Susan is a family law lawyer working as a freelance lawyer in the Toronto area. She works with individuals and other family law lawyers on all types of family law matters, providing unbundled legal services on a project-by-project basis. Because of the varied nature of her practice, Susan has unique experience in assisting low-, mid- and high-income clients with a wide variety of family law issues, including child and spousal support, custody and access and property division.
We asked Susan about her background, practice and the challenges that she faces as a solo practitioner.
How long have you been practicing law? How did you begin your law career?
"I have been practicing law for over 20 years. I articled at Torkin Manes, and practiced there in the family law group after my call to the bar in 1998. I left Torkin Manes after the birth of my first child to work part-time as a sole practitioner. Since that time, I have worked as a freelance lawyer and agent for other lawyers who needed project by project assistance with their client files and I worked as duty counsel in family court for Legal Aid. Working as a freelance lawyer has given me a unique opportunity to be involved in a wide variety of work, from complex high income property cases to low income child support and access disputes, and everything in between."
From the ‘business of law’ perspective, what are some of the biggest changes you have you have made at your firm over the last 2 years?
"Over the past 2 years, I have transitioned the limited part-time practice that I enjoyed while my children were young, to a more active modern freelance practice. I expanded my client base, which used to be limited to just other lawyers, to include direct client work on limited scope retainers. I added new ways to deliver legal services to my repertoire, including co-creating The Family Law Workshop, which delivers practical and reliable family law information in an affordable small group seminar format. I created and launched my own website (www.BlackwellFamilyLaw.ca) and try to make more regular use of social media (LinkedIn and Facebook)."
What challenges are presenting themselves and how are you handling them?
"As a sole practitioner it is hard to balance my time between billable work and work dedicated to marketing, promotion and improving client service. Each of those tasks can be a full-time job in its own right, but as a sole practitioner, I have to make sure that I keep the balance right so that I can serve my clients well and make sure I can pay the bills.
Limited scope work also provides the opportunity for new billing arrangements with clients which often includes block fees. Getting the block fee amount right so that I don’t end up working too much for free is both an art and a science that I am still learning to master! "
What is a typical day like for you? What is the best part of your job?
"The best part of my job is my work-life balance. I work from a home office which allows me to have rewarding interactions with clients and colleagues without having to sacrifice too much of my time with my family. On a typical day, I get my kids off to school, walk our dog, then sit down at my desk and get to work. When needed, I rent the boardroom of a local community centre for in-person client meetings. I am usually at my desk when my kids come home from school, which means I still get to have that important first-hand interaction with them when they come home fresh from their day. Court days require a bit more juggling, but not having to make a big commute every day is a real bonus."
What practice areas are growing the most within your firm? Is there anything, in particular, you attribute this to?
"Limited scope legal service including legal coaching is a hot area of growth in family law right now. My practice is particularly well suited to this type of work. The fact that traditional legal representation is simply not affordable for many family law clients has been a known problem for as long as I have practised law. It used to be that the Law Society and LawPro discouraged lawyers from doing unbundled or limited scope work to address that problem, but that attitude has changed significantly in the past few years. Just three years ago, the LawPro website had a picture of a barbed wire fence with caution tape on their website page dealing with unbundled services. Yesterday, the Law Society hosted the official launch of the Ontario Family Law Limited Scope Services Project (www.FamilyLawlss.ca) and now provides information for lawyers and clients who are interested in this type of legal service. That is a significant change in approach in a short period of time!"
On a totally different note, how do you like to spend your time when you are not at work?
"I love to spend time outdoors with my family, ideally on a ski hill or sailing at the cottage. And, reading a good Canadian fiction novel is a real treat after two decades of reading family law cases!"
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