Articling student, Leah Coombs, reached out to suggest I profile lawyer Sarah Leamon in this series. Leah wrote: "I am inspired by her success as I am inspired by many of the women you have featured on this blog." Read on for Sarah's story:
1. Tell me a little about your practice or business.
Sarah Leamon Law Group is a boutique law firm located in downtown Vancouver. We focus on criminal defence, administrative driving issues and family law. We are women-led and LGBT2Q inclusive. We handle sensitive, high-profile and complex cases.
We strive to increase access to justice by offering cost effective, straight-forward services. We operate from a client-based perspective and provide personalized, one-on-one client care. We accept private retainers as well as legal aid files so that we can offer the same level of service for people, regardless of their financial status.
We also foster a positive, relaxed office environment for those who work with us. We work as a team, which means that we help each other and support each other when needed. With myself, one associate, an assistant and two articled students, we know that mentorship is vitally important to our individual success and to the collective success of our team.
2. Why did you go to law school?
At the beginning of my post-secondary career, I really had no ambitions of going to law school. I actually remember enrolling in my first-year undergraduate classes and confidently declaring that although I wasn’t sure what I ultimately wanted to do, I knew I didn’t want to do law.
Fast forward five years and I was on my way to law school.
I can’t really pin point what changed, but after completing two undergraduate degrees, I felt that law school was the natural next step in my academic career. I was angling towards a lifetime in academia so I wasn’t sure if I would ever actually practice law, but I figured that it was a good degree to have in my back pocket.
By my second semester of law school, though, I was all in. I came to the realization that a career in law actually could be exciting. I developed a keen interest in criminal law. I took every criminal law course available. I loved the way that it intersected with other issues that I was passionate about. To my surprise, I became totally committed to the goal of pursuing a career in criminal defence.
Looking back, I can’t really identify one driving force in my decision to go to law school but my parents focus on education throughout my life played a major factor in landing me there. I always say that my father told me to go to law school, but the truth is that both of my parents encouraged me along this path…and I am happy they did.
3. How did you get to where you are today? Design? Chance? Both?
It would be foolish for me to think that I’ve arrived where I am today by either chance or design – it’s definitely been a combination of both.
I certainly had many advantages growing up, including a relatively privileged socio-economic status and my parents emphasis on education, which I am thankful for. But I have always been competitive, ambitious and driven to succeed, so I think that those qualities have shaped my career and where I am today.
I also believe that the people you meet and allow into your life have a big impact on where you end up. Some people are put into your life at a particular time to push you in one direction or another, some are there to test you or to teach you a lesson, some to inspire and others to guide. I have certainly had my fair share of mentors, mentees, adversaries and friends along the way. Each one of them has shaped my path. I am grateful to them all for inspiring me and for challenging me. Without them, I wouldn’t have taken the risks that I did - and I certainly wouldn’t have opened my own office, that’s for sure!
4. What is your most significant achievement? What are you proud of?
I have been very fortunate to enjoy a number of achievements in my career thus far. The most obvious is the work that I do for my clients. I often deal with clients who are facing complex mental health and substance abuse issues. I approach them and their cases from a non-judgemental, rehabilitative and collaborative perspective. It is rewarding to see the long-lasting, life-changing difference that this can make for them. I have also had the opportunity to work on some exceptionally interesting cases. For example, working on the United States of America v. Wanzhou Meng case in December, 2018. This was an exceptional experience that stand out to me, among others.
In addition to the work that I do for my clients, though, I am very proud of the fact that I was personally invited to appear before the House of Commons to provide a legal opinion about proposed amendments to the Criminal Code. When I received the e-mail invitation, I couldn’t believe it. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would be sought out and selected to give opinion on something so important in such an important forum. I was so nervous and I prepared myself endlessly for the appearance…but I must have done a good job because I was invited back to the House on three other occasions and once to the Senate!
But that aside, I think that my most significant achievement to date has been successfully opening and operating my own law firm. Opening my own firm was not an easy decision for me. Ultimately, though, it was something that I had to do. There were many who doubted me and told me that I couldn’t do it on my own – but I did! I overcame a number of unexpected hurdles and obstacles very early on - immediately before and soon after opening - and as of today, my firm is not just surviving…it’s thriving, and I couldn’t be happier!
It also helps that my decision to open my own office was validated very early on. Only a few months after opening our doors, I won Business in Vancouver’s prestigious Forty Under 40 award. I never imaged that I would be recognized with such an award, but needless to say I was thrilled. It really reaffirmed my decision to branch out on my own and taught me not to second guess myself. It gave me the confidence that I needed to trust myself and follow my instincts.
5. What are some key challenges, and more importantly, opportunities for women in law?
As we know, the retention rate for women in criminal law – and particularly on the defence side of things – is dismal. I think that there are a number of challenges that are unique to women in this area, including the archaic public perception of what a criminal defence lawyer “looks like.” While this is changing thanks to some powerful key players in our community, it’s slow going – and that can be very frustrating for those of us who rely on client intake in order to make a living.
Unfortunately, systematic discrimination and sexism is alive and well in nearly all corners of our society. The practice of law is no exception. Female-bodied lawyers are subject to increased criticism and scrutiny. They do not receive the benefit of assumed competence that many of their male counterparts do. As for myself, I have experienced sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination at various points in my career, and I am hard pressed to think of a single female-bodied colleague who has not.
I think the upside of this (if any) is that, in today’s political climate, many of us are no longer turning a blind eye to it or tolerating it. Things like the #metoo movement have given women the power and confidence to speak out and share their experiences with sexism, which is a necessary step on the path to real change.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are countless opportunities available to women in law today. For example, groups and organizations for female lawyers have popped up in nearly every jurisdiction across the country. These can offer excellent opportunities for support, mentorship and the development of practical skills. I founded the Women’s Association of Criminal Lawyers B.C. in 2017, because I am passionate about creating opportunities for women in criminal law through this organization. I believe in opportunity through inclusion. Women are strongest together and by lifting each other, we lift ourselves.
6. What advice would you give a woman starting her legal career?
Volunteer. Give back to your community. Align yourself with strong women, both inside the legal profession and outside. Don’t take no for an answer. If you fail, try again. Don’t give up. Respect yourself and know your worth. And – of course - don’t take no crap from nobody.
Thank you Sarah for your advice and letting us have a glimpse into your legal career.
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: Robin Parker, Lorin MacDonald, Karen Yamamoto, Victoria Crewe-Nelson, Lynne Vicars, Kemi Oduwole, Anne-Marie McElroy, Jennifer Gold, Jordana Goldlist, Megan Keenberg, Yadesha Satheaswaran, France Mahon, Sarah Molyneaux, Richa Sandill, Vivene Salmon, Kim Whaley, 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.