Ask The Experts: Naomi Sayers
By Glenn McAleer
This summer, I had the great pleasure of meeting with Naomi Sayers, a lawyer and advocate licensed to practice in Alberta and Ontario. Naomi is a litigator focused on professional regulation, health / mental health, and civil and appellate litigation. Naomi is an Indigenous feminist and former sex worker. Since starting her legal career in-house at Hydro One, Naomi has moved back home and started her own solo practice based in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. She has represented Work Safe Twerk Safe, the first and only federally incorporated non-profit advocacy group dedicated to strippers’ right to work safely in Canada. Recently, Naomi ran as an independent to represent Sault Ste Marie in the Ontario Provincial election. We discussed some of these exciting experiences, some benefits of having a solo practice, and the importance of clear communication when setting boundaries. Naomi believes these boundaries can help students who work with lawyers for the first time and help attract the right clients for a particular practice.
Naomi, I can see how important it is for you and your practice to set boundaries around your work through your social media policies and your stance on not taking urgent files except for clients with good standing. What experiences have helped you create those boundaries, and how does that serve your practice?
I think my past experience in sex work was helpful in recognizing the need for boundaries. You need clear boundaries in that kind of work. When I went out on my own as a sole practitioner, I was worried about securing clients, catering to clients, and taking on every client that contacted me. I learned very quickly that that is not the way to operate. If you are going into your own practice, it’s important to sit down and think about what kinds of clients you want to serve. Who is your ideal client? Who is your non-ideal client?
People often call me in a state of distress, and I get a lot of urgent inquiries. I learned early on that if I don’t have a prior relationship with you, if I don’t know you, if you cannot pay my fees upfront, or if you are trying to negotiate my fees, I will not take on your urgent file. They require a lot of time, energy, and dedication in a shorter period. That’s just an example of my boundaries, but they fluctuate – If there is a file that a lawyer is struggling with. I can help in some meaningful way without jeopardizing my current clients, I may help, but it’s an ongoing analysis.
I found that the moment I started stating my boundaries publicly, the more respectful inquiries I got. Initially, I got inquiries expecting me to do things for free. I had people yelling at me and degrading me, but the moment I started communicating my boundaries very clearly, it changed. Boundaries are important for bringing in the ideal client. If someone sees from the outset that you aren’t going to do something, they aren’t going to waste your time. If someone is abusive or expecting me to work for free, I just won’t respond.
Has your solo practice helped you go after the files you want directly, and how has it enabled your advocacy?
Yes, it has helped. I started as a student at Hydro One, and they offered me articles, and I said yes. After a year, I wanted more litigation experience, so I went home to start my own practice. Working in-house on major files was beneficial because I was able to see the factors that impact our legal analysis – business, political and financial decisions as well as the community impact. Taking that experience and moving into solo practice was valuable – I often have small businesses come to me to advise them on certain decisions, and I have to remind them that I can only provide legal advice. Sometimes, they like to ask me about making a business decision, for example. From working in-house, I’m able to spot the difference between legal advice and business advice from the outset.
Now that I have a solo practice, I have worked on several judicial reviews and several injunctions that I probably would not have if I were still in-house. I did work on some injunctions while in-house, and I got to see how it played out in a big corporation which was helpful but doing it on my own is something I am super proud of. I have those experiences, and I don’t think I would have been able to say by year 5 I worked on injunctions, judicial reviews, and appeared at appellate courts without the experiences.
I am interested in how you got started with Work Safe Twerk Safe, and how you think your lived experience as a former sex worker informs your advocacy work?
Prior to becoming a lawyer, I was involved with sex-work advocacy in Canada and internationally. Some of my work has been cited by international bodies, and I have been invited to provide my perspective at federal government standing committees, so I had some connection to Work Safe Twerk Safe, and I knew some of their directors. When the decision to shut down the strip clubs due to the Covid-19 pandemic was announced, there was a lot of anger. The public outcry over the decision, but also the public stigmatization towards strippers. It was particularly troubling because it also came from leaders who were joking about the men who had to go home at night and tell their wives – what about the women working in the clubs and their families? They have very little control over their work environment, so they are the people I was concerned about. I reached out to Work Safe and asked them to talk about it. It was a stressful file; there were a lot of moving parts. Not a bad stress – I just knew I couldn’t do it alone. I had to hire students who were respectful towards sex workers and wouldn’t judge the file. The last job posting I hired for was because the hearing for the file itself happened on an urgent turnaround, so I needed help preparing for that in less than 3 weeks. The questions I asked students to answer in their application were how they would address working on a short timeline and managing competing priorities, as well as how they take time to practice self-care. I want to know that the student is going to take time out and communicate to me that they need to take a break because I, as a lawyer, will not know if the student needs a break. I will know they need a break when their work quality falls below expectations – I will know they need a break if they aren’t following or reading instructions carefully – so when I hire students, I tell them that it is their responsibility to tell me what they need. Obviously, I have to manage them and provide support and feedback, but they will feel as if they are not enjoying their time or their work or that their not completing tasks if they do not communicate.
That goes back to the boundaries you mentioned early and setting them through clear communication – it’s important both ways for students to communicate as well to communicate things to you.
Yes, absolutely. I am clear from the outset about what the project deadlines are. I think some students working with a lawyer for the first time think that the deadline is the deadline, but they should absolutely be making internal deadlines to check in with whoever is overseeing them. “This is what I have so far. Is this what you’re looking for?” The final deadline shouldn’t be the only deadline; there should be internal, soft deadlines as well. I hope that when students work with me, they feel comfortable communicating with me throughout the process.
Do you have any examples of how you take time out of your busy schedule to practice self-care?
I go to the gym, and I try to eat healthily. I know what works for me. I learned that I needed help with learning how to eat better, and I invested in a personal trainer in my first year of being a lawyer. It was brutal, but they gave me the tools to work in the gym and take care of my body. I also quit drinking, which helped with my sleep, anxiety, and managing stress. It enables me to do the work I do now. I don’t think if I drank, I would be able to work on the files I have now. I am proud of that decision, especially as an Indigenous woman. There is a stigma about it, and I think we need to talk about it. I don’t want to direct shame at anyone who wants to have a drink at the end of the day, but it’s just not for me. I also try to travel when I can. Covid impacted that a lot, so I had to find different ways like hiking and going to local beaches and hanging out with family when it was possible to do so.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like our readers to hear?
One of the things that I teach students is that they are going to make mistakes. I tell them that right away. That is okay, you’re still learning, and it’s better to make mistakes now while they have a lawyer overseeing their work as opposed to later when they are a lawyer. When you are a lawyer, a mistake becomes your own responsibility. I try to show how a practice looks in everyday life. I am not writing research memos, and I think that law schools need to move away from them. I get the structure is fine; you’re doing research and pulling the analysis, but I have made maybe 2 or 3 research memos in my own practice. Generally, I get law students to write a case brief or put it in a table. Don’t hesitate to be creative when working with a lawyer in terms of how to display information. Also, ask how the lawyer wants it done because they may have their own systems that they use. So, think outside the box and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The best piece of advice I got from another litigator was that the less you can say, the better – not everything needs to be a research paper.
If you would like to find out more about Naomi and her services, please visit www.meetnaomi.com, or visit her at @kwetoday on IG, twitter and TikTok.