Michelle Isaak—In the Spotlight

Practice Point

Michelle Isaak—In the Spotlight

June 2020

This month’s contributor spotlight is on Michelle Isaak of DLA Piper. Michelle is on the editorial board of the British Columbia Probate and Estate Administration Practice Manual, contributes to the British Columbia Estate Planning and Wealth Preservation Practice Manual, and speaks at numerous CLEBC conferences and webinars.

How did you first get involved with CLEBC?

I have been contributing to CLEBC since I was an articling student, as Davis & Company (as we were then) compiled the Estate Administration Act annotations for the inaugural edition of Annotated Estates Practice. I have had the good fortune to work with people like Mary Hamilton, Q.C., Lauren Blake and Roger Lee who are significant contributors to CLEBC so I have had many wonderful opportunities to get involved since the beginning of my career.

What are you currently working on (or have most recently worked on) with CLEBC?

In April I did a Zoom webinar with Amy Mortimore called “Practicing Wills, Estates and Trusts Law during COVID-19.” This is such an unusual time we are living in and putting this together was a real challenge, as the information was changing daily (and continues to).  Presenting on Zoom from my family room with pictures of a 6-year-old me for a backdrop was definitely a first, too!  A few weeks before that, I participated in editing the annual updates to the British Columbia Probate and Estate Administration Practice Manual as a member of the editorial board, which is always a great experience – a lot of work but an excellent way to stay on top of changes in the law and to learn from my co-editors.

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

Once I completed my undergrad, it took me a number of years to get to law school. I knew I wanted a career where I could work with people and social issues while being intellectually challenged, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that would be.  I applied to graduate programs for Social Work and Urban Planning, but in the end, I decided on law as it seemed to offer the widest variety of career options. Once there, I happily discovered I was suited for it, and loved being able to help people with their problems while being challenged with the complicated puzzles that law presents.

How did you decide to focus your practice on estate and trust planning?

I started practicing as a general litigator, working in several areas – family, estate, aboriginal, product liability, and personal injury to name a few.  I liked the estate and family cases the most because of the personal stories and the ability to help people through a very difficult time in their lives.  After a few years, I recognized that I wasn’t “comfortable sitting in the discomfort,” which I think you need to be as a litigator when you discover or cross-examine a witness. So I was keen to accept when offered the chance to try my hand at estate planning and administration, and my practice evolved from there.

You are very active in the legal community both as a contributor to publications and as a speaker. What motivates you to give back to the profession?

I am a bit of a law geek – I really enjoy digging into an issue and figuring it out, and then organizing what I’ve learned into something understandable and sharing it.  The chance to connect with my peers in the legal community and talk about what we do every day is a real privilege. I also love the fact that I always learn something new.

What advice would you pass on to a newly called lawyer?

Being a lawyer is hard work, but it is so much more enjoyable when you work with people you respect and who take time to mentor and support you, so try to find those people.  One of the best pieces of advice I received starting out was from Mr. Justice Shaw, for whom I clerked, who told me (and I’m paraphrasing) that it takes years to build your reputation as counsel who can be trusted and only a few minutes to lose it.  So take care in what you do, and do what you say.

Other than law, what are you passionate about?

Two years ago I started curling and I’m hooked!  It’s an addictive combination of skill, strategy, collegiality, and just so Canadian. The pandemic has also caused me to rediscover the pleasure of jigsaw puzzles – “just one more piece” which usually leads to “how did it get to be midnight?” And most of all, I enjoy spending as much time with my partner and my adult children as I can.