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  • Writer's pictureLyn Townsend

Choosing Law as a Career Path: A Non-Traditional Approach

Hello! Please introduce yourself.

Greetings!  My name is Lynda (please call me Lyn) Townsend.  I am a graduate of the University of Ottawa LLB program and did my undergrad degree in Translation at Laurentian University in Sudbury.  I practised exclusively in the field of land development which some might say while based on the fundamental underpinnings of the law can be 90% strategy type work and 10% pure legal skills.   I retired from the practice of law a few years ago and returned to my field of interest but as a mediator for the Ontario Land Tribunal.  I now have a small mediation practice which I enjoy when not travelling and/or enjoying one of a myriad of sports.



What motivated you to pursue a career in law?

Prior to law school I worked at a variety of jobs such as retail and secretarial work but career-wise I was rudderless.  In truth I chose law school because I had no other career options for which I was qualified or suited.  I wanted to be self-sufficient and independent but anything where the prerequisite was math or science was out of my league.  Thanks to friends of my parents whose many kids took the path of a career in law I was introduced to the LSAT process and the thought of pursuing a law degree.  


Competition for law school spaces was different back in 1978 and because of my ability to converse in both French and English I was lucky enough to get a spot at the University of Ottawa.  


I thrived at law school and would chalk that up to my summer jobs at Legal Aid.  While law school teaches the principles of law I learned much about the practice of law by working in a Legal Aid Clinic.  


Law school is so different now that any advice I would have would be superseded by technology.   In the end I felt the best skill to acquire is applying logic to problem solving.  This skill will assist in any field of law and will be appreciated by clients who seek not only legal but also practical solutions to legal problems. 


Can you tell us about your career?

My first law related position was working as a law student at a Legal Aid Clinic.  I am not sure these campus based Clinics exist anymore but it was the best way to acquire hands-on experience and to learn if the career was suited to me.  


I didn’t choose my practice area.  It chose me.  It was a fluke.  I was ready to quit early into my legal career when I was given a file representing some residents at a municipal tribunal hearing.  The skill set required in the field of municipal law includes advocacy but there is an emphasis on the application of strategy and common sense.  I was energised by the prospect of learning about municipal law and was blessed to share space with a firm that had a significant reputation in the field.  I learned by osmosis.  Life outside of my day job included volunteer activities that contributed to the skills needed for my job.  My various roles in politics helped me to understand the strategy behind decision-making in land development applications and the key factors necessary to ensure success.  It also was the forum where I learned to put my shyness, my intimidation interacting with people and my fear of public speaking behind me.  It gave me the opportunity to become an orator at the podium in a Council Chamber or at the Ontario Municipal Board.


I learned a great deal from the people at the firms where I practised in Ottawa and Mississauga.  However, in the end I was more suited to practising on my own and building a business.  The decision to launch my own firm also happened by fluke.  I would have opted to continue with a secure pay cheque at the time but a conflict of interest at a firm that I had recently joined resulted in setting up my own shop in my teeny townhouse.  Eventually the practice grew, the premises became larger and more sophisticated, and people came on board - primarily women - to join me in the practice.  Funnily we never had a male partner.  The synergy of women working together and mentoring such talented women suited me more.  It emerged organically and not with any clear intention.


When I was habitually grumpy and overwhelmed by technology I decided it was time to retire.  I was again blessed when my firm came together with WeirFoulds for the last few years of my practice.  My staff remained employed and had new opportunities, my clients had a variety of legal talent to choose from and Townsend and Associates maintained its presence despite the merger.  WeirFoulds allowed my clients to have seamless representation and allowed me to step away at my pace for which I am very grateful.  It is difficult to build a practice, have people rely on you and then to change focus to yourself and your needs.  


What was it like starting your own firm? What are some challenges you faced along the way? If you were to start your own firm now, what would you do differently?

Starting my own firm was terrifying.  I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been faced with the necessity to do so.  As it turned out fate was on my side yet again and it was the best career choice I could have made. It was a good fit for my very independent personality.  All the ideas I had about building and conducting my practice did not fit with the more staid and traditional mentality of a firm.  I think that relates directly to the practice of municipal law which is a non-traditional type of law and allows for more creative approaches.  


In my view it is critical in building one’s own firm to have enough work and clients who will make the journey with you so that you can pay the bills as you get started.  After leaving the larger firm environment I was blessed to have two clients that stuck with me.  The most positive outcomes of starting my own business were the freedom to make my own decisions, the reduction in stress levels from peer pressure/expectations (I put enough of that on myself without piling on more), the experience of positive client feedback … and lastly when the cheques arrived in the mail the money was all mine!  To this day I still love the sound of opening the mail although I am sure everything is automated now.


Back to the experience - I started building things slowly.  No bank loans.  My office graduated from my daughter’s bedroom (she moved into a shared room with my son!), to a desk in a heritage building owned and operated by a friend with an insurance company, to leased office space shared with others and eventually to my own buildings which grew in size as we grew.  My equipment at the beginning included a phone and an old printer and fax machine.  I think there was an ancient computer too.  We didn’t need anything more back then.  I did all my own admin work for years but eventually the days got too long and I hired an admin assistant whose hours gradually increased to full-time.  The leased equipment grew to a network of computers and phones, cell phones for everyone, a BIG photocopier, scanner, fax that might as well have been a paid assistant as it did so much work helping with tracking and billing.  We adopted a salary grid and introduced health plans and vacation policies. 


I am not a fan of debt so easing into the practice was my chosen approach.  After a few years I was joined by part-time planners and then by other lawyers.  We never grew too large as growth just leads to more admin and human resource issues.  I am terrible at HR issues and would say between that and the IT issues these were some of the reasons I eventually exited the practice.


We never had any billable hour quotas.  We gauged our success on our client retention and feedback.  We rarely had a receivable problem.   My secret was communication, communication, communication.  A client relationship is a partnership.  Their needs come first and tailoring my practice to the needs of our clients was a critical part of the success of the practice.


All of the above said I am certain that starting a business is not the same today.  So many different challenges exist.  Would I recommend it or do it again?   It isn’t for everyone.  Building the business takes countless hours of pro bono work and building a professional network.  The admin side of a business is time consuming.  The commitment given by the family is significant.  If all the stars align however the journey is totally worth it.  I wouldn’t have done it any other way.  My only regret is not spending enough time with my family.  Building a business like mine means making choices.  Much of the decision-making in municipal law takes place at committee or council meetings in the evening.  Networking requires attending various matters early in the morning and in the evening.  I loved the field of municipal law but for anyone choosing this path you have to have a family that can adapt.  


What skills do you consider essential for a lawyer in your field (both municipal law and as a mediator)?

As noted above, apart from a knowledge of the legal principles key to your field the most critical skill in my view is logic and taking a practical view to legal issues.  Next in line is communication.  Clients want their lawyer to see the problem from the client point of view and approach it with their practical needs in mind.  Letting the client know that you are on top of the matter by communicating regularly is critical.  In my experience these key factors result in the bills getting paid and client satisfaction.


Networking is critical in municipal law.  Most people think of networking as a means to secure clients.  I used networking for a different purpose.  In order to provide solid advice a municipal lawyer needs to understand the inner workings of how municipal decisions will be made.  Also it is the job of a municipal lawyer to be able to ensure your client’s perspective is a part of the decision-making process.   Having a network of those who contribute to the decision-making process provides you the tools to ensure adequate information sharing. 


I had several mentors over the years.  Peter Vice introduced me to the field of municipal law and showed me the importance of understanding politics as a part of this field.  Alan Cohen taught me the art of litigation and the importance of using common sense.  Jane Pepino and Julia Ryan, in their different ways, showed me how women played a huge and central role in the practice of municipal law.  Michael Statham taught me that humanity still exists in the cut throat competitive business of law.  


I recommend that anyone interested in the field of municipal law take on a role in a resident community association and find a way to participate in politics.  I sat on the Committee of Adjustment for the City of Mississauga which allowed me to see the perspective of a decision maker so that I could use this perspective when analysing and deriving a strategy to solve a client’s municipal issue.  Politics plays a role in every municipal decision and any role in which you participate whether municipal, provincial or federal is of great value.  Another valuable tool is sitting on a volunteer board of directors.  The art of teamwork in decision making is regularly on display in a boardroom and may allow you to understand the needs of a client who responds to a board of directors and will help you experience how a Council or a Conservation Authority works to come to a decision.  Lastly, joining and actively participating in local building and construction associations is a great way to meet a variety of people in the industry and to take opportunities to get involved in the process.


What changes do you foresee in your area of law in the coming years?

Absolutely everything has changed and keeps changing in municipal law.  Most law firms allow those starting out to prepare memoranda on the changes.  In my view this is a key role for a new lawyer not only to practise research skills but also to open the door to providing advice to clients and more senior practitioners.  My practice was to get ahead of the curve and get involved in the legislative drafting process if possible.  


If you could give one piece of advice to law students or junior lawyers to help them succeed, what would it be?

Don’t just sit at your desk and do the work. Get out and get involved in any one or more of the ways I have noted above.  Ask probing questions.  Attend hearings even if you don’t have a role to play.  Go to meetings and observe.  Differentiate yourself from others and find opportunities to build and show off your skills.


What are your future plans going forward, and how can our readers connect with you in the future?

My main focus is now the things I had to compromise on over the years in business - my family, sports, and travel.  I continue to conduct mediations but only if specifically requested to do so and only if on a review of the facts and the participants I conclude I could add value.  I can be reached at lyn.townsend@me.com


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