|‘Unique model’ for public service work|
| By Milton Kiang|
May 22 2009 issue
The Vancouver Downtown Eastside, long known as the poorest postal code in Canada, is a grim place many know about, but few try to do something about. In the notorious neighbourhood’s 10-block area, there are nearly 2,000 homeless people and approximately 5,000 injection drug users — many of whom suffer from HIV and Hepatitis C.
John Richardson, the 38-year-old co-founder and executive director of Pivot Legal Society, used to walk through the Downtown Eastside on his way to his articling job at the Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now called Ecojustice) and remembers thinking: “These are among the most underserved people in Canada.”
So when Richardson completed his articles, he decided to do something for the Downtown Eastside residents. Richardson, along with co-founder Ann Livingston, set up the Pivot Legal Society in 2001, initially running the legal advocacy group from his bedroom in a shared house in Vancouver’s Westside with four others.
“Oh, it was mayhem in there,” laughs Richardson, as he recalls the days when he and several volunteers crammed into his bedroom to sort through affidavits of Downtown Eastside residents who experienced police abuse.
It took a year before Richardson started earning a salary. During that period, Richardson was on employment insurance and depended on personal loans from family and friends to make ends meet. But it didn’t matter. This was work Richardson was made to do.
“I come from an activist background,” says Richardson, “and I’ve always believed that everyone in society benefits when the lives of marginalized persons are improved.”
Unlike other public advocacy groups, Pivot funds its own activities through a separate entity, a law firm called Pivot Legal LLP Richardson set up three years ago.
“It’s just like any other law firm,” says Richardson. “We’ve got fee-paying clients, we maintain client trust accounts. The firm does immigration, bankruptcy and insolvency, personal injury, employment law, criminal defence work. However, all profits from the law firm go into funding the activities of Pivot Legal Society.”
Though Pivot Legal LLP isn’t yet revenue-positive, its practice is ramping up, and Richardson foresees the law firm breaking even by the end of this year.
“We’ve managed to bill $100,000 in fees during the first three months this year, so things are on the right track,” says Richardson.
Pivot’s structure may be the first of its kind in Canada, if not the world.
“We were sitting around thinking one day: ‘How else might we raise funding?’ Like other non-profits, we raised funding through public donations, government grants, fundraisers, a real grab bag. But what else can we sell? Wait a minute, we’re lawyers. We can try selling legal services!’ Seems like an obvious thing, right?” It was then that Pivot Legal LLP was born.
“We’ve got a unique model,” says Richardson. “One that integrates public interest motivation with fee-for-service work.”
Today, Pivot occupies 4,200-square feet of office space, taking the entire first floor of a two-storey building on 678 East Hastings Street, at the periphery of the Downtown Eastside. Pivot is the co-owner of the building, along with three other charity foundations. Pivot Legal LLP employs 12 lawyers, many of whom have less than five years of legal experience.
One of the Pivot lawyers, 30-year-old Laura Track, works on homelessness issues and recently campaigned to bring to light the violations of health and safety standards by owners of single-room-occupancy hotels operating in the area. Because of the campaign, the national and local media reported stories about vermin being found in the hotels, rooms that lacked adequate heating, windows and doors that didn’t properly close. Track has now established a direct relationship with the City of Vancouver.
“We’re now being listened to,” says Track. “The problem is that the city does have health and safety regulations, but they just weren’t being enforced. Hopefully, we’ll start seeing some changes in this area.”
As a second-year lawyer, Track has attracted more media limelight than most lawyers ever see in a lifetime of practice. But this isn’t what drives the ambitious Richmond, B.C.-born lawyer. It’s being able to work for social justice, a career-goal Track has harboured since her University of British Columbia law school days.
“Most of my friends are kind of envious,” admits Track. “So you can imagine my disbelief and surprise in having the chance to work here, so soon after getting called to the Bar.”
“There just aren’t many positions in social justice,” says third-year Pivot lawyer Lobat Sadrehashemi. “Even if this is an area you’re interested in pursuing during law school, you’d have to find an articling position, and those positions are hard to find. Funding is always a problem, and there isn’t a legal clinic system in B.C.”
Sadrehashemi, a 29-year-old Calgary native, earned a joint master of social work and law degree from the University of Toronto. She now practises immigration and refugee law and works on issues pertaining to child welfare and violence against women.
“I’ve learned so much here,” says Sadrehashemi, “from running a public interest campaign, running legal workshops, to building up a law practice. There’s a certain openness to learning and growing here.
“You have the freedom to be creative, to manage your own time. If you want to work from home, you have the freedom to do that. There’s isn’t the pressure to put in ‘face time,’ like at a traditional law firm,” says Sadrehashemi.
Track agrees: “If there were more places like Pivot, I think a lot of my classmates, after having graduated from law school, would want to do this kind of work.”
Track says lawyers of her generation are looking for work that they find fulfilling. “They’re looking for work that they feel good about doing, work that’s valued and meaningful, in a workplace that values work-life balance.”
Track adds, “The legal profession is (a) particularly inhospitable place for women, those who want to raise kids and have a family. I’ve yet to see a law firm which has a daycare, or a reasonable leave policy, or a place that allows you to balance the time in being there for your kids... it’s a real challenge. And it’s no wonder women are leaving the profession at an incredible rate.
“I’m offered six weeks of vacation a year. I don’t think even senior partners at law firms get that,” says Track half-jokingly.
But it isn’t all fun-and-games at Pivot. “People here are motivated and they work pretty hard,” says executive director Richardson. “I see people here till 6.30 p.m. or 7 p.m.”
And the money isn’t exactly something to write home about. The average annual salary for Pivot lawyers is $42,000, about half of what a first-year lawyer would make at a downtown Vancouver law firm. But then, money and glamour aren’t high on the agenda for social justice lawyers.
“It was a massive pendulum swing for me,” says Track, who articled at the Department of Justice and clerked with the B.C. Supreme Court. “At the DOJ, we had more resources in the way of legal assistance and secretarial support. At Pivot, I’ve had to make more trips to the courthouse library to do my research, but I’ve also learned how to be more efficient with substantially less.”
“Yes, money is a consideration for a lot of people,” says Sadrehashemi. “Not everyone is in a position to work in this area because they may have a family, debts, student loans. I’m lucky because at my particular stage in life, I don’t have a family to support.”
Nonetheless, Track and Sadrehashemi both agree that there are more lawyers interested in social justice work than there are spaces available. Richardson says within B.C., there are about 12 legal advocacy articling positions available, and very few get full-time job offers after articles. “We’re getting more and more applications, especially from junior lawyers,” says Richardson. “We get applications from all over Canada, and even a few from Europe.
“With Pivot Legal — the law firm — we’re definitely able to take on more lawyers, more than we would otherwise be able to,” says Richardson. “We’re getting lawyers who are dissatisfied with traditional law firm practice, either because they view them as not being particularly ethical, or that they’re over-priced. So when they look at a place like Pivot, a place that’s ethical, one that’s reasonably priced, there’s definitely an attraction, especially if they have motivations to do social justice work.”
Before hiring a lawyer, Richardson makes sure there’s a need for that lawyer’s practice area. “We’ve just hired three new lawyers in January, and they’re still building up their areas of practice.” Richardson is reluctant to hire too many lawyers who might compete in those areas, but otherwise, he foresees more growth for Pivot.
“In May, we’ll be taking more space in the back third of our second floor,” says Richardson. “We’ve also talked about looking for more office space elsewhere, but that won’t happen for another year or two.” Pivot has already hired its first articling student, and in the summer, it’ll be taking on 12 interns, mostly law students. “That’s a lot of free labour!” jokes Richardson.
As a trailblazer, does Richardson foresee similar organizations emerging?
“Well, there’s definitely an interest out there. People are watching us to see if they want to go in the same direction we’ve taken. Recently, we’ve had an international human rights group approach us to see how we’ve set up our organization, to see if they can copy us,” says Richardson. “There’s definitely a lot of learning to be had. It’s good because people won’t have to break new ground — they can just see how we’ve done things.” Richardson adds, “We’ve definitely come across a few blind alleys in our time.”
How you can get involved
Interested in public service work? Check out these resources:
- Most law school career centres have extensive information on how you can get involved in public service work, as well as current lists of local organizations looking for lawyers. Contact your law school for more information.
- Five jurisdictions in Canada currently have pro bono organizations you can contact to become involved, including:
Pro Bono Law Alberta
Pro Bono Law of BC
Pro Bono Law Ontario
Pro Bono Law Saskatchewan
Le Centre Pro Bono Québec
- The Women’s Legal Education and Action
Fund (LEAF) is a national charitable organization, with headquarters in Toronto and offices throughout Canada, that works toward ensuring the law guarantees substantive equality for
all women in Canada. www.leaf.ca
- The Canadian Centre for International Justice in Ottawa is a charitable organization that works
with survivors of genocide, torture and other atrocities
to seek redress and bring perpetrators to justice. www.ccij.ca
- The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is a leader in protecting civil liberties in Canada, with
an office in Toronto. http://ccla.org
I thought that this was a really cool article. I would love to see something similar in Alberta. we od have a pro bono law firm and one that works strictly for people who ar poor. What about the ones that are inbetween? The ones who can't afford legal help, because they make to much according to the guidelines, however they still cannot afford a lawyer because they just are just making their mortgage/rent, utilities, car expenses/bus and food, with not a lot of wriggle room for anything else.