Spotlight Series: Omar Ha-Redeye

Omar Ha-Redeye is a Toronto lawyer, legal academic, and legal educator committed to access to justice and public service. He holds a JD from Western Law and an LLM from Osgoode Hall. He operates out of Fleet Street Law with a practice background that includes civil litigation, employment and labour law, health law, and technology law. Omar also teaches law and ethics at Ryerson University as an Adjunct Professor. In 2011, he was named one of the top 12 social media influencers practicing law in Canada and was presented the Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013 for his contributions to society and professional achievements. In 2015, the Ontario Bar Association presented him with the OBA Foundation Award for exceptional contributions towards improvements to the legal system and public legal education. In 2017, Omar is receiving the Deans' Teaching Award at Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University.

What’s something you’re passionate about outside of the law?

Outside of the law, I’m passionate about being involved in the community. For me, that includes involvement in politics, in boards, and in a local CHC (Community Health Center). It’s a matter of being connected to society and to social causes. In a lot of ways, it’s one of the reasons I ended up in law. I wanted to be involved in making an actual difference, and in the things people were doing on a day to day basis.

How did you end up with law as a career?

I like to joke that law was my fifth career. I started out in nuclear medicine technology, then did health management, emergency management, public relations, and then finally law.

Ending up in law was in many ways a fluke for someone who came in with a science background. I never envisioned that I was ever going to be a lawyer, but I found that all roads led to law, as everything I did had a legal dimension. I realized very quickly that having a background in law gives you a deep understanding simply about the fabric of life. That's what got me intrigued in terms of going to law school and getting a legal education.

Part of the reason why I did more education is that people tend to plateau very quickly. You can master a subject or you can master a skill set, but an advantage of law is that nobody ever masters it entirely. There's always new cases and practice areas emerging, and I can never learn it all. I'm the biggest inquisitive “know-it-all” you'll ever meet, but there's always a huge knowledge gap in law and that keeps me going. What I find truly fascinating is digging down into cases and looking at the policy rationale behind why decisions are made. Conceptually, I love the practice.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment and why?

Overall, it's yet to come. I refuse to acknowledge that anything that I've done so far is going to be my biggest accomplishment, because as soon as I do that I've now said that I've reach the pinnacle. I want to keep going, exploring, and learning.

One thing that I am proud of is teaching. I'm a professor at Ryerson, teaching law to business students. I also run the business law clinic there, as an instructor, where we service businesses for free in the community. It's a radical concept because we are giving business students, not law students, an opportunity to get their hands dirty with legal stuff, under the supervision of lawyers. As an instructor, I'm loving it.

Regardless of what I do going forward, there will still be a legal component to it, because law is important in any field and it has depth. I’m looking forward to new things that aren’t necessarily the traditional type of practice.

Do you have an example where you faced a challenge and overcame it?

I’ve faced lots of challenges. As much as I talk about the wonderful things in law, there's a lot of ups and downs and that's a part of it. I think the biggest challenge for me was that I had a car accident a few years ago. I had whiplash, back pain, and neck pain, etc. But the biggest challenge from that was that I had a concussion. The number one thing I value is my brain. “What do you mean I'm losing my keys several times a day? Or that I'm forgetting my postal code?” That was a huge challenge for me - the health issues. The reality is at some point health issues are going to catch up with us. And so, I think that has been a huge adversity for me. But in many ways it also motivated and encouraged me to focus more. To recognize and realize the things that are important to me - like my parents and my family. I focus more on exercising, eating healthy, and taking care of myself. Even though they were previously part of my routine, I see more value in them now. Ten extra billable hours a week is really not worth it if you look at what else you're missing out in life.

What are some things you wish you knew when you first started articling?

I think the economics of law isn't something most people in law school know - how law firms operate, how the finances operate, how it works as a business and the amount of nepotism there is in this industry. The prevalence of nepotism in law is something I struggled with conceptually, and it is a far more prominent and dominant feature as opposed to other professions. I haven't become bitter about it though. Instead, I push myself to work harder and to be better. Those of us that don’t come from legal families also have to learn to work harder, together.

Organizations like FACL really brings value because it provides us with the networks (of other lawyers, other professionals, other judges, etc.) who we get to build valuable relationships with. It also gives us a stronger voice when we want to bring those big picture objectives, such as improving the diversity of the judiciary, to the table and to make a significant impact. 

What is an example of the work you have done through organizations like FACL?

Earlier this year, I was in Ottawa having lunch with Professor Errol Mendes. We were talking about diversity and the judiciary, and quickly came to realize that over the past decade the federal government has been disinterested in hearing about anything about diversity in the judiciary. So, I contacted FACL and other diversity organizations, like the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers (CABL), the South Asian Bar Association (SABA) and Roundtable of Diversity Associations (RODA), and I was able to pull together a coalition to discuss with the Justice Minister how judicial diversity can be achieved.

The federal government released the new criteria for Superior Court appointments in mid-2016. Guess what? Our recommendations were included!

One of the recommendations that was included was that the advisory committees, which filters and reviews the applications, be diverse themselves. Those diverse members should understand what merit is in a broader context (which includes life experiences and diverse experiences). Working for advocacy organizations, dealing with racialized communities, and assisting marginalized populations, are very valuable experiences for a judge to have at some point in their career as a lawyer prior to their appointment. Our recommendations also included training - for people not of diverse backgrounds, and for everybody to understand “merit”.

Another recommendation was reporting numbers. One of the things that had never been done was to talk about how many diverse applicants were applying to be appointed. We were looking at the numbers in terms of judges the previous government appointed. Less than 3% of the judges were going to be visible minorities, which is insane in a country that has over 30% visible minority population.

We are glad that the new government is producing those statistics. When we look at the new SCC appointee (Malcolm Rowe from Newfoundland), we can see how transparent that process was. We can look at his application and see his philosophy (i.e., that the judiciary is the vanguard against the executive trampling over the rights of the citizens). If you have a judge that says that, you already know the type of judge he's going to be (i.e., that a judge willing to stand up and say to the government; or that this law you are passing is unconstitutional, as opposed to just deferring).

Those of us in the legal community have an enormously vested interest, not just on who's on our bench, but in terms of the highest bench in the land. That makes a huge difference in the direction of the law. This was a perfect example of how organizations like FACL can make those differences, because FACL comes to the table with a lot of credibility in saying, “We need to change and we want to help you change it.”

Given that, what kind of changes do you anticipate?

We want to see law schools provide produce their statistics. We want schools to reflect the population, throughout Canada. Our stereotypes previously (10 years ago, 20 years ago) about what Alberta was vs. Newfoundland vs. Ontario was are all changing. And this is a good thing. This is the Canada I know and love. Toronto is my hometown, and I love seeing its multiculturalism and diversity replicated in many ways across the country. We are at the forefront of diversity and inclusion.

I like to remind people that what we're doing here in Canada, or even just in our major cities, has a potential to be adopted across the world. This is relevant to our continent, and also in Europe, where they are struggling much more in dealing with immigration and refugees. Inclusion is where I see Canada being a leader in the world.

I understand you do a lot of work with access to justice issues. Do you mind speaking to that? What kind of projects do you work on and what is being done to solve current issues?

One of the problems is that we tend to easily look at access to justice as simply being a cost issue. The normal solution is to increase Legal Aid so more people can afford a lawyer, and we believe that access to justice is magically solved. I don't agree with that all.

I think that the access to justice problem is far more complicated than that. Part of it may be cost issues, where carving out some of these responsibilities to paralegals will allow people to accesslegal work more cost-effectively and more efficiently, for a fraction of the price they pay for lawyers. But that's just one small piece of the puzzle on the supply end.

Fundamentally, we have to revamp our entire system. We should change all the outdated procedural steps people are forced to go through, because it's insane how complicated the system is. There's no reason for lawyers in civil litigation to make a trip all the way to court, put on robes, go before a judge, and say to a judge “We're here for a consent order”. A consent order! We have to go all the way to the courts for a consent order, which is basically just read and rubber stamped.

It's these inefficiencies that adds to the cost of the client. It's not about the client not being able to afford the lawyer or the legal fees, it’s the system itself that is excessively financially onerous. Certainly, there are some promising changes - attorney generals are talking about digital court submissions, and digitizing the record systems. But let’s be honest, the legal profession is probably about 10 or 15 years behind the rest of the business world.

So access to justice not just about increasing Legal Aid, or appointing more judges. Those measures just replicate the same issues on a broader scale. If the system is fundamentally not geared towards efficiency, we need to fundamentally alter it. Not just perpetuate it.

What changes do you see in terms of that?

I don’t expect us to overthrow everything. But I do believe in a slow evolution for the better. It's about constantly applying the pressure, and making sure we're equipped with the tools and vision to make that difference. I organize the TechXpo conference through the Ontario Bar Association every year to try and educate the legal community on this. I hope people can realize that we all have a role in making this happen.

We are also facing a major stage of disruption and change in society generally. There is less employment opportunities and less stability for those that hold positions. The economy is also shifting towards a “sharing” one. Just look at Uber, AirBnB, and Alibaba. Everything is being completely transformed by technology, and law is not going to be an exception. How it's going to be transformed is something we're still exploring. But I want to point out the incredible opportunities that exist in this field – where we can carve out new things and new careers that never existed in law before. I’d say it's time for us to be pioneers, even though we may not have wanted to be pioneers. And as much as I don't think I'm necessarily the pioneer in the field, it's nice to just be involved in those conversations.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

I would want to emphasize the value of FACL to law students and young lawyers.

I didn't have the luxury of coming from a law family. I joined FACL in my first year of law school, in the second year of its operation, and it was incredible. The stories that I heard from senior members of the bar that came to speak to us, and the relationships and friendships that I developed, blossomed into things that really built my career at so many different levels. It's the broader conversations outside of law school that are going to make a difference in your career. And we, those of us involved in these organizations, are here, ready, able and willing to give back. There are lots of wonderful people out there who will make the time and the effort for you if you reach out.

We recognize that the challenges that those of us come from diverse backgrounds in law are shared challenges, and those challenges directly relate to broader societal issues. We are in this together. We need more diverse people admitted to law school and entering the profession in order to make a difference and do things differently in law. I also cannot emphasize enough about how important and significant law is to the decisions that underlie our entire society and the entire fabric of our country. This is the challenge I would post to our readers, the big responsibilities that lie ahead of us.

Photo credits: Marcia Cho