Leanne Wight’s path to success at LAO

Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) is committed to creating an environment that minimizes barriers for women in law. According to Leanne Wight, who went to law school at age 40 and is now a supervisory duty counsel, LAO is a great environment for growing a career.

by Leanne Wight, Supervisory Duty Counsel, Family, Kingston

You could say I was dared into the justice system.

My first career was as a medic in the Canadian Forces. Then I was a stay-at-home mom before starting my post-secondary studies, ultimately obtaining a Master’s degree in public administration.

My sister-in-law told me I’d be a good lawyer – a profession I’d never really considered. On an absolute dare from her, I wrote the LSATs, applied to the faculty of law at Queen’s University and was accepted within months.

As a mature student (I started my JD at age 40!), I had few issues in law school. Since I was about the same age as most of my professors, I looked at them more as contemporaries than superiors.

I organized my academic life around my children’s schedules, and sometimes one or both of them came to class with me. I home-schooled one of my sons in between my own classes during the bar admission course. He and I moved from Kingston to Ottawa in April, where he continued playing provincial level soccer while I completed the bar admissions. My husband travelled from Kingston to Ottawa or Toronto for our son’s games. It was a bit crazy, but a worthwhile adventure for all of us!

Following my social justice bent

I’ve always had a social justice bent. In 2004, I received the Community Commitment Award, granted to graduating law students who show an interest in or commitment to public service. I’ve always been the champion of the underdog.

With only a short stint at a small private firm behind me (I’d completed my articles there in 2005), I joined the duty counsel panel at the family court in Kingston to do per diem work for LAO.

I’ve found that the beauty of this particular public service is being able to fully commit time to clients without the pressure of having to meet billing targets. People who really need help can get it.

In 2007, my predecessor at LAO left to take on a role with the Law Society. He told me he thought I’d be a good fit for his old job, so I applied for the position at the court and was fortunate enough to be selected.  I’ve never looked back.

The rewards and challenges of my job are the same: you never know what’s going to come in the door!

As the only full-time lawyer here, I spend quite a bit of time in court and enjoy the challenge of managing the interesting and often complex matters that come in off the street. It’s also incredibly rewarding to successfully resolve matters where the client presents with very little information and a very short timeline!

In addition to in-court work, my role also carries administrative responsibilities, including management of the per diem panel at court and the family law service centre.

A great environment for growing a career

On top of everything else, I’ve had terrific support to take on innovative new challenges. I’ve always been about service and how I can use my skills to help other people, and my managers and directors have unfailingly encouraged me.

I came to my former manager with the idea of piloting legal aid services at Queen’s Law Clinics, for instance, and he was immediately on board and asked for a proposal, saying, “we’ll see where it goes.”

That pilot is now in its third year, providing panel lawyers to a family law service centre that joined with the Queen’s family law clinic in 2014.

Support for speaking, mentoring, teaching and secondments

I’ve also been supported in my desire to expand my professional sphere through speaking, mentoring, teaching and secondments.

I’ve been given the go-ahead to accept speaking engagements, mentor young lawyers and to do lunch and learns, one on ethical issues in family law and another on mentoring. That’s been terrific.

I took a four-month leave of absence to work on contract as in-house counsel for the Children’s Aid Society. I wanted to see the other side of child protection litigation, and my manager and director both recognized that the experience would be beneficial not only to me, but to LAO as well. The insight I gained was useful in child protection training I’ve done for LAO.

In addition, I accepted a teaching position offered by the First Nations Technical Institute at Tyendinaga, through Ryerson University.

As a woman of Mi’kmaq heritage, giving back to the Indigenous community is important to me.

I taught undergraduate law courses in a unique learning format to Indigenous students enrolled in the Public Policy and Governance program.  I travelled to reserves at Six Nations, Manitoulin Island and Orillia. And, of course, I took all that I learned from my students back to LAO.

I’m also delighted to have just accepted a position as a sessional adjunct professor at Queen’s to teach a course in negotiations to law students—again, with the full support of LAO.

Zero competition

One of the things I like most about working at LAO is that the people with whom I work have zero competition. We call it a “no closed doors” policy. Nobody “owns” a territory or knowledge. You can phone a colleague anywhere in the province (and I have!), confident that you can get help.

Of course, that works both ways. People phone me almost daily—I have this situation, I have that situation, can you help me out? I’m happy to help and if I don’t have the answer, I’ll refer them to someone who does.

You don’t see that same kind of support, that kind of open and welcoming attitude, in every work environment. But it’s common among my colleagues.

I really appreciate their support and willingness to help because it’s made me a better lawyer. And most importantly, the camaraderie amongst LAO staff helps make things better for the marginalized and vulnerable clients we serve.