Renatta Austin wanted to help kids in trouble at school. To do so, she’s redefining how a law practice can work
Just two years after graduating from law school, Renatta Austin (BA 2009 Woodsworth, JD 2012) founded her own unique law practice. By creatively managing her costs, she is able to devote nearly 40 per cent of her time to serving low-income clients at a steeply reduced rate, helping people – often youth – who fall through the cracks of legal aid programs.
How do you, in your practice, help young people?
My work with young people includes education, youth criminal justice and child welfare. The three overlap quite a bit. For example, a young person who is dealing with what seems like a simple expulsion may also be facing criminal charges, have an exceptionality/disability and be involved with a child welfare agency due to the same behaviour issues, or other issues at home. I often play the role of a mediator. It’s not win-lose like in the court system, and ultimately I want the best outcome for the child.
What sorts of outcomes can you facilitate?
In the school context, most disciplinary issues involve bullying. For the children who are being bullied, there can be disagreement between the school administrators and parents about what types of support they need. Some children already have a care team in place, so I may present those professional opinions to the school. Sometimes, I work with the families to identify the support people they need to get onside, then make the case to the school about why this kind of treatment would be appropriate.
In terms of the children doing the bullying, perhaps they’re facing an expulsion and I represent them at the hearing. Beyond that, I also make sure that they’re getting the non-academic support, such as therapy or other programs that they need to correct their behaviour. If a child is over the age of 12, they may also have been charged criminally, and so I offer them representation in court.
On the special education side of things, I often negotiate supports for kids who have needs that are not being accommodated because the school doesn’t have the resources.
Why are these clients ineligible for legal aid?
Legal aid, as with any other government program, faces budgetary pressures and has had to make decisions about where it invests its money. For the most part, it is only available in what are considered very serious matters, usually criminal. The other thing is, education-related disputes usually haven’t quite got to any sort of formal legal proceeding, and so they just do not attract legal aid.
How do you use technology to cut costs?
I want to have as paperless a practice as possible, so I keep my files in the cloud (using special secure software for lawyers). I can literally work from anywhere. I try to use email as much as possible, even where most other lawyers are still using printed letters, and I also have an online fax service. I don’t know what people did before technology!
I also rely heavily on resources that are available for free: for office space to meet clients, I use the Great Library of the Law Society. I’m able to pass those savings on to clients in the form of a lower fee. I also balance social justice–type work that services low- and moderate-income individuals with other types of work that are a bit more lucrative.
How did your U of T experience influence your career?
When I was in high school, I did a couple of the law school’s outreach programs – such as Steps to University, which allowed me to take Sociology 101 in Grade 11. So by the time I started university, I felt really comfortable there. When I was in law school, I was heavily involved with the youth outreach programs myself, such as Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) for vulnerable and marginalized high school students. I loved it, because I really believe that education is the great equalizer. Often, people from certain communities never aspire to certain professions because they don’t have the exposure.
The work that U of T has done in the last 20 years to try to make sure that the law school is more accessible and more reflective of the broader community had a huge impact on my life before I got to U of T, while I was there and after I moved on. I’m still involved with U of T mentorship programs at Woodsworth College and at the law school.
Why did you choose to work with children and youth?
I’m a firm believer that if you want to see social change and help people get on the right path, it’s much easier to do it if you intervene earlier on. If we give children as much opportunity as possible to become successful adults, then overall society wins. And we’re less likely to end up spending money on prisons and on social programs to deal with problems when they become adults.
Why do you love your job?
It’s incredibly rewarding. I always knew that I wanted to use my legal skills to go about making society more equal and more fair, so that everyone has at least the opportunity to reach their full potential. To me, what’s interesting and exciting is figuring out how to solve these wicked problems that have probably existed since the beginning of time. That gets me up every day.