Asked & Answered: 20 Questions with TLABC member Tim Louis

From the Verdict Magazine: Winter 2013.

Name: Tim Louis
Law Firm & Location: Tim Louis & Company, Vancouver
TLABC Member Since: 1986
Post-Secondary Degree(s) and Institution(s): LLB, UBC 1983
Year of Call in BC: 1984
Areas of Practice: Civil Litigation: Long-Term Disability, Personal Injury

1. the Verdict: What is your concept of justice?

Tim: I have decided this question is best answered by considering the term justice in the context of the phrase ‘a just society.’ Justice means a society in which wealth is distributed much more equally and evenly than it is today. All the empirical data tell us that as we reduce poverty levels and wealth inequality, we do more to reduce crime levels than any ‘get tough on crime’ program will ever accomplish. Reducing wealth inequality also has a greater positive impact on health outcomes than increasing our health care budget will ever have. That is my definition of justice.

2. What led you to choose law as your profession?

A law degree would give me one more tool to help bring about social and political change. The practice of law would give me many opportunities to address social injustice on a case-by-case basis.

3. What is as important to you now as it was 28 years ago, when you were starting your career as a lawyer?

Providing legal services and access to the court system for individuals who would not otherwise have representation.

4. Being asked to represent someone in a legal matter can be a great honour, as well as a great responsibility. When given this opportunity and obligation, what should a lawyer strive to do upon meeting a client for the first time?

Most of my clients have very little if any understanding of the journey they are about to embark on.

  • I take the time to describe the key steps in a lawsuit, in plain language. I also let them know how long this journey is likely to take.
  • I explain that in my practice, the lawyer-client relationship is a partnership of equals. This means that the client will always be as well informed about their file or case as I am.
  • Finally, I pass on one of the best pieces of advice I was given by my mentor, the late Harry Rankin QC, who said: “We have a legal system, not a justice system.” The law is an imperfect tool that can help to right a wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee that my client will ever be put back in the position they were in beforehand.

I also strongly believe a lawyer should be easily accessible to the client throughout the life of the client’s file. At the very first meeting, I make sure my clients know they should always feel free to contact me and that I always return phone messages within one day – unless I’m in court, in which case one of my support staff will phone them within one day.

5. How does your approach to work differ today from your approach in yesteryear?

My approach today is very much the same as my approach was when I opened my law practice in 1984. If we make ourselves available and accessible as part of our practice, we can not only act on behalf of clients who have retained us, but also assist many other individuals with practical summary advice. A large part of my day is taken up assisting individuals by providing them with pro bono summary advice over the phone and in person.

6. What are some of the most difficult aspects of your workweek, with respect to logistics (e.g. time management, commuting, scheduling)?

Technology has fundamentally changed the way we practice law. It has eliminated, or significantly reduced, many of the difficult logistical aspects of my workweek. Here are two examples:

I rely on Amicus Attorney to keep me organized. I begin each day by working through my Amicus to do list. One of my favourite features in Amicus is its ability to automatically schedule all the key dates prior to a trial at the time the trial date is scheduled. No more last-minute panics getting and serving expert reports before the service date expires!

The internet has made commuting much less of a problem than it ever was. I work from home as I wish - with my support staff in real time over the Internet.

7. What are among the most challenging aspects of practicing in the areas you practice in regularly?

Post-trial cost consequences give an unfair advantage to corporate defendants, such as insurance companies. This makes it very easy for a corporate defendant to take an unreasonable position in negotiations, putting pressure on plaintiffs who will never have the deep pockets corporate defendants do. Too often this pressure forces plaintiffs with good cases to accept poor offers.

8. What are among the most rewarding aspects of your career, and – to date – what are some of your favourite career moments or milestones?

Providing legal representation to individuals who would otherwise go unrepresented is one of the most rewarding aspects of my practice.

Many years ago, I acted for a single mother who had been terminated from her employment as a financial-aid worker by her employer, the Ministry of Social Services and Housing. Her union had sat on her file for two years, forcing my client to exhaust her employment insurance benefits and to apply for welfare. She was covered by a collective bargaining agreement that exclusively prohibited anybody other than the union from representing her on disputes with her employer. I persuaded the union to hire me for a dollar a year. I succeeded in getting her a large financial settlement.

One other case that I remember vividly is a single mother on welfare whose young children had been apprehended by the ministry. It was alleged that she had a condition called Munchausen by proxy – a relatively rare form of child abuse that involves the exaggeration or fabrication of illnesses or symptoms by a primary caretaker – in this case, the mother I was representing. I was successful in taking the ministry to court, obtaining an order that the children be returned to my client. But, the real victory came after this. With the strength of the court victory, I was able to convince the ministry to address the root cause of the mom’s fixation on her children – not enough money to even rarely get out of her home. The ministry agreed to provide her with a monthly swim pass and a bus pass. Many years later, a young man came up to me at a social event and introduced himself as one of the young children, now grown. He let me know how the bus and swim passes had changed his mother’s life, bringing an end to her unhealthy fixation and allowing her to be the mother she wanted to be.

As lawyers, we should always be mindful of the fact that it is not just court victories that can change our clients’ lives for the better, and we should not hesitate to use our ability to advocate in non-court realms.

9. Which aspects of life in the legal profession did law school not prepare you for in a practical way?

Tim Relaxing on his back porchLaw school does a good job of teaching us analytical thinking and where to find information. It teaches us the theory of law. It does an abysmal job of teaching how to practice law in the real world. It does not teach us how to manage client expectations or how to deal with difficult clients. It does not teach us how to provide practical advice. There are no human resources (courses) in law school that equip us with the skill set to be an effective employer who empowers staff, the people who are the foundation of a successful law practice.

10. Had you not pursued a career in law, which careers do you believe would have been most suitable for Tim Louis’ thoughts and talents?

Before and during law school, my passion was community activism. In my first year at Langara College, I helped co-found the BC Coalition of People with Disabilities. During law school, I helped co-found the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. I also spearheaded what we now call HandiDart – a door-to-door bus service for people with physical disabilities.

If I hadn’t pursued a career in law, I would have looked for jobs that let me continue with my passion – community activism around social issues. One of the things I like most about having my own law practice is that it allows me to do exactly this and make a living at the same time. I am very fortunate to have found a career that lets me merge my passion for justice with my need to earn an income.

11. Disability law is one of your specialities, and your reputation is rock solid. Looking back through the years, what do you regard as some of the most important or significant ways that things have changed for people living with disabilities?

I am most familiar with mobility disabilities.

Transportation has improved enormously. When I was in my first year of law school, the public bus system had no lift-equipped vehicles. HandiDart, a door-to-door custom transit service, did not exist and individuals who were not able to use public transit had to rely on charity based and inadequate services. I still remember hitchhiking in my wheelchair to job interviews for summer employment between years at college. Today, most of the province’s public transit buses are lift-equipped and HandiDart is a government-funded service with a multi-million-dollar budget.

At one point in time in British Columbia, curb cuts were the exception to the norm. Today, the situation is the complete reverse. There has been a fundamental change in options for people who require assistance with activities of daily living. Dave Barrett’s NDP government, in the early 1970s, introduced Community Care which enabled people to get assistance in their own homes, rather than being moved into an institution. In later years, a further improvement was the option of a direct funding model where the individual who needs assistance receives funding directly from the government, so they can hire the (right form of ) assistance they need when they need it.

12. You have been a member of TLABC for more than 25 years. You are also a PAC donor, which means you support our organization’s public-minded aims. What does voluntary membership in this professional association provide you with, generally or specifically?

The TLABC’s listservers level the playing field for lawyers like me who are not part of a large downtown law firm. By giving its members the ability to consult with a large and growing pool of like-minded lawyers, TLABC has created a virtual law firm that is larger than any of the downtown law firms.

In my experience, TLABC’s courses are exceptionally practical. I always leave feeling my investment of time has been a sound one.

For trial lawyers, the Verdict is a must-read publication. Of note, the Verdict’s Case Notes keep me up to date with the latest developments in the law.

13. Whether far back in history or in modern day, who are some of the lawyers and laypeople that come to mind when you think of people you admire?

Harry Rankin. He was an institution who could be at city council – wearing his city council hat until the early morning hours at a public hearing – and by 7am he’d be at work, just a few hours later, as a lawyer getting ready for his daily trial. On Saturday mornings, he would be in his office providing free legal services to anybody who appeared there. At both city council and in his practice, he always stood up for the underdog.

Che Guevara. It might surprise you, but the Che quote I’d like to give is this: “Let me say at the risk of seeming ridiculous that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”

Beverley McLachlin. She was my first-year contracts professor in law school and I had the privilege of appearing before her on two occasions after she had been appointed to the bench. She combines a razor-sharp legal mind with a great sense of practicality.

Leonard Weinglass. He was a lawyer’s lawyer who was known for taking on radical causes. In his distinguished career, he acted for: The Chicago Seven, Daniel Ellsberg, Angela Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal. He was the lead appellate attorney for the Cuban Five, from 2002 until his death in 2011.

14. If you could have been counsel on any case in history - in any field of law - which one would it be, and why? In addition to that, which lawyer in history would you have most liked to work with or worked against?

If I could have been counsel on any case in history, it would have been the case of the Cuban Five. During the 1990s, Cuba was the victim of numerous terrorist attacks. Five Cuban men volunteered to infiltrate anti-Cuban terrorist groups based in Florida. The information they obtained and relayed back to Cuba saved hundreds of innocent lives. This information was then turned over to the FBI by Cuba in the hope that the terrorists would be arrested. Instead, the five unarmed Cuban volunteers were arrested and put on trial for spying. They were convicted by a Miami jury and sentenced to multiple life sentences. I find this outcome such a miscarriage of justice I would have given anything to have been part of their outstanding legal team, led by the late Leonard Weinglass.

15. Which book or film featuring law as a central theme (or as a backdrop to a compelling story) would be at the top of your list of favourites?

The Paper Chase. My first-year property law professor, Professor Todd, was a carbon copy of the professor in the film. While the storyline was about the relationship of the young law student with the professor’s daughter, the movie as a whole provided a very accurate portrayal of my experience in law school (just to be perfectly clear, I did not have any affairs with the daughters of any of my professors – it’s the process of law school I’m talking about here!).

16. Which quotation or mantra do you find particularly inspirational, or perhaps even helps guide you on a day-to- day basis?

A client is not an interruption of our work; he/she is the purpose of it. We are not doing a favour by serving him/her; he/she is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so – from “What is a Client” – which is hanging in my waiting room at Tim Louis & Company.

17. If every one of your arguments was made and your law books were closed forever, where would you be living, who would be with you and what would life be like for Mr. Tim Louis? By extension, describe an ideal day in which you are living life your way.

It wouldn’t be that much different than what I am doing today. I would be living with my life partner, Penny Parry, in our home in Kitsilano, where we have lived for the last 25 years. We’re both very lucky to have a home that allows us to hold great parties, work while sitting on our south-facing porch (so we get sunshine and warmth well into the winter) and be within walking distance of local stores - which let us become car-free many years ago. The only difference might be that we would have even more time to work on social issues than we do right now.

18. At this stage of your career – with the sum and strength of your experience as a lawyer – what do you, Tim Louis, know for certain about law?

I go back to what my mentor Harry Rankin said: “We have a legal system, not a justice system.”

19. At present – with the benefit of your many life experiences to date – what do you, Tim Louis, know for certain about life?

Penny and Tim celebrating a legal victory at one of Tim's favorite restaurantsThe older I get, the more convinced I am that the world’s major problems are solvable. As a lawyer, I’ve learned the value of a form of negotiation commonly referred to as principled negotiations. I am heartened by the impact of individuals like former US President Jimmy Carter who, at the age of 88, continues to use his moral compass when speaking out on issues from the Middle East to the lack of democracy in the USA.

I am also more convinced than ever that failure is certain if we don’t try. Success, while not guaranteed, is only possible if we try.

20. – Tim to Tim – Asked & Answered
Tim’s Question to Himself:
Which names are on your dream guest-list for dinner? Tim’s reply:

Chris Hedges – my favourite journalist. He is an American

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and war correspondent specializing in American and Middle Eastern politics and societies.

Arundhati Roy – my favourite author. She is an ardent advocate of social and economic justice for India’s oppressed minorities. Evo Morales – my favourite politician. He is Bolivia’s first indigenous president – a humble man whose parents were subsistence farmers.

Noam Chomsky – my favourite sage. He is a living legend and one of the world’s greatest intellects.

Norman Gary Finkelstein – my favourite middle-east commentator. He is an American political scientist, activist and author.

Deepa Mehta – my favourite film director. She speaks with images and says more than words can. She is a Genie Award- winning Indian-born Canadian film director and screenwriter.

What a dinner party! It wouldn’t end until the wee hours of the morning!