Pictured above: members of the LAO LAW team.
I ask Amy Shoemaker, the director of Legal Aid Ontario’s research department, LAO LAW, to explain what it is her department does.
“We provide research support to lawyers who are acting on behalf of legal aid clients, whether they’re duty counsel or private bar lawyers.”
“Is that how you would explain it if you were at a party?” I ask.
Amy changes tack. “Well, what happens is lawyers will send us a question (about a legal matter) and ask us to find a basis in law for that position or a way to fight that position if it’s being offered by opposing counsel.”
“We have a lawyer on call every day, “ Amy explains, “who will take a call from a legal aid staff or lawyer with a legal question – sometimes it’s urgent, sometimes it’s longer term – and sometimes we can just give a quick answer. Other times it’s a very involved answer. We’re always trying to make people’s outcomes in their cases better than they would be without us.”
LAO LAW originally started as “the research facility.” One of the founders of LAO, Sidney Linden, had the vision that legal aid lawyers ought to have the same access to quality research as the Crown or opposing counsel might. The resultant case law researched could then help other lawyers, so they wouldn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” by researching from scratch every time they had a case.
The result is that legal aid lawyers can concentrate on spending their billable hours working with the client, rather than on conducting research.
Today, the department’s expertise ranges from criminal law, to family law and even refugee law. Amy explains that the impact the department has is the support it provides to legal aid lawyers who are often under-resourced.
“A lot of people are alone when they’re working on a case, so it’s nice to be able to call and discuss the legal issues and seek research assistance. Often, the lawyers who call us will be able to bounce their ideas off one of our lawyers and either eliminate of confirm a legal argument.
I ask what sort of cases they work on. “I can’t divulge our secrets.” Amy chuckles. “But we work on some very interesting, serious cases like murder cases. We work on some fascinating evidentiary problems. We have some great family law cases. It’s so varied every day.”
It’s the varied nature of the work that makes LAO LAW such a compelling place for Amy. “It’s never dull or routine. Just when you think you’ve heard everything, you haven’t. There’s always something new to be learned as you go forward. When you’re a research lawyer, that’s what you enjoy. The thrill of finding the answer or helping someone come to a legal conclusion.”
“It’s a very nerdy pursuit.” I joke.
“It’s very nerdy.” Amy replies. “But we embrace that. We joke that we’re a very nerdy group. You’re reading, you’re going through the law and thinking about the problems.”
“Sometimes when we have our intake meetings we can get into a heated debate and have interesting back and forth of what we think is going to help and what we think is the law on a particular topic and one of us will run off to research it and show why their position is right and show it to the lawyers.”
LAO LAW offers a wide spectrum of services either by phone or through its website which is available to legal aid lawyers. It offers general memos, secondary materials and case law. In recent years it has also put together a database of forensic science. The database covers all kinds of areas to do with forensics including blood splatters and ballistics that has been vetted by experts in the field and expanded to over time.
“There’s some areas everyone in the department wants to work on or update, like bloodstain pattern analysis or ballistics” Amy notes.
Amy has seen the results of LAO LAW’s works again and again over the years. “Just today a lawyer wrote us to say that the research we did helped get an acquittal for their client so that was a good day for us.”
What makes the department go to work every morning, I wonder?
Amy’s answer: “It’s the interesting work that we get and the opportunity to use our legal knowledge to help people.”
“We help defend people who have their liberty threatened or we help families who are in dire straits. A lot of times clients are going through the most stressful time in their lives and the lawyers acting for them have a huge responsibility. When we find the case (law) that speaks to an issue and we see the result for a person it’s very gratifying.”
I suggest to Amy that, “If I were you, I’d just say ‘I solve crimes for a living.’”
Amy laughs. “It’s not as simple as that.”