Relationships key to civil litigation


Heather Paterson Head shot.

Law is all about people for Toronto civil litigator Heather Paterson.

While disputes in court can sometimes get ugly, Paterson, a partner with Shibley Righton LLP, tells that maintaining good relationships with colleagues and clients is one of her top priorities.

“In practice, you have to develop good and friendly working relationships with people, and hopefully you’ll work with them for a while,” she says. “That’s important for your own clients because they have to feel comfortable taking advice and giving instructions.”

Paterson also adopts a similar approach to her opponents in the courtroom.

“There are times when you have to be forceful, but it’s usually a friendly, collegial relationship between counsel,” she says. “Law is not a very big profession, even if it might feel that way sometimes. You come across the same people over and over again, so it’s really easy to trash a relationship if you’re not careful. A few missteps and your reputation can come tumbling down.”

A large proportion of Paterson’s files involve insurance work on behalf of municipalities, defending mostly personal injury cases. In addition, she has developed a niche in professional liability defence work on behalf of architects accused of wrongdoing following building structure or design failures.

“It’s a fascinating area, and extremely varied,” Paterson says. “I’ve learned a great deal about things I knew nothing about, such as roofing trusses, glass balconies and the importance of the right shading co-efficient of window glass.

“But it’s nice to still be learning at this stage, and they’re great people to work with,” she adds.

Paterson says she always harboured hopes of a legal career in her youth but took a slightly circuitous route to the profession.

After graduating from Western University with a BA in political science and sociology, she qualified as a paralegal and worked as a real estate clerk at a Toronto law firm.

“It was a way of making sure it was something I really wanted,” Paterson says. “And it also helped me figure out which areas of law I didn’t want to practise.”

At the Queen’s University law school, Paterson got involved with its legal aid clinic and was part of the school’s team at the American Bar Association Client Counselling Competition. When she graduated in 2004, she won the Denis Marshall Award, which is awarded to a few Queen’s law students in each graduating class who are voted by their peers as individuals who have made a lasting impression on the law school community during their time there.

Paterson also holds post-graduate certificates in criminology and alternative dispute resolution but discovered civil litigation during her articling term at Shibley Righton.

“It’s certainly much better hours and less stressful than dealing with bail courts and disturbing crimes,” jokes Paterson, who is also a member of the Canadian Bar Association, the Advocates’ Society, Canadian Defence Lawyers and The Lawyers' Club.

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