There is often a lot of value in small-dollar cases, she says
Melanie Henriques is the rare case of a paralegal made law-firm partner and she says other firms would benefit from giving paralegals a seat at the table.
“I want this to be the norm for paralegals. I want them to have more of an advantage and more of a say in a lot of things that we do,” she says. “I want to help lead the way to having them being taken more seriously in the profession.”
Henriques recently turned 30 and has been with Samfiru Tumarkin LLP since 2011. Working in Toronto, she practises primarily in the areas of employment, insurance, statutory accident benefits, human rights and landlord and tenant disputes.
Henriques began working for the firm part-time, assisting another paralegal, but grew quickly. That paralegal soon left the profession and Henriques took over her entire practice. Then, when Sivan Tumarkin’s assistant went on parental leave, she stepped into that role as well.
Doing two jobs meant long days, nights and weekends, but also involved shadowing Tumarkin, a “fantastic” learning experience, she says.
“Then when she came back, I went back to full-time paralegal work and just kind of took off from there,” says Henriques.
Outside of her legal practice, she says she injected herself into anything happening at the firm. From interviews to social events, she made her presence felt. Then, in early 2021, she sat down with the founding partners, Tumarkin and Lior Samfiru, to discuss how Henriques could have a “seat at the table,” more say in the direction of the firm. She says she was surprised that it resulted in partnership.
“It's kind of what I wanted, but it's just not heard of. I don't know of any other paralegals that are a partner at a firm that is not their own.”
The reason, says Tumarkin, is that law firms are traditional, hierarchical, “operate on precedent” and often look down on the paralegal role.
“And it's just not right,” he says. “Because the reality is, she knows a lot more. She has a lot more experience than many other lawyers – many other partners – at firms that I know.”
The Law Society of Ontario has been regulating paralegals since 2007. Their professional and ethical obligations are set out in by-laws and the Paralegal Rules of Conduct, under the Law Society Act. Paralegals are permitted to handle small claims – up to $35,000 – and represent clients in traffic court, tribunals and in some criminal matters. Superior Court, Divisional Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada are off limits.
Despite her limited scope, Henriques has done more trials than most lawyers, says Tumarkin.
“What she has achieved during her time with us has been nothing short of remarkable,” he says.
Henriques was attracted to the access-to-justice component of paralegal work when she decided to take it on as a career. While Ontario is the only province to regulate paralegals, she says they are “still very underutilized” in the province.
When she requested a meeting with her founding partners, she suggested the firm build an army of paralegals and position itself as the “go-to” for clients in need of that type of help. In a firm that sees itself as forward-thinking, Henriques argued it was crucial the paralegal perspective, as well as the female paralegal perspective, help steer firm operation.
“What we do is valuable,” she says. “It's a huge, valuable resource to the public. And as the jurisdiction, specifically in small claims court, continues to rise, they're going to be utilized even more.”
“I think it's important that people understand what it is that we do and what value we bring.”
The COVID climate will create more work for paralegals, with human rights issues related to vaccines, work-place accommodations and working from home or not working from home, says Henriques. The small-dollar matters are often still valuable cases, she says.
“Those are all areas that paralegals can take on and so I think firms are under-utilizing them right now. I think that there's a huge cost-benefit to their own clients and to the firms themselves. They just bring a different kind of viewpoint in a lot of things.”