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This is the fifth in AdvocateDaily.com’s occasional feature series Legal Brief, profiling lawyers in the Toronto area.
Sara Cohen is a fertility law lawyer based in Toronto, with clients throughout Canada and beyond. It is Cohen’s love of her role as a mother that inspired her to make the leap from Bay Street and use her skills, knowledge, passion and compassion to assist others in building their families. Her focus is on helping clients navigate the murky waters of third party reproductive law in Canada.
AdvocateDaily: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Sara Cohen: I can’t say I always wanted to be a lawyer. I actually studied Egyptology at the University of Toronto for my undergraduate studies.
AD: If you were not a lawyer what would be another profession that you would try?
SC: A fertility doctor! I think it is truly an amazing and beautiful thing to be able to help people build their families and I would love to play a bigger role in that.
AD: After graduating in 2007 you went right into commercial litigation. When did you realize that you wanted to practice fertility law?
SC: I had thought about practicing fertility law throughout law school and seriously considered starting my own fertility law practice towards the end of articling. It seemed more like a dream, though, rather than something that I truly thought would happen.
AD: Was it hard to make the jump from one to the other?
SC: It was difficult to make the transition. However, I think I had an easier time than most because I made the transition after already having some time away from my commercial litigation practice because of a maternity leave.
AD: Is there a special way you have built up your practice (i.e. social media)
SC: Social media has been indispensable to me in building up my practice. For example, LinkedIn and Twitter both allow me to “meet” individuals that I wouldn’t otherwise have easy access to such as leading academics, writers and players within the fertility industry. In addition, clients or potential clients have an opportunity to get to know me as a person and an individual, and not only as a lawyer.
AD: Being a mother and practising fertility law, do you have a stronger sense of determination and wanting to help when someone comes into your office seeking your services?
SC: A big part of the reason I always wanted to practice fertility law was to be able to help people to have children, to build their family, even if only in some small way. Of course I can and do sympathize with clients. Even if I am fortunate enough to not be able to relate on a personal level to their struggles, I feel a lot of compassion for people struggling with fertility issues. I’m not sure that becoming a mother changed that for me very much, though, other than making it clear to me how fortunate I am to have one healthy child – it was always obvious to me how painful and heartbreaking infertility is.
AD: What does a typical day look like for you in regards to being a working mother?
SC: I’m not certain that I have “typical” days. My day probably looks like most other lawyers who are parents – I work straight without breaks from the moment that my son is dropped off at daycare, straight through the day without stopping until it is time to pick him up, and then I pick up my work again in whichever few minutes I can find and almost always return to it in the evening or night. I’m fortunate in that while I don’t have a lot of time, I do have a lot of flexibility, so much of my work is done in the late evenings or night. Sleep is at a real premium in my house.
AD: Do you think that there is an even greater need for fertility lawyers today then 10 years ago? Why?
SC: Of course! Assisted reproductive technologies are rapidly progressing, and with it, so is society’s comfort with using them. Gamete donation and surrogacy have far less of a stigma than they used to, and I imagine the trend will continue in that direction.
AD: Fertility law is in a state of flux at the moment; what changes to the Act would you like to see; how could Canada become more progressive in this area of law?
SC: To answer this question properly would take me pages and pages. If you have ever heard me speak or read anything I have written, it’s pretty clear that I think the Assisted Human Reproduction Act needs to be completely revamped. First and foremost, to my mind, the most important change would be to decriminalize all aspects of third party assisted reproductive technologies, and to regulate them instead. It is draconian that if a parent is found to have paid someone for arranging the services of a surrogate mother, which is an undefined term and not illuminated by any case law, he or she could be sentenced for up to ten years in jail and/or a $500,000 fine. The Act is based on fear of reproductive technologies, and based on a report from a commission that was put together in 1989. Times have changed, society’s comfort and support for reproductive technologies have changed, but this Act hasn’t, and very vulnerable people looking to build their families are put in difficult and untenable situations every day because of it.
AD: How are some ways that fertility law differs from a more popular-practiced law like commercial?
SC: Fertility law is very niche. On one hand, that means that a lawyer practicing in the area had better have a real passion for the area, issues and people involved or they will become quickly bored. On the other hand, it allows you to gain expertise much more quickly.
AD: What are the benefits of you having your own practice?
SC: I love having my own practice. Having my own practice means the ball drops with me. I am responsible for my successes, but I am also responsible for my failures. It is very empowering and running my own business is a completely different experience for me than working as an associate on Bay Street. I very much enjoy the flexibility – both time wise, and in what I choose to take on. I like being able to take on whichever cases I want to, to be able to do pro bono work just because it suits me.
AD: What case have you had the most fun with?
SC: I can’t think of one particular file that was exceptionally fun, but I want to tell you this: The best part of my job is when clients call to share the news that they are pregnant, or that their child was born. I am so happy for them, every time. It never gets old!
AD: How do you keep yourself up-to-date on what is new and fresh in your field of work?
SC: I am constantly reading. Twitter and other methods of social media are very helpful in keeping me up to date with what’s going on. The area is evolving so rapidly that not a day goes by without some exciting new technology being discussed, an important article or interview being published, or a new law being passed or debated internationally.
AD: What topic in your field of work do you believe deserves more attention and discussion? Why?
SC: We are desperate for legislative reform in this area. I would like to believe that if the general public understood just how draconian the laws are regarding third party assisted reproduction technology, there would be a push to change.
AD: What advice would you give to law students today that you wish you had known when you were a student?
SC: Figure out what it is you are truly passionate about. You may not land your dream job right out of articling, but you can get there. Give yourself a chance to succeed.
AD: What do you do to relax outside of work? Are there any activities that you live by?
SC: Outside of work, I try to spend as much time with my family as possible. I love the sunshine and swimming in lakes. Ontario is just beautiful – we are so lucky to live here. I like to get away from the bustle of the city.
AD: Finish this sentence. “I am passionate about …”
SC: Being the best person I can be. Being a fertility lawyer is only a part of that.
AD: How has being a fertility lawyer shaped your personal life?
SC: Being a fertility lawyer has shaped my personal life in two big ways. The first is that I look at every person I meet with much more compassion. It’s amazing to me how many people are suffering, often silently. So many friends and acquaintances have reached out to me to tell me about their struggles. The number of people struggling to build their family is quite staggering. The other way being a fertility lawyer has shaped my personal life is that I am far more confident in my instincts and ability to make things happen.