Distinguished lawyer, legal healer

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The Society established the Distinguished Service Award to recognize exceptional lawyers in Nova Scotia who reflect the profession’s commitment to excellence and public service.

The recipient for 2014 is Heather McNeill QC of the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, a community-based law office and clinical law program operated by the Schulich School of Law. A practising lawyer for almost 20 years, Heather draws on her previous background as a registered nurse to involve healing and compassion in her approaches to legal disputes.

The profession benefits from the varied perspectives of a diverse membership."

Heather’s long history of selfless public service includes work with the Indigenous Blacks & Mi'kmaq Initiative Advisory Council, pro bono services to individuals through the Immigrant Settlement & Integration Services, and leadership in the Mi'kmaq First Nation, to just scratch the surface. Here at the Society, she has volunteered as a member of the Fitness to Practise Committee since 2012, and the Racial Equity Committee since 2009. (See the 2014 DSA announcement for more details.)

On the occasion of receiving the award, Heather shared a few thoughts with us.  

You are regarded as a mentor to many. What advice would you give to law students and members of the legal profession who want to make a difference?

I did not start out with the intention to make a difference. My sole goal was to get through law school, get a job and practise law competently. Along the way, however, I saw there were things to be done. If you want to make a difference in the legal profession, look around your workplace, your community, and just do it!

We each have skills and experience that can make a difference to those in need. Don’t feel like you have to take on the world. In the Mi’kmaq culture we are taught that we must consider seven generations ahead, as our actions today impact those yet to come. What we do today echoes for eternity.

Professional integrity is one of six criteria for receiving the Distinguished Service Award. What does integrity mean to you?

Integrity means that I act with responsibility and honour in my representation of clients, in my involvement with community members and organizations, and in my interactions with members of the legal profession. Integrity means that I uphold the oath I made in my call to the Bar, and it infuses my beliefs and actions in all I do in my professional practice.

The clients I represent humble me and make me want to be the best I can be in order to serve them.” 

Can you provide an example of volunteer work that has been particularly meaningful to you?

I have been fortunate to have been able to volunteer with many community organizations, boards, committees and projects over the years. Three such groups stand out for me in terms of my volunteer work: the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre (MNFC), the Society’s Racial Equity Committee (REC) and the Immigrant Settlement & Immigration Services.

In my role as President of the MNFC, I had the good fortune of working with an Aboriginal organization that was operated by Aboriginal people. I watched the Centre grow exponentially and expand its reach to helping Aboriginal people with education, employment and training, mental health awareness, addiction counselling, housing needs, child development and so much more. It was an honour to be part of this amazing progression.

As a member of the REC, one aspect of the many things we are involved in is going into diverse communities – for me, the Mi’kmaq community – and delivering legal information sessions. Attendees are empowered in terms of knowing the law, the process and where to go for help. It’s clear that being informed makes a huge difference.

With respect to my role at ISIS, I provide pro bono legal information one afternoon per month to newcomers. Many of these newcomers are often in vulnerable positions: new to Canada and often with language barriers and minimal understanding of the Canadian law that affects them. The little help I provide in an hour sometimes goes a long way in supporting newcomers’ understandings of the law and their ability to find their way in a complex legal system.

In your opinion, what is the importance of diversity in the legal profession?

Diversity in the legal profession is crucial! Diversity is fundamental to a fair and equitable society and it’s a cornerstone to western legal society. Our clients are diverse. Our Bar needs to be diverse. I am a proud member of the Mi’kmaq First Nation. I have a different perspective based on my world view. The profession benefits from the varied perspectives of a diverse membership.

Your work at Dalhousie Legal Aid must be stressful at time, yet you always seem to be smiling warmly. What brings you joy in your work?

Public input welcome
The Distinguished Service Award (DSA) was established in 2000, and nominations may be submitted by both lawyers and the public.

The Distinguished Service Award Committee includes volunteer lawyers, a public representative and a retired judge. The group examines all nominations and makes a recommendation to Council based on the following criteria: integrity, professional achievement, service to the profession, community service, reform (contribution to the betterment of the law or improvement of the justice system), and overall (espousing the highest ideals of the legal profession).

Presented at the annual Recognition Reception, the award includes a commemorative pin and a framed certificate and medallion. Lawyers from a wide range of practice across Nova Scotia have been honoured thus far including sole practitioners, legal educators, legal aid lawyers, and those in large and medium-sized firms.

For more details and a list of all DSA recipients, see nsbs.org/distinguished-service-award. Nomination forms are available online starting in January of each year. The due date for next year’s nominations is April 15, 2015.

I love my job (at least on most days) and am very blessed to have found a rewarding career that provides me with some autonomy to carry out the kind of work that is most important to me. I get to work with fantastic staff who encourage and support me. I have an executive director who always has her door open to me and an ear to listen, and who provides me with great advice. The students who come to DLAS bring a zeal and eagerness to learn.

The clients I represent humble me and make me want to be the best I can be in order to serve them. I get to work with community members and organizations to assist them in their realization of meaningful change and outcomes.

I have a wonderful and supportive husband, daughter and two grandchildren to go home to every night. On top of all of that, I get any stress out by singing – usually karaoke on a Saturday night, with long-standing, like-minded friends!