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This is the first in AdvocateDaily.com’s occasional feature series Legal Brief, profiling lawyers in the Toronto area.
By Kayona Lewis
After 20-plus years in the industry, business lawyer and self-professed “lifelong learner” Dorothy Brophy sat down with AdvocateDaily.com in a wide-ranging interview from her Toronto Beaches office to share how she balances her busy professional and personal lives, what she is passionate about, her law school years and offer friendly advice to future lawyers.
Kayona Lewis:. What made you want to get into law?
Dorothy Brophy: I had always been the one in the family to take up the task of writing a letter, commenting on some issue in politics or some such thing. After high school, I went to a community college and took a legal assistant course. I started working in a law firm at 19 and after two years decided I wanted to really know the law and practice it so I returned to university and then on to law school.
KL: Did you put yourself through law school or work during school with any jobs? What if anything did you take away from those experiences and how do you apply them to your career?
DB: From university through law school at the University of Ottawa, I worked in major law firms from April to September each year as a legal secretary. It was very important to me to enjoy the study experience and really focus on that throughout the school terms. As my studies progressed, I received more and more responsibilities when working in law firms. The pay was very good for a student and so with the exception of being a research assistant to my corporate law professor during one summer at law school this is what I did each year.
It was great experience, particularly working at Blake Cassels in Toronto and Gowlings in Ottawa. I even got involved in assembling copious documentation in support of a tobacco trademark case. Really interesting work for a summer job! The thing I took away was a really solid grasp of the practice of law – the understanding of how clients are to be served by their counsel.
KL: When did you decide that you wanted to leave Blaney, McMurtry and Aylesworth Thompson to start your own practice? Why?
DB: I left Blaney’s after three years of practice in their Ottawa office. A client of the firm asked me to come and work for them in a start-up company as in-house counsel, and we were working on a prospectus and getting the company listed. Unfortunately, with the stock market crisis of 1987, we didn’t get the next round of financing and so I decided to leave as the company would not be growing as I had hoped.
I came to work in Toronto for Aylesworth Thompson. The firm focused on major real estate deals and financings and I did not find that stimulating. I did not have many connections in the city and decided that one interesting way to build a practice would be to act as part-time in-house counsel for a number of companies. When I got my first contract with Noma Industries, I left Aylesworth Thompson and started my journey building my own practice.
KL: What was the experience of opening your own practice like; what were some of the highs and lows?
DB: Of course the lows of any start-up where you do not have unlimited resources is always the insecurity about income. I tried to keep this risk to a minimum by keeping my overhead very low and my rates very competitive in the marketplace. However, the year I started my practice the Errors and Omissions Insurance alone was over $9,000 plus annual dues. Ironically, that was a high point for those fees and as I started to make more money these expenses were reduced to less than half when the Law Society brought in a very effective manager.
The high really was the idea of complete freedom of time, decision-making, choices of work, learning, learning, and learning. I never once regretted the decision to practice law in a unique way, particularly as I grew to understand and use so many new technologies that allow me to do routine things quickly and have more time to really think about law and giving good advice to clients.
KL: You have been in the business for over 20 years now, what has been your favourite case?
DB: I once had a client who sold her business and the purchasers attempted to get out of paying the balance owing to her by some very unscrupulous methods. I took the case on with a particularly aggressive lawyer acting for the purchasers. He clearly did not have all of the facts and let’s just say he came to see that his clients should pay up right away or face some very interesting disclosure, which would not enhance their position. Wisely, they settled and my client who was trying to re-build her life after a few rough years was able to make a new start.
KL: What case challenged you the most?
DB: I think one of the most challenging and the most difficult, was helping a client recover on a life insurance policy. Her husband died and creditors of the company he ran tried to claim that he owed the company money, which would eat up most of the proceeds. The insurers relented on their attempt to refuse coverage, and I managed to settle with the secured creditors by paying back a small amount of money, which she (as an unsecured creditor) had taken from the company in repayment of money owing to her husband as a shareholder loan. We agreed that she could just put this amount back and the secured creditors agreed to settle for that. It meant a very secure future for her. There were language issues and it was a challenge to get at the truth of the matter, but I think a fair settlement was resolved in terms of the creditors and certainly they had no right to the proceeds of insurance.
KL: What case do you wish you could do over?
DB: I don’t think there was one, except that I once did an employment law trial and the judge called us in at the end of the trial and said to both counsel – “Well done.” He said we should try to make a settlement before he imposed one as there was a “soft underbelly” to both sides. We did settle and my client paid as an employer, though not nearly as much as the plaintiff was claiming. In some ways I wish we had “gone for it” as I believe we disproved the case for wrongful dismissal, but who knows. Maybe it was good to play it safe!
KL: I am told you have called yourself a “lifelong learner.” Could you please expand on that?
DB: I really love to learn, particularly in the area of politics and religion. I love to get the background and put philosophical discussions in context. It seems to me that reading good books is like drinking fine wine or eating a beautiful meal. It is very satisfying and makes me want more!
Once I had been practising law for a number of years I studied theology at the University of Toronto and obtained a Master’s degree in Theological Studies. The bibliography that came out of that experience could keep me busy reading and learning for the next hundred years! The whole experience has improved tremendously my capacity for critical thinking.
KL: What issues in the practice of law today do you feel warrant discussion beyond the legal arena?
DB: Ethics and the whole area of regulating greed. Every day some new scandal breaks from petty bureaucrats to the most powerful in business and government and those who suffer are the everyday people who seem to have to keep sacrificing on account of the financial fallout from wrong-headed decisions.
KL: What advice would you give your younger self, just graduating from law school?
DB: Be patient. Work hard, with confidence, and don’t run away from those who offend you. Stand tall right from the beginning and be heard.
KL: What would you describe as the best part of your job?
DB: Helping people get where they want to go. It is very rewarding to find that you have helped a person figure out what they need to do, and to assist in overcoming the hurdles, legal and other. I think what drove me hardest to study law was that I desperately wanted to know how society functions and where the power lies in facilitating and/or obstructing individual initiative.
KL: Outside of work, what do you do to unwind from the day?
DB: I love to garden and play golf in the summer, and some sort of sports – walking, swimming, tennis year round. Why? Gardening and golf are wonderful ways to quiet the mind. I find if I can’t concentrate because my mind is too busy, I go out and “deadhead” flowers, or clip and weed the garden and I come back clear-headed and very satisfied with the beauty of the garden. Very simple stuff, but very satisfying.
KL: What is something about yourself that would surprise your clients to know?
DB: Well, I think I am pretty open about who I am and what I do, but they might be surprised to know that I have a very strong desire to be an artist of some sort. I love colour and am now taking a few courses in drawing and such so that I can perhaps one day actually paint something worth hanging on my wall.
KL: Finish this sentence. “I am passionate about . . .”
DB: Life! I get up each day, even the ones I know will be filled with difficulties and stress, and I feel excited about how the day will turn out.
KL: Do you have any advice for young women entering the field of law today?
DB: I think I have a message for anyone entering the field of law today. Having a law degree and a practical understanding of the law is one of the best possible skills you can have. Don’t be discouraged when people say there aren’t enough positions in law firms etc., because you will find your way and can use your law degree as the basis for a very satisfying career even if it is in another field.