Paralegal Louise Desjardins thrived in LAO’s paralegal study

Published: February 10, 2016

How many paralegals can say they once worked as a private investigator?

At least one for sure-Louise Desjardins, one of five paralegals that participated in Legal Aid Ontario (LAO)’s paralegal study.

Working as a part-time private investigator was the perfect job for Louise Desjardins when her three kids were young. It took her out of the house at night and on the weekends, when her husband could step in and take care of their little ones. And it was related to her previous employment before the kids arrived-title searcher at a law firm.

The appeal of LAO

In 1998, the appeal of meeting with clients and the public drew Louise to LAO-as a traveling assessment officer at LAO’s Ottawa office, for the Ottawa, Perth, Brockville, Pembroke and Cornwall offices.

“The social aspect of legal aid-the ability to directly help underprivileged clients, was of interest to me,” she explains. “And I think what Legal Aid Ontario stands for-making access to justice available to everyone, not just those who can afford it-makes it a great organization.”

In April 2005, she joined Ottawa’s criminal duty counsel support staff. She became a paralegal in 2006, a licenced paralegal in March 2008, and participant in LAO’s paralegal study during 2014 and 2015.

Study lets paralegals use their full scope of practice

Like the other participants, she performed duties within her scope of practice as part of an inter-professional legal team.

While participating in the study, she worked in the busy main duty counsel office in the Ottawa courthouse alongside five lawyers, plus a legal aid worker, an articling student and a manager of criminal and family duty counsel.

Senior counsel Jeff Schroeder mentored her for the first six months, and duty counsel Maria Giamberardino has mentored her since then. “Maria is always there to provide support and answer my questions when needed, and so are the other duty counsel,” says Louise.

A paralegal’s day in the Ottawa courts

As the most experienced paralegal that took part in the study, Louise’s duties expanded beyond providing legal advice and information about diversion services. Under the direction of manager and supervisory duty counsel Laura Baker, she began to work with an assigned lawyer in plea court, handling pleas on summary criminal matters that fell within her scope of practice.

But every workday was different-while she was in the study and now, as a full-time paralegal.

She begins each day in the duty counsel office at 8 a.m., sorting through the day’s files with her colleagues and noting which lawyers and clients are in what courts that day.

By the time the office door opens, she says, “It’s as if we open the floodgates-people are lined up.”

In general, she starts by asking clients how she can help, answers questions, takes instructions on desired next steps and provides her best advice.

If the client is someone that Louise has already met with the Crown to discuss, for instance, she tells the client the Crown’s position and the reasoning behind it.

If the client wants go to plea court and wrap the matter up that day, she might suggest they do a little work up front first, like community service hours or a letter of apology. She can then adjourn the matter for a month and then maybe pitch for an absolute discharge.

By the afternoon, Louise usually goes to video remand court, counsel pre-trials or cell block to assist in bail court and/or get instructions on in-custody pleas.

But “usually” is the operative word. She might have to attend a court if a lawyer becomes unavailable. Or she might be called to a pre-trial with the Crown if the lawyer is needed in bail court, in which case she’d pass all indictable offenses back to that lawyer. Or she might have been called upon to support clients in some other way.

Identifying as a paralegal

On top of all that, she takes the opportunity to educate clients who come to the duty counsel office asking to speak to a lawyer about what paralegals do.

“I think it’s very important from the get-go to clearly state I am not a lawyer,” she says. “I tell them I am a licensed paralegal who can help them according to the Law Society’s rules, and that I work for the duty counsel office.”

“If a client wants to plead guilty and is uncomfortable with me handling it, I would find them a lawyer. I have not encountered any resistance or objections so far.”

Connecting with outreach workers

In addition, she can be called upon to determine if clients need the support of an outreach worker. To this end, Louise reviews the charges with the client, gets background information and, depending on the charges, asks if they have addiction or mental health issues.

The latter is particularly important, because Louise is often the first point of contact for clients applying to Ottawa’s mental health court. She has expanded her expertise in this area through a two-day LAO course on dealing with mentally ill clients.

Where appropriate, she (or another LAO staffer) will then directly liaise with outreach workers on behalf of their clients. She will reach out, for instance, to staff from the John Howard Society, the Bail Supervision Program, the Elizabeth Fry Society (which operates the courts’ diversion program), and the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“If a client has mental health issues I can ask them-inoffensively- if they are schizophrenic, bipolar or on medication,” explains Louise. “If they meet the criteria for mental health court, I’ll explain what that court is, what it can do for them and that it’s voluntary. I’m not there to make an assessment of the person, just to determine how best to deal with their matter.”

Helping clients directly through LAO

Whether or not she had been selected for LAO’s study, Louise knows one thing for sure: she wants to continue to work as a paralegal at LAO.

“It’s a great field to work in and a nice place to work with a great group of people,” says Louise. “I really enjoy it.”

Note: Louise is now on staff as a permanent fulltime paralegal.