Isabel Schurman/ Criminal Defence From Legal Aid to Private Practice

Isabel Schurman, Ad. E. is a criminal defence lawyer. Having graduated from McGill in 1983, she did her articling with Legal Aid and passed the bar in 1984. She worked with the firm of Lapointe, Schachter, Champagne, Talbot from 1985 to 1999 until she began her own firm, Schurman, Longo, Grenier, now SGS Avocats. She has served with the National Criminal Section of the Canadian Bar Association and is Vice Chair of the Canadian Council of Defence Lawyers since 1992. She has also served on numerous Montreal Bar Association Criminal Justice Committees since 1996, including Access to Justice in English amongst others. She served as a member of the faculty of the Federation of Law Societies National Criminal Law Program from 2001 to 2014 and taught sentencing and evidence as a Sessional Lecturer at McGill University from 1997 to 2014.

Let’s start with the basics. Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

 I never in a million years imagined myself going to law school. I was in a public high school, and though I had very good marks, every time I would ask the guidance counselors what I should look at for a career, they would try to direct me to teaching or nursing, or what were perceived as good careers for a woman.  When I gave the valedictory speech for my high school graduating class, one of my teachers came to see me after and asked if I had ever considered law.  I said, “no, because I’ve never met a lawyer I liked. ” The truth was that I had never met a lawyer, but I was too proud to say so.  Luckily, I had been very involved in high school journalism, and wanted to make my career in journalism.  I worked full time as a journalist inside of various companies for a few years after high school, and I wrote freelance for some newspapers.  Once I had done this for a while, I decided that I needed more of an education in order to have the opportunity to write about subjects which I considered of importance and which really interested me. I entered law school in order to acquire that background.  I never intended to practice.

Isabel after having passed the Bar

Isabel after having passed the Bar


What did the journey from big law to your lawfully uncommon career look like?

 Like many students at McGill, I applied for an articling position well in advance, and was offered a position with a firm specializing in Maritime Law.  They literally hired their candidates two years in advance.  I applied because I was afraid of being out of work at the end of the program.  When I went through with the application process, years in advance of the articling, I had no idea what interested me.  I did know that the only course that I really loved was criminal law, but it was a known fact that the organizations or firms in that field of specialty did not even begin interviewing articling candidates until only a few months before the beginning of the articling jobs.  It was also a known fact that there were very few openings in that field. 


Isabel with husband Bernard at her swearing in at the American College of Trial Lawyer Conference in Washington, 2010.

Isabel with husband Bernard at her swearing in at the American College of Trial Lawyer Conference in Washington, 2010.

What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?

 While I was in law school I really enjoyed the criminal law classes and I loved the work at the Legal Information Clinic.  The common thread is that I clearly loved seeing the application of law to ordinary people and their problems.  The human drama part of criminal law stirred my passion.


What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?

 The selection of courses, and the priorities of many students and professors made the program seem like it was a corporate commercial training school. This was a source of frustration to those of us who wanted to see the faculty offer more courses and opportunities for students to explore areas that were not big firm practice areas.  Social law, immigration law, native law, criminal law, human rights law were just some areas where many of us believed that the faculty could have explored offering far more courses and opportunities than those that were offered at the time.    The Legal Information Clinic was not even recognized in any significant way by the Law Faculty.  The Clinic operated out of the Student Union building, and no students, not even those who were appointed directors, were able to obtain any credit for the work done there. 


Do you still see law all around you?

 Once you have studied law you do tend to see law, or legal implications of situations, all around you.  That never changes, because the study of law, some say, is the study of a different way of thinking.  This is not, however, a negative thing.  Seeing law all around you may just mean that you have learned to analyze events and situations in a multi-dimensional way, the legal analysis constituting one of those dimensions.


You are at a coffee house speaking to a first-year law student. What advice would you give them? 

 Follow your passions and remain open to opportunity.  As I mentioned earlier, I never thought that I would be a criminal defence practitioner.  Criminal law became one of my passions from the first course that I took in first year law. By being aware of that passion, and remaining open to opportunity, I ended up with a rich and stimulating career.  I applied for an articling position with Legal Aid, although everyone told me that the chances of getting hired were impossibly slim. For whatever reason, it worked out, and I was able to begin working in the field of my passion.  I had to re-think my other passion, writing, and decide whether I would give criminal defence a chance, rather than continuing to dream of being a foreign correspondent.  This is where being open to opportunity served me well.  After 34 years in the field, I still do not feel that I am working for a living.  I have been able to continue writing, although not as a foreign correspondent.  I have had the opportunity, over the years, to write about developments in the field of criminal law.  In addition, and more importantly, in every case where I have represented someone before judges or juries my love of writing has helped me to accurately and, I hope poignantly, illustrate their human drama. I have literally written hundreds, if not thousands, of human stories for the considerations of trial courts. 

Isabel’s graduation picture from 1982.

Isabel’s graduation picture from 1982.


What does a day in your life look like? Give us the rundown!

 No two days look the same, and that is exactly what I love about my practice.  I could be in a trial, which means early start for collecting thoughts and books, trial all day, dealing with questions and concerns of clients, prosecutors, counsel for co-accused persons or trial judges.  Trials can be hours, or weeks, or even months long.  If I am not in trial, I may be meeting a new client, and yet another human story unfolds as I meet the new person.  Every case is different, every human being is different, and each person and case comes with its own twists and turns and challenges. This is the most fascinating and stimulating part of the practice. I may also be spending time with any one of the young lawyers who work with me in every file.  They, this new generation, are a stimulating part of my practice as they bring new ideas, new energies and new perspectives to each file, while being interested in learning that which they could not learn in law school. 


If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?

 Spending time with close friends and family members with whom I love to laugh, cry and share stories. Learn to play a new song or classical piece on the guitar.  Continue work on some private writings that  have been works -in - progress for years. 


Any regrets?

Can’t think of any this moment…..maybe if I had been more sure of myself I would not have applied two years in advance and accepted a position in an area which , as it turns out, did not hold the same interest for me as the area which became my passion.   On the other hand, the fact that I had worked there for a while before applying, and ultimately being accepted in criminal law, allowed me to have a basis of comparison and to see that criminal law was truly my passion.