Legal Aid BC innovates in helping navigate the law

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Making a positive difference for marginalized individuals is the objective of Legal Aid BC. It was that mission which two years ago attracted Michael Bryant, who had already enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the law and politics.

“We’re a purpose-driven organization,” says Bryant who became CEO in early 2022. “People come on board here because they have either great compassion or great ambition for justice reform and anti-racism.”

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Legal Aid BC is based in Vancouver but has nine offices across the province. “Much of what we do is to connect about 3,000 clients every year to about 800 lawyers in different parts of BC,” says Bryant. “The main work we do is criminal law, but we also do family law, child welfare law and handle applications for refugees seeking asylum in Canada.”

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The organization employs 24 in-house attorneys, most of whom are based in nine Parent Legal Centers. “Our team of employees is laser-focused on our clients, most of whom are in serious legal distress,” said chief operating officer Salman Azam. “We want better outcomes for those clients, and have made that job number one.”

This past September, Legal Aid BC launched a new initiative aimed at enhancing the services it provides to those in need. The organization hired 12 new employees called navigators and expects to increase that number.

“Our navigators come from a mix of backgrounds,” says Bryant. “Some have social work or legal experience, experience with the folks living on the streets and some speak multiple languages. They have an ability to work with clients who are poor and dealing with mental illness, addiction or trauma in their lives.”

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Azam adds: “Besides navigating a complex legal system, they’re helping clients find housing and medical care. As far as I know, there are very few jurisdictions doing what we are doing in the legal aid space. That’s a really exciting area for us.”

One of the strengths of the organization is the diversity of its workforce, which reflects the face of contemporary BC “There is racial, ethnic and gender diversity here, as well as diversity of thought and identity,” says Bryant. “More than half of the executives are Indigenous or racialized, and over 70 per cent of our managers are women.”

Legal Aid BC works hard to retain employees by supporting professional development and providing opportunities for advancement. Annual subsidies of up to $1,200 are available for employees seeking accreditations through outside organizations or simply trying to keep pace with developments in the legal profession.

“We give people who join us the opportunity to advance,” said Bryant. “Somebody may start in a junior position. We want them to advance to supervisor, then to management and even to executive. That was my predecessor’s experience and that of the last two vice-presidents of legal services and strategy.”

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Azam cites the case of his executive assistant when he joined the organization. “She showed an aptitude for project management,” he says. “We paid for a project management course, she was promoted internally, and she’s become a very good project co-ordinator for us.”

Legal Aid BC has begun some campus outreach to recruit talent, but Azam says it can be a challenge, especially for graduating law students who may see more lucrative opportunities elsewhere. “You came here to do good and to make a difference,” he says.

This story was produced by Mediacorp in partnership with Postmedia, on behalf of Legal Aid BC.

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