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20 Years by Renee Konotopsky

Although I graduated from the University of Saskatchewan Law School the year before, in May 2000 –
and the idea of becoming a lawyer bloomed a lot earlier than that while in high school in my home town
of Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland – I officially became a lawyer on August 3rd, 2001. So on August
3rd, this year, I celebrated my 20th anniversary call to the Alberta bar.

For all of those 20 years, I have practiced exclusively in the area of family law. 20 years? It’s hard to believe. So as the date started approaching, I wondered how do you celebrate a 20 year anniversary of becoming a lawyer? Well, I know traditionally, as lawyers we do not celebrate our bar call at all, and certainly, not on an annual basis. It’s not like celebrating another trip around the sun on your birthday. There’s no cake. But reaching 20 years of practice is at least worthy of some quiet reflection, I think.

A lot has happened in 20 years. And, of course, that’s a true statement for any 20 year period. But this 20 year journey is book-ended with some pretty major world events.

On the one end, exactly one week after I started my family law career here in Calgary on September 4, 2001, the events of September 11, 2001 happened. I remember in those first few days following 9-11 being very sad and upset that the world had changed so drastically. I can vividly recall telephone conversations with my dad in Newfoundland where he tried to alleviate my fears saying, “while things are really upside down right now, the world will correct itself because most people are good most of the time”. He didn’t have to look too far to point me to some very heart-warming examples. As most people are now aware, because of the Broadway show, “Come From Away”, the people of Gander, Newfoundland and surrounding communities housed, fed, clothed, and most importantly, comforted with shared tears, music and even laughter, approximately 7000 people whose planes were diverted to the Gander airport that September day.

At the other end of this 20 year period, we are coming to what we all hope is the tail-end of the worldwide health crisis created by the Covid-19 virus and its many variants. These last 18 months have challenged us all in many ways. It has negatively affected, in varying degrees, our physical and mental health, our freedom and ability to travel and to gather (to celebrate or mourn) with family and friends, and it has also affected our education, activities and livelihood. When this pandemic started last March 2020, my dad, again, tried to ease my anxiety and fear about the unknown. “Be patient, things will get better”, he said. But in the meantime, “be kind to those who have a different view point – because everyone is just doing the best they can with the information that they have in the moment.” We lost my dad last November. Not from Covid, but from cancer. But because of Covid, our family could not travel to Newfoundland to be together. We have not yet held a funeral service and we have not been able to grieve this loss together. I have had to remember to “be patient, things will get better” and on many days to “be kind to myself, I am just doing the best I can”.

So, while people may be going through, what appears to be, a shared big life event, 9-11 or Covid or even cancer, everyone’s individual experiences and reactions to those experiences are unique to them. So, again. Be Patient. Be kind.

Similarly, I think sometimes, we can become complacent, and even impatient, with people going through separation and divorce. The numbers are high. Divorce has become a shared big life event for many. But again, parties’ individual experiences and their reactions/emotions and coping skills to successfully navigate their separation and divorce are not all the same. Indeed, they all have unique experiences and abilities. So, while we can’t know what people are going through exactly, I think it is a very important part of family lawyers’ job to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes so we can understand the people (our own client as well as the other party), along with their specific circumstances, as best we can.

I would suggest that lawyers do this as a matter of course. Well actually, more accurately, we do this as a matter of our education and training. We need to consider the other side’s position and their strategy so we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the opposing counsel/party. We also need to anticipate how a Judge or Arbitrator might decide an issue – we ask ourselves what evidence do we need to present to persuade that Judge or Arbitrator our perspective is the more reasonable/appropriate one – so, we attempt to stand in the shoes of the adjudicator.


What about before there are positions and strategies and what about before there are hearings scheduled? What if we tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the other party and understand their perspective from the outset? Wouldn’t we be in a better position to assist the family if we understood the perspective of the individuals in that family? Wouldn’t we be better problem solvers if we understood all of the moving pieces?

As parents, we try to teach our children to consider other people’s feelings, as well as, their perspective. To be good listeners and try to understand the why behind what someone thinks and/or feels. To give the other person the benefit of the doubt and to see the good in others. And most importantly, to show empathy to someone when they are hurt or experiencing something upsetting. I think compassion and empathy are two of the most important values to teach our children – most of this teaching, in my opinion, is simply highlighting their already innate abilities. Of course, once we have shared this ‘magical’ tool we expect them to put that skill to good use, extending compassion and empathy to all those around them, including their siblings, their friends and even to strangers.

Why, then, is it often difficult for spouses/partners to remember to extend this kindness and grace to one another when they are going through a separation and divorce? Why don’t adults remember to listen and understand one another before they react (and give instructions to their lawyers)? I think it is born out of their own feelings of sadness (for the loss of the relationship and the family unit) and out of their fear, fear of the unknown for their now, unplanned, future.

Parties going through a separation and divorce are not at their best. As family law lawyers it’s our job to help by demonstrating we can successfully navigate through the process while also showing kindness and grace to one another. This is not a landlord-tenant dispute where there is no need or value in salvaging an ongoing relationship. This is a family unit: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Tomorrow’s family unit just looks a little different.

My dad was an educator for over 45 years – he saw the best in people and tried to help them bring out their best. He saw it as a privilege.

20 years of practicing family law? I agree, it is a privilege.