Focus On

Things I’ve learned since law school | Kurt Sandstrom

Monday, September 09, 2019 @ 3:34 PM | By Kurt Sandstrom


Kurt Sandstrom %>
Kurt Sandstrom
As we enter the “back to school” season, it has given me pause to ruminate on my own journey through the practice of law, especially having just celebrated my 30-year anniversary in the profession.

Technology in practice of law
 
When I went into private practice as a young lawyer, the Internet and e-mail were somewhat new and I remember saying to myself that “this World Wide Web thing could catch on!”  

In my early days of practice in the early 1990s, e-mail was not being used and there certainly was nothing like texting. I recall going off to court for the morning and coming back to over 26 pink paper messages from lawyers and clients. When not meeting with clients, I was normally on the telephone.

Now the telephone rarely rings. Instead, I am inundated at work with hundreds of e-mails a day and dozens of text messages. And in government, the default is to meet by conference call because the meeting schedules of busy public servants do not offer enough time for travel.

As sad as it may be to say, I’m frequently distracted from being present in those meetings by urgent texts and e-mails prompting my immediate response. Rightly or wrongly, technology is serving to depersonalize the profession.

Deconstructing justice system narrative
 
During my 30 years of practice and working in government, the biggest change has been my attitude toward the justice system. In law school, and after articling with the Court of Appeal in Saskatchewan, I emerged as a young lawyer with amazing pride in our justice system and the profession. That remained largely intact until I began working on justice policy, when I began to see the many problems associated with access to justice.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve been exposed to large cracks in the system associated with the overrepresentation of Indigenous people and their underrepresentation in both the justice services available to the public and in roles pertaining to the administration of justice (i.e. judges, juries, court staff, etc.).

I’ve been troubled by the fact that so many people can’t afford help to deal with legal problems. Many people choose to “lump it,” becoming bits of styrofoam adrift in the sea of inevitable abandonment. And the criminalization of mental health and social issues in our justice system gives me little sense that the system is functioning as it should.

To be fair I am still very proud of our justice system and our profession. I just think we have so much further to go now than I did at the start of my journey.

Innovation — risks in absence of precedent
 
A colleague characterized the work of lawyers as being tied to history: “What is the precedent?” “What does case law tell us?” It’s not incorrect to say that, in some respects, we tend to look backward more than forward. So, what happens when we are exploring or embarking on innovative approaches to justice that have no precedent? We are a careful — some would argue “risk averse” — profession, and we often don’t like trying something that has no precedent as it can lead to litigation of unproven and untested concepts.

Developing technology enabled solutions for access to justice, such as the civil resolution tribunal, invites challenge in the courts by lawyers who are steeped in this history, and who have not been “deprogrammed” by exposure to the multitude of shortfalls our system exhibits.

Impact and making a difference
 
I was drawn to the legal profession by what I think links all people in the practice: the desire to make a difference.

When I started, that was at an individual level as I assisted clients to navigate everything from basic to very complex legal problems. In government, I now operate at a more systemic level, looking to change the lives of people for the better on a larger scale. I am not sure what is more satisfying. In practice, I could see the results of my efforts very clearly (although not all files ended the way one would like), whereas systemic change takes decades to see any benefit and, at times, I feel I may be just filling cracks until the wall inevitably crumbles around me.

I am of the view the desire to make a difference is, thankfully, something that hasn’t changed in any appreciable way since I started to practise. My wish is to mobilize more of our profession looking to make an impact toward removing barriers to access to justice and addressing the inequities of our current justice system. It is why I teach a law class at the University of Victoria; I want to share my journey with law students so they emerge from their education with a realistic view of the problems in our justice system. Perhaps that way they can champion the cause and not spend the majority of their careers thinking the system is perfect. And perhaps the generation graduating now will be inspired to join the fight to make the system better sooner. If everyone can get off their phones long enough.

Kurt Sandstrom has been the assistant deputy minister of Justice Services Branch, with the B.C. Ministry of the Attorney General, since June 2016. He also teaches law, public policy and dispute resolution at the University of Victoria. He lives and works on the traditional territories of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations.
 
Interested in writing for us? To learn more about how you can add your voice to 
The Lawyer’s Daily, contact Analysis Editor Peter Carter at peter.carter@lexisnexis.ca or call 647-776-6740.