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Practising law north of 60: Path of a northern lawyer

Thursday, January 21, 2021 @ 12:50 PM | By Nick Leeson


Nick Leeson %>
Nick Leeson
I’ve lived and practised law across northern Canada for nearly a decade. When I started this journey, it was just me, quite literally.

My arrival to the North began in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. I was based in the hamlet of Cambridge Bay, or Iqaluktuttiaq meaning “good fishing place” in the area’s traditional Inuit language, Inuinnaqtun.

While it was the largest community on Victoria Island, the entire population was far less than you’d find in a single square mile of Calgary or even Regina, much less Toronto or Montreal. And on the day I arrived, I singlehandedly doubled the number of resident civil lawyers for the entire region — an area consisting of five Inuit communities spread across nearly half a million square kilometres.

Crossing borders to make difference

To put that geography into perspective, the land and ice spread across the Kitikmeot Region was double that of the entire country of Ghana — which happened to be the West African country where I had most recently been practising law with a human rights organization before moving north.

In Africa, I found myself in an environment where the rule of law often existed in name only, conditions that created rosters full of clients but no access to the lawyers needed to represent them. I worked with clients who had been forcibly removed from their homes, minorities and disadvantaged groups whose legal rights were either forgotten or ignored. Being their advocate filled me with a deep sense of purpose and meaning. I emerged with a reconnection as to why I became a lawyer in the first place — to be someone others confide in and seek advice from, solve problems for people and help improve their lives.

My return to Canada was with the vision and intent of serving my own community in this same way — promoting access to justice. The opportunity of practising in the North presents that and a whole lot more.

Big law vs. new law vs. north of 60 law

Big city firms and opportunities indeed dominate recruitment in law school. As an aspiring lawyer, the conventional story goes that the goal should be to work in “Big Law,” and ending up anywhere else somehow makes you a lesser lawyer. The result is that even students with no desire to work in such an environment upon entering law school often quickly succumb to the pressure. And I did it for a while too.

Working in Big Law provided a slew of challenges and confirmed that I was right to pursue a brand of work that intrinsically made me happy. That helped prompt me to embark on the unconventional journey to Equatorial Africa that eventually landed me above the treeline and adjacent to the North Pole.

As incongruous as that path may sound, the most direct explanation for connecting the dots is that my experience dealing with injustice abroad caused me to dig into where it existed at home; while Equatorial Africa and the Arctic Circle may be a world (and climate) apart, the socioeconomic, environmental and legal challenges are all too familiar. These are challenges that encouraged me to engage with the promise of a legal career.

While New Law and alternative business models and approaches to the practice of law tend to focus on the desires of young lawyers who want a life outside of work and not to base their existence solely on status and money, I think the chance to make a positive difference is the missing ingredient that the next generation of lawyers is increasingly demanding from the profession. And this is where practising law in the North truly shines.

Practising law up here is about far more than shorter commute times and better work-life balance. It includes the chance to be an integral part of your community. To do well for yourself by doing good works for others. So, while my journey to practising law north of 60 is an unconventional one, it’s also growing in familiarity and attraction as a generation of new lawyers emerges that prioritize bringing meaning and purpose to their work.

This is the first half of a two-part series.

Nick Leeson is an associate with OKT LLP, a law firm located in Toronto and Yellowknife. He is based out of OKT’s Yellowknife office,representing Indigenous clients and interests from coast to coast to coast.

Photo credit / Overearth ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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