Lara Kwitko is a criminal defence attorney at Schurman Grenier Strapatsas and Associates where she works on a number of files, including attempted murder, manslaughter, fraud, assaults, impaired driving, uttering threats and many other offences found in the Criminal Code. She recently drafted a factum which was given leave to Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. Lara also has an M.A. in Criminology from the University of Toronto and a B.A. in Honours Sociology from Concordia University. After graduating from her Master’s she worked at a number of Montreal-based marketing and advertising agencies, such as Marketel on their Air Canada account and Twist Image on their Dairy Farmers of Canada Account. She attended the University of Montreal in Law where she was a member of the Penal Club and the Innocence Project.
Let’s start with the basics. What are you doing now? In a sentence or so, describe your work/practice(s).
I currently work at Schurman Grenier Strapatsas and Associates (formerly Schurman Longo Grenier) as a criminal defence attorney. I’m the one you want to call when you get arrested/think you may be arrested/need advice on how the criminal legal system works.
Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?
No! After I finished my Master’s in Criminology at the University of Toronto, my family expected me to continue on into law. However, after being in school for so long, I really wanted to work and earn some money. After I graduated, I worked as an account manager for some Montreal based advertising and marketing agencies. It was only after working in the industry for a couple of years that I decided to go back to school and study law. Apparently, my grandmother wasn’t surprised, because when I was a baby she would say “she’s going to be a lawyer one day… she won’t stop talking!”, so maybe it was destined to be…
At what moment did you realize you wanted to take your legal education and career in your own direction?
After working in marketing for a couple of years, I worried that my career would be done by the time I was 50. Either you are considered “too old” and your ideas are no longer fresh, or you’re one of the first ones laid off when your agency loses a big client because you’re a top earner. I also had no desire to do an MBA. What I liked about practicing law was, the older you get, the more experience you acquire, the more valuable and sought out you are… that is what I wanted out of my career!
What were the steps you took and opportunities you seized in order to get where you are?
When I was studying law at U of M, I joined the penal club. We would host dinners where we invited judges, defence counsel and prosecutors to have dinner with a group of students. We also put on lunch time conferences featuring different penal law topics.
During my 1st summer as law student, I began working as a student-at-law at Schurman Longo Grenier (criminal defence firm). The great part about working for a small firm was that, despite being a law student, I was given a lot of responsibilities and the lawyers invited me to take part in some really exciting opportunities such as: visiting clients in detention centers, taking part in client meetings, going to court and going through disclosure. I stayed there for my entire time at University, did my stage there and I have been practicing as an attorney for the last three years!
As a 2nd year law student, I took part in a year-long class called “stage communautaire”. That year, the Innocence Project was doing a stage and I got it! I learnt about them when I was doing my M.A. in Criminology and it was an organization for which I had tremendous respect. So, it was a real honour to be part of the team and see how they work.
What makes your current practice “lawfully uncommon”?
In some ways, it can be quite traditional, but what I like is that no two days are the same and every case is different. One day you’re in court, and the next you could be visiting a client in a detention center, meeting with a prosecutor to negotiate a deal in a file, drafting a motion, meeting with private investigators or getting briefed by an expert in DNA or IP’s. I get the chance to become a “mini-expert” in whatever file it is that I am working on.
Is there anyone influential in your life that helped you realize your goals? Mentors or role models in the field that inspired you?
My father was a huge role model in my life, particularly as I got older. He passed away before I attended law school, but he was tremendously influential on my decision to attend. He was an intelligent, driven, respected and accomplished doctor who was knighted by the Order of Saint John. His success made me want to push myself in anything that I tried. He taught me many valuable work lessons, such as: hard work, not to shy away from failure, being personable and that when things don’t work out there’s always a way around it, you just have to be creative in finding the loophole. He led by example, and if I were only half as successful as he was in his career, I would be happy!
What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?
I always gravitated toward the areas of law that involved people: family law, youth protection, criminal law. Learning how the law protects us (or doesn’t) and those who are vulnerable has always interested me.
What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?
The bell curve. I really felt like it brought out the worst in people. It made students so competitive which is counterproductive and is not the reality of practicing (or at least mine). In practice, you are part of a team. Your colleagues’ success is your success. I was lucky that I made a group of friends that helped each other out and supported each other, but that is unfortunately not the case for everyone.
Were there challenges you faced in the transition from law school to the profession?
I did not have much of a transition because I had been working in a law firm since my first summer as a law student. The transition was quite seamless.
Do you still see the law all around you?
I do, particularly as a parent. What I mean by that is, I have seen quite a lot in my short career. I know how terrible our world can be and I know what youth are doing and getting in trouble for. This allows me to be straightforward and honest with my kids. I am not naïve, I know good kids can find themselves in trouble and I want to be open with my kids about these things. They also know that no matter what, they can come to me without judgment.
What advice would you give to a first-year law student?
Don’t give up! The first year of law school particularly difficult. You don’t know what is expected of you. You expect amazing grades (because let’s face it, most law students are perfectionists) that you may not get. You’re forced to take a bunch of classes that you likely aren’t interested in… but stick with it! After your first year, you learn what the profs expect of you, how to study, you start choosing classes that interest you and your grades will improve.
If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
Spending it with my kids. Days as a lawyer can be long and by the time I get home from work and have dinner it feels like it’s already their bedtime. I would also spend it doing yoga. Practicing in criminal law can be incredibly intense and stressful. It is important to take some quiet time and focus on yourself.
Sometimes I wish I had figured out my path sooner. Being pregnant and having a child in law school wasn’t easy. However, having my son at my graduation and swearing in ceremonies was very special. Also, I do not like the word “regret”. Everything I have done in my life has led me to have unique experiences, meet some incredible people and ultimately, it has all contributed to how I see and lead my practice. I wouldn’t change a thing.
The Lawfully Uncommon Initiative is supported by the McGill Career Development Office