Blog: Reintroductions with Renee Griffin

Renee Griffin is President of CELA’s board of directors. She joined CELA as an articling student in 2008  and subsequently became a project lawyer, coordinating the Environmental Health, Equity and the Law: Making the Links Project. Renee is now the Executive Director of Scarborough Community Legal Services. This interview brings you up to date on Renee’s time since joining the CELA team and details the experiences and highlights of her career thus far. We are happy to reintroduce Renee to you now as a longstanding member of the CELA team, please enjoy catching up with her!

What does your day-to-day look like in your position at Scarborough Community Legal Services?

We provide free legal services, support community organizing, and law reform work, and provide public legal education to folks who live in East Scarborough. I manage the clinic and provide client services. My day-to-day work could be anything from client work to management responsibilities, like dealing with human resources concerns, funding issues, or working on policy work for the clinic. I practice primarily in housing and human rights law, so I’m also working on cases before the Landlord Tenant Board and the Human Rights Tribunal.

What is your favourite part of the workday?

In response to the COIVD-19 pandemic, we have a hybrid work model where we’re both working at home and in the office now. So, a really great part of the workday is when we first come into the office and we’re getting to see each other again, and catch up and reconnect. That part of our office culture is really important to me. It also provides a good opportunity for case conferencing. I think that’s one of the parts I enjoy most — chatting with my co-workers about challenging cases and discussing different strategies and ideas about how we can work together to solve the client’s problem.

What case are you most proud of working on?

The cases I’m most proud of are ones where we have been successful in stabilizing housing for clients who are either facing imminent homelessness or have become homeless. The reason that it’s not one specific case is that this work is all so important and valuable. Losing your home is such a devastating experience for individuals and families, so anything we can do to help stabilize housing and shelter is such important work.

One of the initiatives that I’m really proud of is that we were able to introduce and build a social work program at the clinic, which is now in its third year of operation. In 2019 we received funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to launch a pilot project for a year. We hired a full-time social worker and piloted a social work student program. At the end of the project, we developed a report about best practices for integrating social work and social work students into the community legal clinic system. From there, we’ve been able to maintain the program. We’ve had a social worker on staff since 2019, and we’ve actually increased the number of students we’ve taken on. We’ve also been able to take on more students during the summer months with funding from the Canada Summer Jobs Program.

The collaborative work between the legal team and our social work team has been tremendous because we see so many folks who come to us with legal issues, but who also have a number of issues that are not legal in nature but are adding complexity to their situation. Now that we have a social work program, the outcome for our clients is vastly improved. We’re not only assisting them with their legal issues, but we’re also able to provide support in the other areas of their life where they need assistance as well. We’re able to look at the client as a whole and provide support in more areas.

Could you tell me a little bit about your experience as an articling student?

It was excellent. I really enjoyed working at CELA and I got to work very closely with Theresa McClenaghan, the Executive Director. She has been a very important mentor for me.

When I came to CELA as an articling student, I had been very focused on working in community legal clinics, in part, because I had an opportunity to do that in law school. During my studies, I worked at the Community Legal Clinic at the University of Ottawa, focused on Poverty Law, and completed a social justice designation during my degree. However, my focus hadn’t necessarily been on environmental law. I had a keen interest in the area and had done coursework in law school, but when I came to CELA, I had a lot to learn with respect to the many complexities of environmental law. It was a very supportive environment, and it provided a lot of really interesting opportunities. I was able to work on and support some complex cases. For example, CELA counsel argued a Supreme Court matter while I was completing my articles, so I had the opportunity to support the lawyers on that case and travel to Ottawa to watch the arguments. CELA offers some very unique articling opportunities; it was a really great experience.

What were the biggest takeaways from your experience at CELA?

I think it was great to have the opportunity to work in a specialty clinic. Like a lot of law students, I saw myself working parallel to, or in, the social justice sector. Law school sometimes felt challenging because you’re often pushed toward traditional corporate practice. I often thought about where I fit into a legal career. I think having the opportunity to article in a legal clinic, and more specifically, in a specialty legal clinic like CELA, really demonstrated to me that there are different types of legal practice. CELA offered unique opportunities to see really complex litigation with some of the best lawyers in the field and demonstrated the vast professional expertise that exists in the legal clinic community. My articling experience really solidified the direction I wanted to go with my career.

Is there anything that you learned at CELA that’s useful in your day-to-day work now?

Absolutely — articling is your first legal job, so there’s just so much that you’re learning. One takeaway that I’ve tried to foster in my current clinic is the importance of collegiality and teamwork. CELA is a very supportive work environment and the amount of expertise on staff is incredible. The generosity that all the senior staff demonstrated with their time and their knowledge was incredible. That’s something that I still try to emulate now, as a more senior lawyer and a manager of a community legal clinic. At CELA I saw the importance of supporting junior lawyers and articling students and being open with your time and knowledge. That’s how we’re going to build a strong legal clinic system.

Another thing was the importance of research, being open to learning, and undertaking a lot of self-learning. This continues throughout your practice. I’ve been practicing since 2008, but every case still brings up questions that you have to research to ensure that you’re giving the client the best information in their particular circumstances.

Is there any project that you worked on at CELA that you’re particularly proud of? Or that’s particularly memorable?

​​Yes — there are two. The first was the work I completed on the Making the Links Project. In that project, we reached out to communities across Ontario to build better connections and work on community-specific environmental law issues. The project was funded by the Law Foundation of Ontario and we were working closely with community leaders to identify particular areas of concern in their communities. Through that work, we were able to build better connections, develop new educational materials, and assist a greater number of clients from those communities who became aware of our services. That was a really interesting project and I think it helped build CELA’s presence throughout Ontario.

The other was a very unique experience that occurred at the end of my articling term in 2009. Theresa had been invited to speak about Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights at an FK Norway (now Norec) conference in Mongolia but due to scheduling could not attend.  I was in her office while she was talking about it to a colleague and I jokingly said, “I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia.” A few days later, Theresa asked if I was interested in attending and speaking about the EBR, and of course, I said yes!  The conference organizers agreed and I was actually able to travel to Mongolia and speak at an international conference with environmental law leaders from around the world. I met and am still connected to lawyers from Mongolia, Ireland and Australia. The fact that CELA, and Theresa, had the confidence in me to send me as CELA’s representative to such an event was wonderful and it created an incredible learning opportunity for me. It was definitely one of the highlights of my clinic career, still all these years later.

Looking forward, what’s something you’re hoping to accomplish in your career?

Something that we’ve been working hard on, at our clinic, for the last two years is examining our own anti-racism and anti-discrimination policies and the ways in which we actualize those principles in our work. We’ve done a lot of work over the last two years in this area, and it continues to be a very important part of our clinic’s plan for the future.  It’s important that all the actors in the community legal clinics examine the clinic system, and our role in it, to ensure that we are addressing racism and discrimination in our work and in our workplaces. Being part of this important work and implementing meaningful diversity and inclusion practices for the clinic is a piece of what I hope to accomplish over the next few years.

This interview has been edited and condensed.