The former managing partner of Pinkofskys in Toronto has reinvented the firm with a new name and approach that emphasize the importance of privately retained clients.
According to Reid Rusonik, problems with legal aid have made the criminal defence firm’s old model of business “unsustainable.”
Rusonik has retained the bulk of his colleagues at Pinkofskys, including Jack Pinkofsky in the role of senior counsel, in forming the new firm: Rusonik O’Connor Ross Gorham & Angelini LLP.
With 22 trial lawyers and two practising appellate counsel, Rusonik claims his new firm inherits Pinkofskys’ title as Canada’s largest specialized criminal defence firm.
But he says the state of legal aid has forced lawyers to market themselves to clients who can afford to retain the firm privately. In the past, Rusonik says Pinkofskys gave little thought to the type of client who came through the door, which resulted in legal aid accounting for about 75 per cent of cases.
The figure for the new firm stands at about 50 per cent. The private portion of the client base generates about 75 per cent of the firm’s revenue.
The ultimate aim, Rusonik says, is to ensure the firm can continue to provide quality representation to people who can only retain counsel through legal aid.
Private clients, in effect, subsidize the legal aid work. “We need to increase funding ourselves by doing enough privately attained work that it’s still affordable to do the legal aid work,” Rusonik tells Law Times.
A new remuneration model at the firm provides incentives for lawyers to augment their earnings with privately retained clients. “If they need to do better to cope with their debt, they can do that,” Rusonik says.
“If they’re carefree in that respect and want to concentrate on social issues, they can do that as well. In a purely salaried environment, we didn’t necessarily have that incentive.”
The firm has moved into new premises on Lombard Street in downtown Toronto that are part of an image change designed to attract private clients. “They want a different level of comfort, a different level of service, and a different level of decor,” Rusonik says.
The shift, he notes, was a controversial one in the Pinkofskys boardroom. One senior partner, Edward Royle, declined to join the new firm and instead stayed behind at the old offices on University Avenue.
For Rusonik’s part, he wrestled with the changing reality for years as legal aid budgets dwindled. “There hasn’t been a meaningful increase for services rendered for about 20 years,” he says. “It’s just not viable.”
But he didn’t want to join the growing ranks of criminal lawyers who give up on legal aid altogether. Still, he now feels an affinity with James Woods’ lawyer character in the film True Believer in which he’s accused of taking money from marijuana dealers.
“He says, ‘No, I take money from coke dealers, and they pay for the defence of the marijuana dealers,’” Rusonik says. “That’s our strategy right now.”
Andras Schreck, a vice president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, says it has become increasingly difficult for lawyers to make a living from legal aid cases.
“The problem isn’t just the lower hourly rate; it’s also the fact your hours are capped. Then there’s unbillable time spent with all sorts of administrative dealings with legal aid, which you don’t deal with otherwise.”
Many criminal lawyers have to make sacrifices early on in their careers, Schreck notes. “They have generally made a choice that they’re not going to draw the same kind of income as people who practise in other areas. That’s the choice you make because you like the kind of work you’re going into.”
Christopher Hicks, a partner at Hicks Block Adams LLP, says he wishes Rusonik and his partners well. “It’s good for people like them to have this fresh start because they can start their own culture,” says Hicks, whose firm is another major player in Toronto’s criminal defence scene.
His firm had its own problems with Legal Aid Ontario earlier this year when payment delays pushed it to the brink of bankruptcy. It then had to take out an emergency loan to cover the $500,000 shortfall in payments.
Hicks hopes Rusonik can find a model that allows criminal defence firms to level the playing field in the competition for the best young lawyers.
“Those who want to do criminal law virtually always go to the Crown side,” Hicks says. “There’s a real imbalance, and we can’t offer a starting lawyer anywhere near the same kind of salary.”
Rusonik is very familiar with the dilemma faced by promising lawyers with an interest in criminal law who instead look elsewhere for the lucrative practice they feel they need in order to pay off huge debts from their studies.
He almost became one of those early casualties himself after his graduation from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1987. During his years at Osgoode, he saw criminal law as his calling. But as graduation neared, he felt a pressing need to help his family financially.
As a result, he sought an articling position at a Bay Street firm, which apparently ended his criminal defence career before it began.
But one of Rusonik’s first assignments that dealt with an old woman struggling to pay her rent quickly convinced him he had taken a wrong turn in his career. “I thought they wanted me to help her work out a way to manage it but it turns out they wanted her evicted,” he says. “I lasted there two days.”
After a tip from an old classmate, he headed over to Pinkofskys to ask about an articling position. A mix-up between some of the senior partners meant he was interviewed on the spot by Pinkofsky himself for a position the firm had already filled.
The meeting gave him a clue about the workload he could expect in his new career. “He grilled me for about an hour and a half without ever stopping work on the factum he was preparing for trial the next day,” Rusonik says.
The firm hired Rusonik, and for a while it operated with an extra articling student. Soon after, one of them ran himself into the ground and had to take time off, while the other decided he wasn’t cut out for criminal law, which left Rusonik the last one standing.
“After a short sojourn in civil, it was the best conceivable training experience a person in criminal law could ever have,” he says.
After his call to the bar in 1989, he became a partner at Pinkofskys three years later. For the last 15 years, he was its managing partner.
Rusonik has gained a reputation for Charter of Rights and Freedoms defences seeking to have evidence excluded or charges stayed for breaches, often by police. Those cases are the ones that give him the most pleasure.
“If I could do that every day, I would,” he says. “Upholding a Charter right a day keeps the Nazis away. That’s my motto. So many times . . . the most likely people to be violated are those who couldn’t afford to retain us privately.
If you’re going to have good criminal lawyers to defend Charter rights, which are everybody’s Charter rights, you have to be able to do legal aid cases.”
Despite his attempts to make criminal law more lucrative, Rusonik still warns young lawyers that not everyone is cut out to practise in that area as the demands of court appearances and preparation can be physically exhausting.
“You have to love what you do because the financial rewards are simply not as high at the outset and for many years after,” he says.
“The people I work with don’t see it as work. It’s a passion, and they couldn’t help themselves. That makes it a fun place to work because we all love what we do.”