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What does it mean to be an Influential Lawyer?

I am very proud to be included on Canadian Lawyer's Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers list. Lawyers are selected following a call for nominations from legal groups, readers and nominations from Canadian Lawyer writers and editors, a voting process and final selection by the Canadian Lawyer editorial board.

According to the editorial comments that accompany the list, I was recognized given my commitment and advocacy to access to justice issues, supporting pro bono legal services initiatives and my commitment to improving mental health in the legal profession. I suspect much of my recently found "influence" is a result of the book that I published regarding my personal challenges with mental health in the legal profession (available as an e-book or in print or on Kindle through Amazon). That book is a strange way to find influence as much of its contents arose from my own personal failure to control my life and my practice in a big law environment. One may argue that the truly influential people in my story are those who helped pull me and my legal practice back together again - my husband Brad Pender, my law clerk Wanda Michie, my family, my doctor, my therapist, the clients who stuck with me and lawyer Mike Van Dusen who gave me a quick, comfortable and affordable office to work and recover from.

I spent some time today thinking about what it means to be "influential". I was interviewed for the article that accompanied the Top 25 list several weeks ago and I think I summed up my views well then. I was quoted as follows:

Her mentor is the late David W. Scott, a renowned trial and appellate lawyer and a champion of access to justice who passed away in 2019 at 83.
“He was a very well known, influential lawyer. Anytime he had an opportunity to speak, he never made it about himself. He always used the opportunity to shine a light on a cause that was important to him. I try to follow in those footsteps,” she says. 

Being "influential" is not about bringing attention to yourself (one may question whether a truly influential person would even celebrate receiving such a recognition like this one). Being influential is about moving others to support causes that are important and to spark trends and improvements in society generally. I learned through watching those who I admire that you are far more influential by looking outward rather than gazing at your own navel.

While it is nice to be recognized with awards and on lists, true influence comes from our ability to lift up others and the causes that are important to us. So - allow me to take a moment while I have your attention to discuss some matters that are particularly important to me at the moment and recognize some people who have brought these matters to my attention.

First, sport in Canada is in a period of crisis. As a former competitive athlete, coach and now a lawyer who works in the sector, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly that can come out of sport. Others have written about this including the Executive Director of LEAF Pam Hrick. There are a significant number of media reports on a weekly basis about national and provincial sports associations undergoing various scandals and local news stories about lack of accountability, good governance and even fraud in youth sport. I continue to accept challenging mandates in sport during this difficult climate in an effort to make modest improvements within my area of influence and expertise. However, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to improve sport governance, safety and accountability throughout Canada. It is my strong belief that it is time for another judicial inquiry on sport in Canada - similar to the Dubin Inquiry which occurred following the 1988 Olympics. Shining the light on issues on a case-by-case basis is a never-ending and frustrating game of whack-a-mole. Systemic change is needed. Leadership needs to come from the top - the very top - including Sport Canada and the entire governance structure of amateur sport in this country. We all need to do better.

Second, we are approaching Canada's second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. I am proud of the work that Leslie Anne St. Amour has done and continues to do in volunteering her time to teach the legal profession about the importance of reconciliation and how we can all do better. Leslie Anne inspired us to create and publish a Reconciliation Action Plan. Leslie Anne also hosted a webinar on September 30, 2021 which raised over $8,000 for Aboriginal Legal Services. She has organized a similar event for September 30, 2022 that you can register for now. As September 30th approaches, we have much to think about this year and my heart, in particular, is currently with the people of the James Smith Cree Nation who remain captive and terrified in their own homes following one of the largest mass killings this country has ever seen. James Smith Cree Nation will need our help. I encourage you all to watch for the official trust fund that the First Nation is establishing and to contribute financially if you can. I will update this article to include a link to the trust fund when it is available.

Third, the media seems to have largely lost interest but there is still a war in Ukraine. Andrew Paterson is a retired Officer of the Canadian Armed Forces. We has worked pro bono for veterans and veteran organizations, including currently acting as pro bono legal counsel for Team Rubicon Canada. Andrew and I share an ongoing concern about the safety of our world, the people of Ukraine and the current members of the Canadian Armed Forces who are tasked with protecting our country in an increasingly dangerous world. Do not lose interest in this issue just because the media has.

Fourth, about 21 people die every day in Canada as a result of the opioid crisis. There has been a 96% increase in opioid related deaths since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, too many people see the opioid crisis as something that is not their problem. Drug users are stigmatized and families who lose a loved one to an overdose feel isolated and alone. Communities rally against safe consumption sites despite their proven impact of reducing drug-related fatalities. I could not be more proud of our articling student Sarah Del Villano who continues to work part-time at Canada's busiest safe consumption site right here in Ottawa while also articling, overcoming significant personal tragedy and raising a young family.

Finally, anyone who has known me and followed my rantings for any length of time knows that diversity and inclusion in the legal profession is an area of particular interest and concern - particularly within large law firms at the partnership and leadership levels. I admire so many people who are doing great work in this area and who are using their influence for good in well-established law firms and legal associations including Atrisha Lewis, Breanna Needham, Erin Pleet, Nikki Gershbain and Natalia Rodriguez to name a few. I also admire the lawyers who have chosen an even harder path - the path of building an equitable and inclusive law firm from the ground up. I used to believe that improvements to D&I in this profession would come from large law firms promoting a more and more diverse partnership as time went on. I know feel, rightly or wrongly, that if we all simply waited for that to happen, we would will all be dead and not much will have changed. However, change is happening - and from a source that I did not expect. Law firm founders like Jennifer Mathers McHenry, Gillian Hnatiw, Hilary Book, Bhuvana Rai, Faren Bogach, Quinn Ross, John Richardson and Amanda Hall, Leena Yousefi, Ellen Brohm, John McIntyre are building their own firms, competing for and winning great work and making a significant dent in both the client and legal talent market. There are diverse, inclusive and healthy places to practice law and do so at a high level. I am proud that Durant Barristers is part of that welcome and growing change.

My parting message for those who are still reading is this: take some time every week to briefly remove your eyes from the work on your desk and your personal ambitions. Find something that you are passionate about and do something about it. Be a bit of a troublemaker. A gamechanger. A pain in someone's rear end. Everyone has influence - you just have to learn how to use it.

Erin Durant

Founder Durant Barristers

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