Nine questions between generations

  • December 20, 2021
  • Jennifer O’Dell

An interview with Nada Nicola-Howorth and Zahra Vaid. Nada is an experienced litigator who is currently the deputy practice group leader of the health law group at Lerners LLP while Zahra Vaid is a brand-new associate in that group.

By Jennifer O’Dell

1. Tell us a bit about yourself: where did you grow-up, what law school did you go to, and how long have you been practicing in health law?

Nada Nicola-Howorth (NNH): I grew up in Summerside, Prince Edward Island and went to law school at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I have been practicing health law for the last 22 years.

Zahra Vaid (ZV): I was raised in Pickering by a Pakistani-Muslim family and have lived between Pickering and Ajax throughout my life. Living in a city like Pickering in the late 1990s and early 2000s felt like a different world. There were few Muslims then and, generally, there wasn’t as much diversity as there is now. Because of this, my community was extremely tight knit, and had a large role in how I was raised.

I wanted to be a lawyer long before I ever wrote the LSAT and applied to go to law school. My interest in being a lawyer stemmed from watching Law and Order with my mom once, sometimes twice a day. I began law school at Osgoode Hall Law School in 2017. I have been practicing health law since September of this year.

2. How did you end up working in health law?

NNH: I am from a very science-y family, full of doctors, nurses, research scientists and a physicist or two. While a career in sciences wasn’t for me, I was naturally drawn to health law. I was lucky enough to article at Lerners, where I had the opportunity to work in the area and loved it.

ZV: Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to any lawyers. So, much of what I knew about lawyers came from shows like Law and Order and Suits. Because of that, I didn’t actually know the scope and extent of the practice areas available, including health law.

It was my articling experience that led me into the practice of health law. During my articling term, I had the opportunity to learn about, observe, and participate in various kinds of health law matters. The specialized knowledge required, as well as the ability to participate in both administrative proceedings and the civil litigation process appealed to me.

3. Tell me about a lawyer (or anyone in the legal field) who has had the greatest impact on your career, either directly or indirectly through their work and the impression it made on you.

NNH: There is no one person who I can single out. Most definitely, the women of Lerners past and present have had the biggest impression on me. They are a diverse group of strong people, who have supported and mentored me, and have had confidence in me, even when I didn’t! What an amazing group of role models.

ZV: I work in an environment where there are many incredible women to learn from. Jennifer Hunter is a partner in health law, insurance defence, privacy and cyber litigation, and appeals at Lerners LLP. She was also my senior mentor during my articling term. Jennifer is a fantastic mentor and has had a huge impact on my career so far. I look up to her more than she knows. She is an incredible litigator, and ally. Observing her practice has made me excited about a practice in health law.

4. We have to ask: what has been the hardest part of the pandemic on your practice and when, if ever, do you think it’ll change?

NNH: Without a doubt, practicing remotely has been the hardest part of the last 19 months. Although it has its benefits (the commute down the hall rather than downtown is high on that list), it has significant drawbacks. The feeling of being disconnected from your colleagues is difficult to shake, no matter how many Zoom coffee breaks and Teams chats you incorporate into your week. I have come to realize how important casual interaction with others is to my over well-being and happiness in my work life.

This has already started changing. I have been going into the office more regularly, as have others, and noticed an almost immediate uptick in my energy and enthusiasm.

ZV: It is hard to believe that it has been nearly 20 months since this pandemic began. In these 20 months, I wrote my last law school exams, graduated, wrote the barrister and solicitor exam, articled, got called to the bar, and am now a practicing lawyer. This means that all of my practice has been online, and that I’m completely used to law in a virtual world.

The most difficult part of practicing in a pandemic as a new call is the learning. The tips and tricks you learn about the practice of law can be more difficult to learn and share virtually. While senior associates and partners make it clear that their virtual door is always open, in the midst of a lot of Zoom fatigue, scheduling another meeting is not always easy.

Despite these difficulties, and the significant backlog the pandemic has caused, it has also forced us to modernize many of our processes and enhance access to justice. For example, lawyers are able to attend client meetings and court appearances virtually. This can be a cost-effective tool for clients and allow both lawyers and clients to manage child and elder care responsibilities, if needed. For many lawyers, this flexible environment can make room for better mental health and general well-being, which this profession has historically lacked.

With all of this in mind, I don’t think we will ever return to the pre-pandemic world and I don’t think we should. While we will certainly see a slow shift, in terms of people returning to the office, I believe that a hybrid-model is the way forward.

5. Nada, how has the practice of health law changed since you started, if at all? Zahra, how would you like to see the practice change, if at all?

NNH: The core aspects of the practice of health law haven’t really changed – at least not that I have noticed. The changes I have noticed have more to do with the practice of law, more generally. Technology is the biggest piece of this. In the early days of my career, most communication was by phone and letter correspondence. The interactions were more personal and the pace was slower. Email changed all that.

ZV: Funny enough, I enjoy the practice of law far more than I enjoyed law school. Nevertheless, our systems and processes do need to evolve. I think our legal system should change to reward efficiency, rather than placing a strong emphasis on billable hours. This will benefit both lawyers and clients.

6. What has been the proudest moment of your legal career to date? Why?

NNH: I could say achieving a particularly good outcome for a client, after an arduous trial, and that would be true in some respects. But probably more meaningful to me was the vote of confidence my colleagues gave me when I moved into my current leadership role.

ZV: For me, a recent (small) moment stands out. After an assignment I submitted during articling, a lawyer I worked with called me an “all-star” and reassured me that I was doing a good job. Often, the articling process feels like a 10-month interview. In some ways, it is. But in most ways, it is an incredibly important period to learn. Many students feel overly concerned with hire back (likely because of the significant debt they carry post-law school), to the point that it can impact the work they are producing. Receiving any kind of positive feedback goes a long way in boosting the morale of students. The message here is: compliment articling students!

7. Nada, what advice would you give someone starting out/starting their articles? What advice was given to you?

NNH: Keep control over your calendar. Work hard, but don’t feel pressured to over book yourself.

In the first year of my practice, I was attending an examination for discovery where I was acting for the plaintiff and my client was being examined. The opposing lawyer was very senior and was particularly disrespectful to me and my client. I didn’t know what to do. I wondered if I was overreacting. We had waited ages to actually get the discovery going, and I didn’t want to potentially prejudice my client by bringing it to an end. I suffered through it and dragged myself back to the office. I was worried about telling the senior lawyer on the file how horribly the discovery had gone. I’m not sure what reaction I was expecting, but the advice I got stuck with me: You are worth more than any file. Next time, pack up and leave.

ZV: Articling is, for many students, the first time they are working in the legal realm. There is no such thing as a bad question. All questions are important and valid, and will allow you to produce better work. Producing good work and showing initiative is extremely important in articling. Focus on collecting good precedents, and learn the styles of different lawyers so you have a large toolbox to turn to when you are drafting various materials, whether research memorandums or pleadings.

You will make it through, and many junior and senior lawyers are willing to support you.

8. Where are you in 10 years?

NNH: Hopefully, back where I was in February 2020, before the world turned upside down.

ZV: In 10 years, I hope I have made submissions at the Supreme Court of Canada. Perhaps wishful thinking? I’m also very passionate about teaching, and hope that I am able to connect my practice to academia.

9. Finally, if you won $50,000,000 in the lottery, what are you doing with that money as soon as it hits your bank account?

NNH: Whatever I want!

ZV: $50,000,000 is a lot of money. Some would say too much!

Taking care of my parents is my number one priority. Though they’d never admit it, I know my parents – who both work in the service industry – sacrificed a lot of experiences to ensure my sister and I had the best they could give us. They have worked so hard and deserve a retirement that is as stress-free as possible. I am sure that $50,000,000 would ensure that and so much more.

After this, though, I’d consider purchasing a cottage (or two) and maybe even retire early to write a rom-com novel!

Jennifer O’Dell is an associate lawyer at Lerners LLP, in Toronto, practicing in health law. She is currently the Section Editor for the OBA’s Health Law Section.