Ask the Experts with Federal Prosecutor Shelley Tkatch
By Glenn McAleer
Shelley Tkatch works as General Counsel for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC). As a prosecutor, Shelley has worked on a wide variety of cases, including Charter issues, drugs and organized crime, regulatory offences, and serious violent offences. Shelley’s career has spanned across several provinces. She completed her law degree at the University of Saskatchewan before practicing at several law firms in British Columbia. Shelley then moved northwards and took a position in Yellowknife before coming to Calgary in 2009. In 2011, Shelley was named Deputy Chief Prosecutor, a position she held for several years. Shelley is a member of the National Wiretap Experts Committee, recently began work as a sessional instructor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Law, and just recently finished her work as the Northern Coordinator.
I am interested in what your role as Northern Coordinator involved. Could you tell us a little bit about what that job entailed?
The Northern Coordinator is a liaison position between the three territorial offices (Whitehorse, Yellowknife, and Iqaluit) which provides legal, strategic, and policy support to those offices and to the Director of Public Prosecutions on northern issues, which in this case relates to Criminal Code prosecution issues. It was amazing how quickly my experience with Criminal Code prosecutions came back to me after having been in the southern region for 13 years and mainly doing federal prosecutions.
So, federal prosecutors get different kinds of files up north compared to what you would expect in Alberta?
Exactly—the northern PPSC prosecutors are the only prosecutors up there. They cover all prosecutions, including what the provincial prosecutors would handle in the southern provinces. PPSC prosecutors do everything from shoplifting to homicides to the federal prosecutions, including drugs and regulatory prosecutions.
So, you would get a much more varied experience if you were starting as a prosecutor up north?
Absolutely. For anybody who’s young and wants court experience and wants a varied opportunity to get into serious offenses and jury trials much sooner than if they worked in a southern office, I highly recommend working in a northern office for a few years. It is exhilarating, interesting, and adventurous. You get to do fly-in circuits; you don’t just sit in Yellowknife, you fly as a court party to remote communities and hold court in town halls, school gyms, or community centers. For anybody with an adventurous heart who wants to get the best criminal law experience ever, go work up north.
How did you find the opportunity to go up north early in your career?
I was lucky because I got a job with a law firm in Chilliwack, B.C. that was a contract agent for the Federal Prosecution Service with the Department of Justice. Back then, PPSC wasn’t called PPSC, it was part of Justice Canada, and it was a small unit called the Federal Prosecution Service. The Federal Prosecution Service only has offices in the big cities. Any prosecution outside of that is contracted with agent firms. These private firms are contracted to do prosecution work in that community. That still exists today. Anywhere in Alberta, outside of the major cities, will be prosecuted by a private lawyer who has a contract with PPSC. I got a summer job with a law firm that had this contract to prosecute federal offences in Chilliwack and Abbotsford. As a summer student, and then as an articling student, I got to do prosecution work along with my regular articles. I got a job with another firm after that that also had the contract later on, so I got to prosecute federal offences as an agent, but also as an employee of a private law firm in the lower mainland. That meant I got to do some civil litigation as well, motor vehicle defence work and a few other civil litigation files. So, I always kept my hand in doing federal prosecution work, even as an employee of a private firm, and I applied and got the Yellowknife job because there was a slowdown of work in B.C. at the time.
I can see that being a great way to test multiple things during your articles!
Yes, if someone has an interest in criminal law but is just not able to get on with the provincial or federal Crown, or doesn’t want to commit 100% to defence counsel, getting a job with an agent with a contract is a great way to get a lot of court experience and learn criminal law. Even people who may not have a full interest in criminal law, if you get involved with criminal law, you’re going to get a whole lot more court experience right off the bat than in any other area of law. If that court experience is valuable to you, that is the route to take to get in front of judges and learn the procedures in court.
And that kind of experience eventually lead you to being named the Deputy Chief Federal Prosecutor for Alberta! Can you tell me a little about that role?
The Chief Federal Prosecutor is in charge of federal prosecution for the entire Alberta region, and the deputy is second in charge. In our case, the Chief Prosecutor was residing in Edmonton while I was residing in Calgary. So, as the Deputy Chief Federal Prosecutor, I was in charge of the Calgary office. For all intents and purposes, I was running the day-to-day operations of the Calgary office. That’s management, hiring, making sure the court rooms are covered, making sure people get the tools and training they need, being up on the law, and reporting. It was a management role; I didn’t get to go to court all that much. But I did get to see the underbelly of the courts and the judicial process. Being in management included attending court committees and stakeholder meetings with judges, defence counsel, sheriffs, the provincial Crown, federal Crown, and probation services to talk about different processes, how the system works, and what the stakeholder interests are. That was very interesting–to see what the justice system is like beyond just being in the court room.
I noticed you have K.C. at the end of your name, and it got me interested in the King’s Counsel. I’m just wondering how you were recognized for that designation?
They changed the process a few years ago, and now if anybody wishes to have a K.C. designation they need to apply for themselves. Before the change, you could have been nominated for the role, but now you must apply. There are a bunch of requirements, and it’s a designation for senior members of the bar. There are four essays you need to write about how you meet those qualifications and then you need a couple letters of reference. That application is submitted to a committee that assesses the applications and provides a recommendation to the Minister of Justice, who makes the final decision. Once you hit a certain level in your career, you may want to consider making that application. Nobody from our office had applied when I was writing my application. I’m very proud of the work we do as federal prosecutors. We try to not only hit a level of competence but also excellence in the courts, and I thought if I could step forward to get the ball rolling, that would enable me to encourage my colleagues to apply for the designation themselves.
Do you have any sage-like wisdom to share with students just looking to start their law career?
First off, just know that that feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing will not go away for a long time. It’ll be years and years before that feeling goes away, so don’t fret that you’re feeling that way. It’s because you don’t know what you’re doing! It just means you have to ask, do your research, and figure things out. When I was articling, I was lucky enough to article for the senior principle at the firm who had been a lawyer for 30 years: a senior, respected member of the bar. I remember doing my first small claims trial. I lost horribly. My principle took me out for lunch, and he told me that in my first five years, I was going to lose most of my cases. He told me not to worry, that’s just the way it is. As you get more experience, the ratio will start evening out, and by the time I got to his age, I’d be winning cases I had no business winning.
Secondly, find mentors or people that you trust to talk to and work out issues with your files. Hopefully it’s within the firms that you’re working with, but if you’re feeling isolated early in your career, make sure you network and find those people that you feel comfortable talking over files with. That is invaluable. You’re not going to be able to figure it all out on your own. You need to talk to somebody and inevitably you are going to find someone who found themselves in the same position you’re in, and they’re going to know how they fumbled through it and figured it out, or how they got burned and learned not to do it again. Make those contacts and find those relationships, and when you do, treasure them.
As for work/life balance, once you hit a certain point in your career, you’re living the dream. You’re doing the kind of work you want to do. I’ve been at this for 30 years, so I’m picking the cases I want to work on and I’m doing the work I like doing. This is the stuff that interests me. I’m joining the committees I want to be on—you do hit the point when you’re living the dream. When you’re working in large firms, you’re going to have the expectation of billable hours and sometimes that is going to be billing a minimum of 40 hours a week, which is not the same as working 40 hours a week. If you’ve got those kinds of expectations on you, expect to be working on evenings and weekends and maybe both. I think early in the career it might be difficult. I look at other lawyers with families and responsibilities outside of work. I sometimes was in awe with those people and how they managed to work things out, but they did. You just have to figure out a routine to make it work. It’s going to be different for everybody.