Every time Jonathan Hendricks sat down to study or lay down to sleep during his student days at the University of Windsor Faculty of Law, he got a clearer view of his own legal future.
Hendricks’ residence backed onto the Detroit River, providing clear sight of the mass of trucks, cars, buses, and motorbikes trundling across the Ambassador Bridge with Detroit just beyond.
“There was no way to get away from the noise all day and all night on this massive bridge,” says Hendricks.
“Sometimes, it was so loud it was like bombs going off. I just thought: I’ve got to figure out how I can make a practice out of this sound ringing in my ears.”
Soon after his call to the bar, Hendricks moved to Toronto to set up his own practice inspired by his time in North America’s automobile heartland.
“The focus of my legal practice is really anything that happens in a vehicle,” says Hendricks.
“There’s almost an endless number of potential ways that your relationship with your car can intersect with the law.”
Hendricks’ time in Windsor, Ont., reawakened a much earlier fascination with cars that had started at a young age when his father bought an old Corvette and devoted himself to fixing it up.
“I’d follow him around when he went to different car shops to find parts and then watch while he fitted them in our driveway,” says Hendricks.
Later, while articling with Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General, Hendricks began to realize that an automobile-focused practice might just work.
“I’d see a lot of offences coming through that were car related: theft, impaired driving, stunt driving, dangerous driving, hit and runs, and so many more,” he says.
“I wanted to find a way to be my own boss, so I tried to engage in areas that I found very interesting and went out to make some connections.”
He now defends individuals facing a range of charges under the Provincial Offences Act and the Criminal Code.
In addition, Hendricks has built a following in the custom-car and hot-rod community, catering to enthusiasts like his father who are facing difficulties around insurance and importation as well as problems involving the police.
Hendricks has arranged seminars at classic and custom-car shows where he provides free information touching on the most common issues faced by the owners of unorthodox vehicles.
He says the talks help drivers understand their rights when pulled over as well as their responsibilities on the road. For example, he has cautioned people about the use of stretched tires fitted on rims that are too big for them in order to create a look popular among some hot-rod drivers.
“If you hit a pothole, that tire could pop and injure someone innocent,” he says.
“I find if you can get people thinking about what legal issues are at play and what can be the consequences of certain actions then you help them make better decisions.”
Michael Pasquale, a lawyer with a transportation focus to his practice, shares space with Hendricks in a downtown Toronto office building. The pair were actually high school friends and now collaborate on some of their cases. For Pasquale, transportation law was a natural draw thanks to his father’s work as a flight instructor.
“I’m fascinated by all modes of transportation,” says Pasquale.
“A lot of my client base are mechanics. There are some pilots, too, and commercial vehicle registrants as well as regular drivers.”
Still, finds it surprising more lawyers don’t specialize in the area.
“There are much larger bars when it comes to land development and municipal law than transportation even though it’s one of those things in life that touches everything else,” says Pasquale.
Hendricks’ strong base of automobile knowledge has helped give him credibility among hard-core hot-rod enthusiasts and the longer he works in the area, the more he learns and can expound on the virtues of anything from Japanese domestic market imports to Fiat fan culture in Italy.
“I’ve immersed myself in the culture,” he says. “Through word of mouth, we’ve become ingrained in the automotive culture here.
“Once you’ve gained a reputation for caring about people and their interests and trying to provide them with a good service, that’s the key.”
Hendricks believes his approach offers lessons for any young lawyer thinking about a niche practice area.
“As a fairly new call, you have to be willing to listen. The biggest mistake I think a lot of lawyers make is that they’re so worried about billable hours and when they’re going to make partner, they forget to listen and to learn.
“There are going to be times when your client knows more than you do because they’re immersed in it every day.
“There is not one day in the week where I’m not out there having conversations with someone in the automotive world. A lawyer’s job is to apply the law to the facts, but if you can’t engage properly with your clients, then you’re never going to be able to do that.”