The next post in my series "Women Leading in Law" profiles Kyla Lee, a west coast criminal defence lawyer who has developed a robust practice with an interesting niche area involving immediate roadside prohibition (IRP) cases.
On Twitter, Lisa Jean Helps recommended I profile Kyla and after a quick review of her website and accomplishments I knew she would be a great addition. Her candid and forthright answers to the questions confirmed my choice. From working her way through law school at five different jobs, to following her passion for criminal law, Kyla is definitely leading the way for the next generation of lawyers (p.s. make sure you don't miss her answer to the last question - there are some great nuggets of advice for new female lawyers).
1.Tell me a little about your practice or business.
I am a criminal defence lawyer in Vancouver, British Columbia. However, I take cases all across Canada. I’ve also defended clients in Alberta, Northwest Territory, and Ontario. My practice focuses primarily on impaired driving.
In British Columbia we have an administrative scheme for impaired driving enforcement. This means that cases are diverted out of the courts and dealt with at the roadside. People are punished on the basis of the results of a roadside breathalyser result. I think the scheme is inherently unfair, particularly because the law requires a person who is subject to the consequences of the prohibition to prove their innocence. There is no process to compel disclosure beyond a summary report and a prohibition on cross-examination. My practice is about 90% dealing with these administrative reviews.
The government used to allow us to access the records related to the lawyers who were arguing these cases, and their monthly success rates. For years I was the top in the province. They stopped releasing lawyers’ names now, so I can’t find out anymore. But my success rate in these cases is high.
Hearings for the Immediate Roadside Prohibitions, as they are called, are conducted by telephone with adjudicators from the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles. If the decision is unsuccessful, the person has the option of seeking judicial review of the decision. I suppose I have built a bit of a reputation in doing these judicial reviews, as my law school colleagues (and judges) often joke that they see my name on the majority of the cases in the field.
A lot of the criminal law that I practice is a complete amalgamation of criminal law conceptions and administrative law principles, with some Charter litigation that is being developed in a really interesting way in this field. It’s exciting to be on the cusp of a new area of law, and to have carved out a niche in this field. I have appeared in all levels of court in BC, including regular appearances in the BC Court of Appeal for these cases. I was also lead counsel on a matter at the Supreme Court of Canada. I was only 28 years old at the time, so it was a huge deal for me and probably one of the most exciting days of my life. I can’t wait to go back – and the best part about my field is that there is a strong chance that I will get to.
In December, I spent a week in Victoria at BC Supreme Court arguing about the constitutionality of the latest iteration of our roadside scheme. This is the second time I have argued a constitutional challenge to this area of law, and the third such challenge that I have been involved in on some level. When I was in law school, people would say that only a select few lawyers get to argue constitutional cases in their careers. I’ve done these ones, and besides that have argued other constitutional challenges in the criminal law context, so I’m really lucky to have these opportunities.
I’ve also been invited to the House of Commons to speak before the Committee on Justice and Human Rights as an expert witness for Bill C-46 and Bill C-51. That was an amazing opportunity and it was great to have my voice heard as a criminal defence lawyer, even though it looks like the laws are going to pass with none of the changes I suggested being made. Can’t win ‘em all.
I have travelled extensively throughout Canada and the United States to take specialized training. I am certified by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association in the Standardized Field Sobriety Tests, I’ve just completed by Drug Recognition Evaluation training, and I have received training from the manufacturer of roadside breathalysers for both operation and calibration of the devices. This allows me to meld science that goes into impaired driving investigations into my legal practice and gives me an edge in cross-examining witnesses or picking apart a file.
I had a trial recently where I was using the manual for the breathalyser in my cross-examination. I reproduced a copy for the Crown and the judge. At the break, Crown counsel thanked me for giving her a copy. I laughed and told her that it was available in the law library, but I wanted to give her some light bedtime reading before the continuation. She said “Kyla, I’m never going to do that.” I told her that I had read it several times, and found it fascinating. Her response was “Of course you have.” And that’s generally what I get for my work. But it pays off – knowing the manuals and the science inside and out means that anytime the witness slips up a bit in their description or their operation of the instrument I can use that to the advantage of my client. It’s worth it.
In addition to criminal impaired driving offences, I also handle any regulatory offence related to motor vehicles. Yes, I am a traffic ticket lawyer. But it’s actually a really interesting area of law. I get to meet police officers who ultimately end up testifying in other matters, and it gives me a good sense of their performance as witnesses by testing them in traffic court before the stakes are much higher. Again, the science behind speed measurement is something that really intrigues me and that I add into my practice in this regard.
2.Why did you go to law school?
I was born to be a lawyer. My mother jokes – because I was premature and she had to be put on medication to prevent labour way too early in the pregnancy – that I came out of the womb arguing and I’ll go into the grave that way too. If I die premature, it will be my argumentative nature that causes it for sure. In my undergraduate studies, I would argue in a class debate on whatever topic, and my professors would say “Gosh, why don’t you just go to law school.” And I told them that was my plan.
In kindergarten and elementary school, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I had panic attacks in the fifth grade because I got 99/100 on a math test, and I thought I would not get into law school with a grade like that. I’ve mellowed out since then, but the desire to become a lawyer never stopped. For me, there was no other option.
I became quite disillusioned in law school. There were lots of people who were either just like me (which I could not stand) or people who were there because they did not know what else to do. I was angry that they were competing with me for my dream.
The law school tried to steer us toward big firm, corporate culture in law school. I found that depressing, and I was worried that being a lawyer wouldn’t involve the litigation and legal argument and cross-examination that I dreamed of. I like the autonomy I have in my position in choosing my own files, coming up with a good idea, getting the chance to run my argument instead of watching someone else do it.
I wrote a series of blogs about my experience at law school and how disappointed I was that the law school did not provide assistance to those of us who were looking for something other than big firm life. I’m told that, in part due to my blogs, the law school now has dedicated staff who assist students in finding more than just corporate law jobs.
3.How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
Because of my experience in law school, I got where I was by my own work.
I had to pay for everything myself in school. I hate being in debt, so despite taking student loans and having a student line of credit, I also worked. I had five jobs in my second and third years of law school. So it was a lot of juggling work and class and social time in order to make it all fit. But I was able to graduate with a very minimal (comparatively) amount of debt.
That had its toll, though. My grades were average, and so I did not get any interviews at any of the high-paying firms. There may have been some good fortune in that, though, as I probably would have hated that environment and it pushed me to work really hard to find a job in the field I wanted: criminal law.
I got the H1N1 flu while in second year. I was under quarantine with nothing else to do but cough up a lung and work on my resume. I sent out resumes and cover letters to probably every criminal law firm in the Lower Mainland. When Paul Doroshenko called me for an interview, I was relieved. I think my employment here was really meant to be. At that time, he didn’t know the IRP legislation was coming, and he was just looking for a summer student to help with appearances. When IRPs were announced, he needed more help and I ended up staying at the firm working part-time during third year. I also articled here and began my career here.
I worked hard though. I’ve argued difficult cases and I’ve lost some tough battles at the Court of Appeal and BC Supreme Court. Some cases have been easier than others, but none of them have been easy. I work seven days a week, and am on-call twenty four hours a day. I answer the phone in the middle of the night to give legal advice most nights. And then I get up and put in eight to ten hours at the office or between court and the office. I work weekends. I don’t take vacation. But I love what I do and I’m happy to do it. I love coming to work and opening a file or reading a new set of particulars each time.
4.What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
I’m really happy with how I’ve been able to carve out a space for myself, in my little field of law. It’s nice to be known for something, even if it’s the type of thing that gets me Twitter messages and late-night phone calls wishing that I get killed by a drunk driver in some sick twist of karma. And despite the critics (who clearly don’t understand due process, or the right to counsel, or basic decency) I’m proud that I’m able to help people that society really shuns and demonizes. When I defend someone accused of impaired driving I’m not just defending a client, but also our system of law and our Charter rights. Each of my cases is important to me for those reasons, and I’m proud to shoulder that responsibility.
5.What are some key challenges and opportunities for women in law?
We have some really great opportunities as women because people are becoming more aware of how entrenched sexism has been. I think we are getting closer to shattering the glass ceiling. And with role models in the legal field like former Chief Justice McLachlin, or (as much as I disagree with her) Jody Wilson-Raybould, it’s a good time to be a woman. There are many people to look up to these days, and when I look around I see more women who are succeeding and being recognized for their success.
The challenges, though, are about as substantial. There’s a lot of sexism. I’m really thankful that I’ve been sheltered from most of it because Paul is a huge feminist, and because he is the least sexist person I know. He will hang up on a client if they request not to have a female lawyer. We just don’t work that way in our office. And he’s never denied me any opportunity as a result of my gender.
Where I experience it most is from the opposition. I’ve dealt with a lot of sexism from opposing counsel or just men in courtrooms. Most of the time it works to my advantage, as men tend to underestimate me. They will think I am going to wilt and shut up if they speak over me. But my nature is just to speak louder instead. Or they assume I’m not as skilled in cross-examination or in conducting a trial, and that’s never worked out as they planned.
I could type stories about this for hours, like the opposing counsel who said “yes mom” to me multiple times, in front of a female articled student that I was mentoring. But that’s the obvious stuff. What’s the biggest obstacle, I find, is the not-obvious sexism. Like men who interrupt what I am saying, whether it’s in submissions or in cross-examination, or in discussion outside court. And the challenge too of having to politely deal with that – when all you really want to do is yell “WOULD YOU STOP F-ING INTERRUPTING ME!” Am I allowed to swear here?
I don’t have children, and I won’t ever, so the whole work/family balance isn’t an issue for me. But I expect it is for a lot of women.
6.What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Don’t let the pricks get you down. Law is tough, and it’s about being tough. Men are going to be rude to you. Men are going to hit on you. Men are going to interrupt you – all the time. And so are women. Women are sometimes worse to other women than the men are. So you can feel a bit like an island at times – particularly if you are working in a small firm or as a sole practitioner.
Find other women who are successful in your field and talk to them. Most of us are super nice and what you might initially perceive as coldness is probably just someone having to be tough to get past the bullshit, or someone who is really busy. Or in my case, both. And, if there are no women who are successful in your field that are willing to talk to you, talk to me. And other women that have been featured on this blog and who blog themselves.
Get a Twitter account. It’s a great place to interact with other lawyers and find people who are like you. And there are dozens of successful, smart, funny women lawyers on Twitter to look up to, to direct message, and to call for help when you have a tough question. Don’t be afraid to ask other lawyers for help. We’re not in law school any more, so the competition over the answers has evaporated. Just this past week I had a real doozy of a problem with a Court of Appeal file, and I went through half the contacts in my phone running it by people and asking their advice. No one said they wouldn’t help me, and no one wasn’t willing to spend time researching it on their own.
Your best resource as a lawyer is the people you know. When you’re in court, you’re going to run into strange situations you could never have imagined. The people you know in the courthouse and beyond will help you find the answer. It may feel awkward, but always exchange cards with other lawyers and keep theirs. I’ve gotten myself out of so many jams by calling up someone I spoke with for fifteen minutes at the courthouse and asking them their opinion on a strange issue, or to cover an appearance when I’m running late.
People are willing to help you succeed. And they’ll come to you for help too. Help them. Remember, we are all in this together. Each file is not just about our clients but about our contribution to the justice system. When you help other lawyers, and when you seek out their help, you are helping the justice system. It’s a really beautiful thing, and an important part of what we do.
Thank you Kyla for agreeing to participate in this series. You can learn more about Kyla and her practice here.
Sign-up to receive these profiles directly to your email and stay tuned for the next profile in the series: Kim Hawkins, the Executive Director of Rise Women's Legal Centre, a non-profit organization that operates a feminist legal clinic providing advice and representation to low-income women in British Columbia.
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!
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.