 10 years now.
I have enjoyed being a long-time volunteer both active in the community, within the Ontario Bar Association, and Canadian Bar Association, Law Society of Ontario. I am past chair of OBA Elder Law Executive, which I co-founded 3 short years ago, and am an honourable member of the CBA Elder Law Executive. I have been involved in various boards and executives including the editorial board for the Ontario Bar Association JUST Magazine, and awards committee as well as others including past chair of the trusts & estates executive.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
Opportunities are all around us, focusing on opportunity as opposed to challenges, restrictions and limitations will give you the freedom to grow and thrive beyond such challenges to heights you never imagined.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
i) Know Your Stuff – Be a Technically Strong Lawyer: At the same time as you build your practice, you need to continue to build your knowledge of the law. NEVER stop learning, you can never know it all! Establish a list of willing mentors that you can ask questions of and bounce ideas off. Thank your mentors: chocolate…wine….whatever it is…be kind and take time to thank! Be human! Don’t take too much and make sure you give back! Once you’ve learned how to be a great lawyer, learn to be an excellent experienced lawyer. Become a subject matter expert, the “go-to” person on a particular topic, or niche area of law. As you develop your expertise you will develop your “personal brand”.
ii) Network - Show Up and Be Seen: Some people hate it, some thrive on it, but it is unlikely that you will build any sort of business or practice without some sort of networking. You need to find a way to network that works for your personality and is enjoyable for you. Otherwise, you won’t do it, and it won’t work. Get out there and be yourself. The key point is to find something that works for you: be authentic.
iii) Speak and Write: Part and parcel with networking and building your profile, are speaking and writing. I can’t understate the power of having your name out there attached to publications and speaking engagements. It builds profile. Get involved in the organizations that you belong to, if you can, and let others know that you are interested in speaking engagements. And always be authentic, write or speak about what interests you about your practice.
iv) Keep the Referrals Coming: Maintain, work on, and develop relationships that are worth keeping. Every relationship requires effort. First: do excellent work. No one will refer another file to you if you don’t. Second: say thank you. Whenever anyone refers work to you, make sure you show your appreciation. Also, support your relationships with referrals back where appropriate.
v) Look After Yourself: You can build the best practice in the world but if you aren’t healthy - both physically and mentally - enough to run it, it’s not going to be much good to you, or those you work with. You can’t build a practice if you are sick, depressed, or worse….dead. Take your vacations, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, spend time with your children, your family and friends. Learn to say “no”. Learn when to delegate.
Finally, DONT panic!!!!! ….like I do every day to this day- this is good advice but I have not mastered how to follow it yet……if you don’t get work right away from all that you do– keep planting the seeds. The people you are reaching out to may not need you right away - but by building your profile, reputation, and competency – one day!!!
Thank you Kim for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions. I am sure many lawyers will benefit from your advice on how to build a law practice.
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!
ICYMI - previous posts profiled the following amazing lawyers: Alisia Grenville, Frances Wood, Maggie Wente, Anita Szigeti, Neha Chugh, Christy Allen & Nancy Houle, Suzie Seo, Kim Gale, Alexi Wood, Melissa McBain, Erin Best, Gillian Hnatiw, Melanie Sharman Rowand, Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Lisa Jean Helps, Nathalie Godbout Q.C., Laurie Livingstone, Renatta Austin, Janis Criger, 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.
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.