Local makes the bar

photo courtesy of Keelan Simpson Keelan takes the bar at a ceremony in Hay River. In attendance are Inaaya Sulemana, left, Rocky Simpson, Bette Lyons, Chelsea Simpson and Keelen.

photo courtesy of Keelan Simpson
Keelan takes the bar at a ceremony in Hay River. In attendance are Inaaya Sulemana, left, Rocky Simpson, Bette Lyons, Chelsea Simpson and Keelen.

For Keelan Simpson, who is among the NWT’s newest lawyers, the realization that she’s done school and can now practise law is still surreal.

“I’m not practising yet,” she said. “But sometimes I’ll realize that I can … that I’ve been through it all, school, everything … and that now I can actually do it.”

In a unique ceremony in August, Simpson was presented by her father, lawyer Rocky Simpson, at the Hay River courthouse. She said to have the opportunity to be called to the bar – the phrase used to indicate a lawyer can begin to practise – in Hay River was pretty special in itself. She had to wait until there was a Supreme Court sitting, and wasn’t sure if it would happen as late as a few days before the ceremony was scheduled.

“The justice said she had never seen a daughter presented by her father in her career,” said Simpson. “So it was pretty special and a little emotional. I was kind of tearing up in there.”

Simpson said that in the south, the bar call is a group event, with squadrons of 50 lawyers being called at a time.

Having largely grown up in Hay River, Simpson moved with her family to Vancouver when her father decided to attend law school at the University of British Columbia (UBC) when she was six years old. She said her choice to follow in his footsteps and begin her law career there had more to do with nostalgia than anything, and she found the first year difficult.

“Law school is one of the hardest things I think a person can go through, and you need to be stable going in, and I just didn’t have that stability personally,” she said, admitting that the homesickness she experienced was greater than she had anticipated.

She transferred to the University of Alberta in Edmonton for her second year, joining her brother who was entering his first year of law school there. She said having her family nearby – her parents visited every month or so, and she had relatives in Calgary – made her academic career much easier.

Originally, however, she had chosen UBC for another reason.

“They have a really vibrant aboriginal community down there,” she explained. “That’s part of where I’ve grown up, and it was really important to me to work in place with a strong aboriginal community.”

Simpson’s goal is to work for legal aid in the territory, and she hopes to specialize in family law. She said her experience in 2012 as a court worker showed her how intimidating the legal system can be for anyone, which led to her interest in wanting to help people who can’t afford private representation.

“The service they provide is so important,” she said. “And there’s a lack of family lawyers all across Canada, not just the Northwest Territories. That area has always seemed a lot more interesting to me. I think you can get to know your clients’ stories better and know that you’re helping them through some tough times.”

Simpson sat on the board of the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre – an organization she said has supported her her whole life. Interim president Margaret Jerome announced Simpson’s latest career achievement at the fiddling and jigging competition two weeks ago, saying that everyone at the centre was so proud of her.

“Now we have someone on our side,” she said.

But for now, not much in Simpson’s life has changed.

“I guess the biggest thing right now is that there used to be no lawyers working at the campground and now there’s one,” she joked, having spent the summer working at a campground in Yellowknife.

She has plans to head out on a six-month trip to Africa, Europe and Asia starting in October, saying she wants to take the opportunity now that she’s done school to take a breath before diving into her career.

“I felt that it was important to take the time now, so I’m not always looking back and thinking that I should have gone when I had the chance,” she said. “Then I can come back and commit fully.”

-Sarah Ladik