Brenda Stokes Verworn left private practice to go in-house many years before doing so became a popular path for lawyers looking for a different way to apply their legal skills. After several years in the law firm environment, she discovered the appeal of providing legal advice in-house in the public sector at the level of local government.
Now, after more than 30 years in-house and the majority of that time with the District School Board of Niagara, she is reflecting on her career as she nears retirement.
Her role has evolved over time, often affected by board decisions, ministry initiatives and legislative changes.
The Niagara school board is a huge corporation with a jurisdiction that extends across 12 municipalities serving more than 36,000 students and encompasses more than 100 schools and other satellite facilities. It is the largest employer for the region employing just less than 4,000 staff with an annual budget of $440 million.
“Our school board enrolment and staffing is bigger than the population of some communities,” she says.
To the best of her knowledge, Stokes Verworn is likely the longest-serving in-house legal counsel to a school board in the province of Ontario. In fulfilling that role, she has attended thousands of board and committee meetings over her 26 years — many of them outside the normal workday — contrary to the “work-life-balance” that so many often equate with going in-house.
It was the culture of life-long learning that she found appealing about the education sector. “I was learning new things all the time and I liked that. From a professional growth perspective, my job duties evolved with new projects, protocols, legislation and labour relations issues — it never felt stagnant,” she says.
Stokes Verworn worked with community partners in the development of protocols with police services, Family and Children’s Services and fire departments. “These protocols enabled us to co-ordinate services to support and serve students and their families in challenging situations, and also respect privacy and confidentiality,” she says.
School boards are often reacting to the changing policies of provincial governments — Stokes Verworn has been witness to many of them.
“The new safe school legislation has created lots of changes to the student discipline process. At one time, there was one page in the Education Act dealing with suspensions and expulsions, but that has grown to at least 30 pages and a host of regulations, too,” she says.
School boards across Ontario have also been facing the challenges of centralized bargaining and declining enrolment and school accommodation reviews. The Niagara board has been very active in such reviews over the last decade in particular. Since 1998, the board has closed and sold 44 schools — including the high school Stokes Verworn once attended. That equates to 9,000 fewer students in the region.
“The closure of your small neighbourhood schools are very emotionally charged situations with parents and communities and we have successfully faced judicial review challenges in court on the basis that these decisions support the academic and programming needs of our students. I have been involved in the closure and sale of many schools and the purchase of lands and new builds for several schools,” she says.
In fact, much has changed since Stokes Verworn first entered the legal profession and the world of in-house counsel.
“When I left private practice, some of the law firms were almost discouraging me, saying ‘don’t do it.’ Part of that feeling was due to financial reasons — you don’t make the same kind of money in-house. Another great misnomer is that if you go in-house you will have more regulated hours. I didn’t find that, mostly I suppose because I was a solo in-house and that’s a challenge in itself,” she says.
Stokes Verworn graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1983 at a time when women in law school made up about 15 per cent of the student body.
In 1985, she entered private practice with the law firm Blackadder Lacavera Green Marion & Leon LLP (now Blackadder Leon Marion & Fazari LLP), where she concentrated on family law, real estate, young offenders and prosecutions. The work on family law and youth would become useful later when she joined the school board.
“I was the first female lawyer in Welland, so when the Welland Law Association met, it had to relocate the meeting from the all-men’s floor to the ground floor of the former Welland Club to accommodate a woman joining the group,” she recalls. “It took a little longer before there were female robing rooms added to the local court facilities.”
Her arrival to the all-male legal community in Welland even prompted an article in the local newspaper.
She articled with law firm Lampard Ellis & Walsh, working with Stuart Ellis, a well-respected municipal law lawyer. After articling in Niagara, she travelled to Europe where she completed a court internship at Gray’s Inn in London.
“The Inns of Court are steeped in history,” says Stokes Verworn. “We would have communal dinners and debates at the very dining table that King Henry the VIII used. Each morning, we would robe and attend chambers to pick up our court assignment that was rolled and tied with a pink ribbon and head off to the courts. I would accompany experienced barristers to the Old Bailey courthouse. The barristers were such intelligent, articulate and persuasive advocates for their clients. It was like a theatre performance to watch, complete with the robes and horsehair wigs.”
In 1987, Stokes Verworn entered her first in-house position as assistant regional solicitor for the Regional Municipality of Niagara, which encompassed 12 municipalities. Her duties included: providing legal advice to every department, various committees and regional council; monitoring real estate and development files; labour matters with six unions; drafting and reviewing contracts, leases, agreements and estate matters for six senior citizen homes; advising social services and health services departments; conducting by-law prosecutions; attending before the Ontario Municipal Board and other tribunals; and attending as legal counsel at regional council meetings.
Two years later, she moved to Oakville, Ont. to become a solicitor for the Regional Municipality of Halton, where she was a member of a team of four lawyers for the region that consisted of four municipalities.
After marrying her husband Charles (an artist and designer), she returned to Niagara and became the deputy city solicitor for the City of Niagara Falls.
In September 1991, she was appointed the board lawyer for the Lincoln
County Board of Education, which in 1998 amalgamated with the Niagara South Board of Education to become the District School Board of Niagara.
Stokes Verworn says the appeal of in-house is providing solutions and expertise to others seeking to make important decisions for an organization.
“You have someone who understands the heartbeat of your organization,” she says. “They not only know the people and familiarity of processes. I know enough about what’s going on to know what is going to fly and what’s not going to fly here, as well as what some of the obstacles will be to what would normally be seen as a legal remedy you could implement.”
“I think more and more organizations are realizing that there are a lot of regulations and laws and they need someone who can proactively make sure they are in compliance,” she says.
“The idea is you don’t want to be involved in litigation — you want to avoid it in the first place. When I think back, we’ve been able to avoid a lot of litigation. It doesn’t mean we haven’t had some substantive cases, but I would say there are a lot of ones we were able to avoid — proactively we had taken the right steps.”
“For example, in our student discipline matters — you can have three or four cases a month and, for the size of our board, we’re probably one of the only ones who hasn’t had to go to the Children and Family review board. We have in-house people making sure the right procedures are being followed. There’s also the opportunity to engage with the parents — not everything has to be acrimonious,” she says.
Reflecting on her time in-house, usually as a solo counsel, Stokes Verworn says it was often “overwhelming” and, contrary to the myths, not conducive to work/life balance.
“It was also a bit lonely at times,” she says. “Unlike in a law firm, I did not have other colleagues to share ideas with.”
To combat the loneliness and absence of legal colleagues to run ideas by, she sought out opportunities to collaborate with other lawyers. She formed the INC group in Niagara — In-House Niagara Corporate Counsel — that existed for several years and was a collegial group of lawyers from the public and private business sector.
“I always hoped my presence as a lawyer around the senior table and the boardroom gave the board the benefit of what I like to call situational and contextual awareness. As in-house counsel, I know the people, the process, the operational procedures and policies and that familiarity aids both in the response time and in the proposed problem solving,” she says.
The board has already chosen someone to succeed Stokes Verworn — Jennifer Feren was legal counsel with the Regional Municipality of Niagara.
“She’ll do a great job; I have great confidence in her,” Stokes Verworn says. “When you’re passing the baton, it makes you feel a bit better about leaving.”
60 Second Snapshot
Brenda Stokes Verworn
City of Welland, Ont.
• Called to the Ontario bar in April 1985
• First woman lawyer in Welland, Ont.
• Holds a B.A. in political science from Brock University and a diploma in journalism from Niagara College
• Entered first in-house position as assistant regional solicitor for the Regional Municipality of Niagara in 1987
• Formed the In-House Niagara Corporate Counsel group
• Served on the Ontario Bar Association Education Law Section executive in different roles as the chairwoman, vice chairwoman and newsletter editor for more than 20 years