Small towns in Ontario fighting to keep legal services may want to give Kristen Bucci a call for advice on luring law grads.
Bucci, 41, has carved the kind niche that many law students dream about when getting into the profession but see slip away as debts pile up and Bay Street appears as the only sensible option.
Now practising for the Thunder Bay firm Buset & Partners LLP, she’s used her drive to become a successful professional on her own terms to serve her community and pile up some impressive accomplishments - both at the office and at home - along the way.
Last year, she received the Ontario Justice Education Network Chief Justices’ Award for her creation of a Law Day committee while president of the Thunder Bay Law Association. Under Bucci’s guidance, the committee set up mock trials, poster contests, courthouse tours, and other activities to raise awareness of the province’s legal system.
Bucci has remained involved with OJEN, helping create an adopt-a-school program in which schools are paired with a local lawyer who’s available, for example, to give speeches on the law.
“The mock trials have been really successful; the schools just love them,” says Bucci, who also is part of the provincial executive of the County and District Law Presidents’ Association as a representative of the northwest region. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Bucci, 41, was born in Red Rock, a small town about an hour east of Thunder Bay, and has lived in northwestern Ontario her whole life. She has two children, Kennedy, 12, and Sydney, 9.
She says it was in Grade 7 that she chose law as her profession, (“I think back then it probably seemed glamorous,” she says.) Her parents - her dad a university English lecturer turned college administrator, and mom a stay-at-home mother who later became a bank branch manager - made it clear that a university education was mandatory.
“I didn’t deviate from that,” she says. “You know how some kids take a year off to find themselves - I didn’t do any of that.”
She spent just two years as a politics undergrad at the University of Ottawa, then moved on to Osgoode Hall Law School, where she graduated in 1991.
After articling at the Mississauga Law Firm of Pallett Valo LLP for financial reasons and to take her bar admission course, Bucci returned to Thunder Bay to work at the firm Shaffer Jobbitt, where she remained for only 10 months before moving on to take over a retiring lawyer’s sole practice.
She practised on her own for 10 years before shifting in January 2003 to join Buset & Partners, where she practises family law.
Bucci credits top Thunder Bay family law lawyers Doug Shaw and Patrick Smith - both now Superior Court judges - for mentoring her as a sole practitioner.
“Thunder Bay is a very small community, and one of the things I actually really like about practising here is my files are with the same handful of lawyers every single time,” she says.
Bucci also credits her assistant, Teresa Steinhaeusser, for pinch-hitting as a nanny when her children were born. Bucci was able to take only two weeks off after giving birth, with the risk too strong of losing clients. She set up an office nursery until each child was six months old.
That’s when Steinhaeusser, who has been with Bucci for 16 years and is called “auntie” by the kids, lent an extra hand.
“She’s fantastic. During that period of time, not only was she my assistant, but she was my nanny. If I had to go to court, she stayed with the girls,” says Bucci.
Bucci’s children also came along to settlement meetings.
“It was fun. We had a great time,” she says. “I think they’re very adaptable kids as a result.”
While the makeshift nursery was a godsend for a busy sole practitioner, Bucci says it also seemed to help her clients.
“Family law clients tend to be going through one of the worst experiences of their lives at the time they are coming to see me, and a lot of my clients felt really calmed by the fact that my kids were there. They would come in and ask to hold them.”
As a woman in private practice who faced exactly the kind of challenges the Law Society of Upper Canada hopes to ease with measures in its recently approved report on women in private practice, Bucci backs the governing body’s efforts to aid females. LSUC plans to create a parental leave benefit, worth up to $3,000 a month for three months, and a locum service.
“I know that when I was going through all of that, if someone had offered me $3,000 a month, I would have jumped at it.”
Bucci wrote CDLPA’s response to the law society’s licensing and accreditation task force report, and says many of LSUC’s current initiatives are linked. The graying of the bar is another challenge for rural centres, she notes.
Creation of a law school in northern Ontario, such as a proposal by Lakehead University, could help, she says.
Bucci suggests the problem for women - and many men also - begins in law school, where students rack up massive debts that filter them to big-name firms where salaries are as much as triple those offered in areas like Thunder Bay. She says many lawyers who work for large urban firms are forced to work longer hours
to keep on top of their files.
“The smaller centres need to have some sort of . . . assistance in letting students know how great it is to practise in a smaller centre,” says Bucci, who prioritizes attending her children’s hockey games, going to the gym, reading adventure novels, and travelling.
Those students would do well to look at Bucci as an example of just how great it can be to set up shop where there’s more to life than the billable hour.
This is the first in our new Women in Law series that will be running in Law Times this summer, featuring profiles of female lawyers from around the province.