London lawyers share their views on both practice and profession
Interview by Rod Refcio
NOTHING EVER QUITE seems to capture the public interest more than a criminal trial proceeding. From the ongoing plethora of Hollywood depictions in movies and television to daily news coverage, our fascination with the criminal justice system seems endless. While only a select few actually know what it really feels like to stand up in court to represent either the prosecution or the defence, there is a universal respect and admiration for those impassioned lawyers who take on the challenge of cases where literally entire lives can hang in the balance.
James Zegers is one such local London criminal defence lawyer who has dedicated more than 20 years to advocating on behalf of those facing daunting criminal charges. Born and raised in Oxford County and known as Jim to his friends and colleagues, he originally pursued a career in education before moving to London and obtaining a law degree from Western. Jim’s passion for criminal defence advocacy is rivaled only by his passion for altruistic charitable causes and events, such as the annual Court House Rocks. He has also ridden his bicycle to work almost every day for over 23 years.
Rod Refcio: What attracted you to the practice of law, and what intrigues you most about the practice of law?
James Zegers: I was a high school English teacher when I applied to law school. I liked the idea of a career without limits, which is what law seemed to be to me. From the beginning, I saw myself starting my own practice and being my own boss. I also like the sense of belonging to a community that comes with the practice of law.
What intrigues me most about the practice of law is the jury trial. Twelve men and women picked at random from the community are asked to decide the guilt or innocence of the accused. They have no legal training. Legal training would disqualify them from being on the jury. It is my job to persuade these men and women that my client should be found not guilty. In my experience, the jury always makes the right decision.
RR: What advice would you give someone considering a career in law?
JZ: Law is a very demanding profession. You need to be prepared to make a total commitment to the practice of law, but at the same time you also have to find time for yourself and your family. That is not always easy to do.
RR: What is the best piece of business advice that you have been given and what business advice would you give?
JZ: Unfortunately, no one has ever given me any business advice! I think to be successful in the business of law you have to do good work so your clients will come back to you and refer you to others.
RR: What do you enjoy most about practicing law?
JZ: For me, making a difference in someone’s life is the most satisfying part of the practice of law, whether it is by helping to turn someone’s life around or by preventing a momentary lapse of judgement from having a disproportionate impact on someone’s life.
RR: What has changed most about the practice of law since the time you started over 20 years ago?
JZ: Judges are a lot nicer. They used to be a rather cantankerous bunch.
RR: In your area of specialty, what has changed most in the past 10 years and what changes do you expect to see?
JZ: One thing that has changed is the omnipresence of smartphones at the scenes of crime. I recently had a case where my client was charged with failing to provide a breath sample and resisting arrest. The passenger in the car recorded the entire incident on his smartphone. The video evidence was devastating to the Crown’s case and completely discredited the arresting officer. Expect to see more of this kind of evidence, and expect to see body cameras on police officers.
RR: What is the most common misconception that you think the public has about lawyers?
JZ: I am very proud to be a lawyer, but I understand we are not necessarily universally loved as a profession. I think my profession could do a better job in communicating what it is that lawyers do exactly. For instance, as a criminal lawyer, I am not devoted to undermining society by promoting criminality and helping guilty people get off on technicalities. I play a crucial role in protecting the rights of individuals who are charged with criminal offences and who are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather than undermine the community, I protect society by ensuring that individuals are protected by the rule of law.
RR: In criminal proceedings, there is one winner and one loser. How do you like to celebrate a victory and how do you handle a loss?
JZ: I am pretty low key when I get a good result. After a recent trial in St. Catharines, in which charges were stayed against my client at the request of the Crown, I went for a hike on the Bruce Trail. If I had lost the trial, I probably still would have gone hiking, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.
RR: What do you enjoy most about being your own boss?
JZ: Everything. I like the freedom of being able to decide what I do and when I do it.
RR: Describe yourself in three words.
JZ: Carpe diem. Wait, that’s only two words! But the English translation is three words: seize the day. Life is not a dress rehearsal.
Rod Refcio is the founder and senior lawyer with Refcio & Associates. Submit your inquiries and legal questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. None of the opinions, views or information contained in this column should be construed as legal advice and readers should consult a licensed lawyer for specific assistance.