Human Rights & Discrimination Lawyer

Law & Law Enforcement

Human Rights and Discrimination Lawyer



Q: Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated college?


A: I’m a lawyer, I work for a government agency called the Human Rights Legal Support Center, and I graduated in 2012, so that would be six years ago.

Q: Can you provide a very brief description of your primary job functions?


A: Uh, it’s a mix, I mean I work on human rights files from beginning to end. So the beginning of a file is a paper application, so I might draft that, and the middle of the file is the mediation, so I would attend the mediation with the client, the end of the file is the hearing, so I would prepare submissions for that hearing, attend the hearing, do submissions both written and orally.


Q: Can you provide a rough estimate, in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing? Would you say zero to 25 percent, 25 to 50 percent, 50 to 75 percent, or 75 to 100 percent?


A: I’d say 50 to 75.


Q: What forms or types of writing or kinds of documents are you most often writing for your job?


A: It’s probably 50 percent emails, and 50 percent written submissions on behalf of clients.


Q: Good. And so who would be your primary audiences for those kinds of documents?


A: Emails are either clients or lawyers, so other lawyers on the file, or sometimes if a party’s self represented, it’s self represented party. And then the submissions, the audience is the tribunal, so that’s a single adjudicator who’s appointed to the human rights tribunal.


Q: Okay. Can you talk a little bit about the primary purposes for perhaps your emails that you’d be writing?


A: Yeah, they really range [chuckle]. Some of them are just pure logistics, like, figuring out a phone call, or confirming a client’s instructions. I would say a lot of them are communicating advice that I gave orally or even that I didn’t give orally, I’m just doing it for the first time in writing, so that I can give the clients instructions on how to proceed.


Q: Okay. And then the other more formal court documents, their purposes would be?


A: To try to win an argument [laughter]. So, yeah, whatever that argument is.


Q: Could you perhaps walk us through the process of a specific recent project or type of project, specifically thinking about like how an assignment or task is given to you, what your preparation is like, the steps you take from the time it’s assigned to you through its completion?


A: Yep. I’ll do this submissions because I think that’s probably the best example. There– let me think about this. Sometimes there are deadlines that are imposed by the tribunal, especially if I’m responding to a submission that’s been made by the other side. So in terms of preparation, you know, I get the deadline from the tribunal, I have a certain amount of time, probably about two weeks, to prepare. Sometimes it’s our initiative, and so that’s me sort of sitting down and brainstorming on a file, and figuring out that we need to file something in writing in order to achieve a certain goal. So that’s a lot more flexible, that would be me taking the time to actually think through what I have to do on the file, and then figuring out whether I have an example of that kind of submission already sitting on my desktop. And I would do that in both cases, actually, look for a precedent first, and if I have that precedent, I use it as a rubric for especially the law, I would study the same cases and use some of the same framework. If I had to start from scratch, I would look at cases and figure out how this has gone in similar cases, and then use that background to inform what I do next. And in terms of how I would actually sit down and write it, once I felt like I had enough input to create the output, I would normally just hammer it out. Like I would sit down for an hour or two hours and maybe put headphones on, and create a draft that I would then send to the client to approve, probably go back and forth once or twice with some edits, and then PDF it and file it.


Q: Okay, great. So you talked just there about edits – how frequently in the process is someone reviewing this work and, if it’s an external reviewer, what are they doing to try to help make the writing or the quality of the document better?


A: Yeah, I would say 90 percent of the time it’s a client reviewing it, so their way of making the document better is either correcting me if I’ve gotten a fact wrong, or adding in their perspective on how they want to argue it. You know, normally I have to tell you I don’t accept them, I’m like, “Well I’m the lawyer, I know how to argue it,” so that kind of edit doesn’t make its way through. Sometimes if I’m co-counselling with a lawyer on a file, they’ll review my draft as well. Those edits I think are kind of two categories. One is just for quality, so you know, grammatical or conciseness, or making a point a bit more clearly. And then there is a lot of difference I find depending on the lawyer you’re working with in the style that they write in, so I’m not particularly formal or lengthy in the way that I write, I just state the facts and leave it. But I do work with lawyers who want a bit more formal lawyer language in their documents, and so they’ll edit to add that.


Q: So how did you know how to do these kinds of writing?


A: You take a class in law school called legal research and writing, so they fold the research in with that too. It’s one semester, it’s not that practical I’ll say. And I developed most of the skills on the job. I also did mock trials in law school, and those I found useful, because you’re asked to create draft arguments, and those are reviewed by professionals who are actually practicing, so they start to give you a sense of style. And I would say when I was articling, I got really harshly edited because you’re trying to translate– at least for me, I did academic writing in undergrad, and then you go to law school and you sort of learn what you’re doing, but then you’re out in the world and it’s a really different style of writing. It’s point first, so you don’t take your time to get to the point, you say the point up front, and then explain why your point’s right. And it’s extremely direct, like there’s no dressing on the sentences [chuckle], so you know, the students who are overthinking everything have it just torn apart by the lawyers. So that was definitely a learning experience.


Q: Great. And so you had said that the class wasn’t particularly practical for you. What do you think was like the biggest gap between the way the class presented the writing and then how you experienced it in the real world?


A: Um, I mean the principles were there in the class, like when I look back, they were trying to teach us how to do it properly, I think it was just a lack of practice. And that we were still, like law school the way I did it was still extremely academic. So you’re still reading academic language, you’re still steeped in that in terms of the rest of the curriculum. So you’re just not I don’t think getting enough exposure or practice doing it in the way that you end up having to do it later on.


Q: So can you describe a time in your career that you maybe felt unprepared as a writer in your job?


A: That’s a good question. Let me think.


Q: Is there a particular task or a skill that your job asked you to do that you maybe hadn’t done before?


A: Yeah. I think, I mean sort of I can see the way I’ve built things up. I’ll give you a couple of examples. One is, we draft applications for people who are explaining the kind of discrimination they experienced, and I know the first few times I had to do that I felt like I didn’t really understand how to do that because I didn’t know whether to put it in the first person, first of all. And I also didn’t know whether to make it just about the facts, or to bring in the law. And you know, I’ve since learned how to do that, and how to do it in a style that suits me. But that I think I just, yeah, took some stabs at it, and then eventually read other versions of it to figure out what to do. I also once had to write a factum, which is not what I currently do, but another kind of law that I practiced before, and that was overwhelming because it’s a lot more formal structurally. So you have to put things in a certain font size, create certain margins, cite things extremely precisely, and if you don’t do that, you’ll have it actually rejected when you go to file it. So I definitely felt like I didn’t know what I was doing there and had to look at other examples to figure it out.

Q: Would you say that’s your primary method of kind of overcoming these challenges, is looking at other examples? Or do you have other means of like, if you feel a challenge at work, do you have other avenues of helping you overcome those challenges?


A: Yeah, so looking at other examples, talking to colleagues about you know, specific questions that I might have, and then trial and error [chuckle] I’d say is the other one. You know, sometimes you try something out, and, what I do currently is flexible enough that you’re not going to fail if you do it wrong, you’re just going to learn from the experience and do it better next time.


Q: So, aside, you know you’ve talked about clients of course looking over your writing and also co-counsel and stuff like that, do you have anybody you consider a supervisor that oversees your writing at any point?


A: Not currently. I used to, but not [10:46 inaudible].


Q: Sure, okay. You’ve touched on this a little bit, how long typically do you have to complete a writing project from assignment to completion?


A: Uh, between I would say one week and a month, depending on the project.


Q: Okay. We’ve hit on some of this, and this can even go beyond law school, maybe even into undergraduate writing, but we’re talking about more general writing here as well – what kinds of writing do you remember being asked to do as a student, and do you think that your college writing experiences gave you kind of any preparation for the way that you write now in your workplace?


A: Yep. Stages of writing that I would have done to get me where I am. The first would be undergrad, and I remember that being essays or reflective pieces, and research-based, academically-based, theory-based kind of work. I don’t necessarily [laughter] think that really helped me where I am today, maybe helped me with like reading comprehension in some of the things that I do now, but I’m so far away from theory with what I do that that I don’t see how I really incorporate it now, I guess other than basic grammar and learning how to write coherently. And then in law school, I still was doing mostly academic writing, with that exception of the course and the mock trials. And that, I guess sort of started to transition me into a much more direct writing style, but I know that in the third stage, when I was articling, I still had a lot of work to do in the sense that– then I was being asked to do submissions, so I was being asked to do two things, submissions and research. And it was still probably 75 percent research, 25 percent submissions. So I got enough practice to get okay at submissions, but the– and actually the research teaches you how to write succinctly too, because then you’re writing for the audience of another lawyer, and you’re trying to condense all the research you did into something usable for them, so it has to be something they can plug into the submissions that they’re writing. So I guess that sort of transition learning, in the sense that you still had to dive into a lot of ideas, and express those ideas clearly, but not in a flowery, academic way. It had to be really direct.


Q: What do you think would have been most useful for you learn as a student that would’ve maybe prepared you better for the kind of writing you do now?


A: I think just don’t overdo it [laughter]. Stories can be– everything can be simplified. Principles can be simplified, stories can be simplified. There’s no extra added value in added words, and that that’s okay. I think I thought for a while that using the bigger word made it better writing, but I definitely learned that that wasn’t true.


Q: So I want to talk a little bit about what’s at stake in your writing, some of it maybe is obvious. But what are the stakes of your writing? What are consequences for really good or maybe not so good writing in your profession?


A: Yeah. Sometimes the stakes are pretty high. So especially those emails to clients, when I’m putting my advice in writing, I have to be really careful with making sure it’s accurate, and also making sure it’s comprehensible to the client. And so if either of those – I mean the accuracy is the key one – but if the comprehensibility is not there, I’m just making work for myself in having to then schedule a phone call and walk through the concept and not– I need to create sort of a record of what’s gone on on a file too, and that record isn’t as good if the writing isn’t clear enough for the client to understand it. And then the stakes for the, I mean the stakes for the submissions are, if it’s not convincing enough, then you don’t succeed in your argument I suppose. And I also think if it’s sloppy, that creates an impression on the adjudicator of your skill and your expertise and can influence the outcome as well. And especially if it’s confusing, I find that when I read arguments that are confusing I find them much less convincing. And so the clearer it is and the better presented it is, I think the more likely you are to succeed.


Q: So it’s interesting, it sounds like, you know, you’re writing in that, since it’s maybe the first impression that some of people are going to get of you as a lawyer, you know, you kind of want that presentation. Is there a certain, I don’t know, trait that you want to be present or visible in your writing for say, adjudicators or your clients or anybody reading your work?


A: Yeah, that’s a good question. I want them to read it and have it immediately make sense. So that, and I’ve read good writing on both sides. So sometimes I read the other side’s submissions and I’m like, “Oh shoot! That makes perfect sense to me and I’m trying to advocate against that.” So you should read it and immediately buy into what’s being said so that it’s hard to challenge that perspective, or for the other side to get under the skin of it, because it’s so obvious in the way that it’s written that it must be true or the right approach.


Q: What would you say the most difficult thing about writing in your field is?


A: Condensing large amounts of information into short, persuasive sentences.

Q: Has anyone helped you formally or informally with your writing since you’ve left school?


A: Yep, I mean I had the articling year when, that was a mentoring relationship. Other than that, it would just be feedback that I get from co-counsel. Generally, if they’re giving me feedback, they’re more senior, so that would be informal, but I would still try and learn and adopt from it.


Q: You’ve talked a little bit about that ability to kind of be succinct, so if this is redundant you can say so, but if there’s any other ways in which this question applies, feel free. So how do you think you’ve most evolved or improved as a writer so far throughout your career?

A: Yeah, it’s similar to things I’ve said before I think. Learning how to be direct and not being– learning how to simplify things instead of complicate them, I guess [chuckle], yeah.


Q: Okay, just a few more questions. And again, this might be obvious because we’ve talked about this a little bit already, but to what extent do you think writing is valued in your organization as well as the discipline or field of law as a whole?

A: Right. Valued, I think it’s very valuable, whether or not it’s valued by everyone [chuckle] is an interesting question. I think everyone has different approaches to how precise they feel they need to be; and I’ve definitely read submissions that are all over the place, and full of spelling errors, and not formatted properly. So I’m not sure if everyone in the profession sees that the real value in that being a vehicle to persuade people. And I know– I think I like writing, is part of the reason why I put energy into making something flow properly, and just read well. But I do know, especially the work I do, is before a really informal tribunal. So you could, to get a certain request granted, you could file three lines, or you could file three pages. And I’m in the camp of people who would file three pages, just in case, and also because why not? So I guess, I prefer email over the phone, but there are definitely people I practice with who would prefer the phone over email. So, where I might email a client to create a paper trail of what I’ve told them, I have colleagues who would call. So I definitely think it’s valuable and a really key component of practice, but there are definitely people who practice differently and, you know, still succeed, and rely on writing much less than I do.


Q: So, last question. How would you define successful writing as a student, versus what you consider to be successful writing now? And would you consider yourself a successful workplace writer, why or why not?


A: Okay. I think successful writing when I was a student I understood as being thoughtful and reflective and, to be honest, wordy. Like a lot of the academic language was something you were supposed to be using and deploying in an academic context, and about toying with ideas instead of settling on them, just sort of batting them around. In my profession now, I see, I think I’ve mentioned, I see successful writing as being succinct, and persuasive, and not necessarily simple, but able to condense big concepts into basic language. And do I consider myself successful? I think, you know, I’d like to think that I’ve come to a place where I have the tools I need to succeed when I sit down to write something. I think when I read the things other people have written in my field, I always try and learn from that, and implement their tactics to enhance mine. But it is one of the things that I really enjoy about my work, and I think that because of that, I’ve been able to succeed because I like doing it, so.


Q: Great, thank you so much.


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