Cheryl D’Sa, a civil litigator and the managing partner of Narwal Litigation LLP, became an elected Bencher of the Law Society of British Columbia in May 2020. She was the first visible minority female President of the Vancouver Bar Association and in 2019, Business in Vancouver named her one of the Top Forty under 40. She devotes her practice primarily to plaintiff personal injury and has appeared in all levels of Court in British Columbia. In addition to her practice, Cheryl is also active in providing continuing education programs in the legal and medical professions, having both created and taught a three-part series of lectures at the UBC Medical School on Personal Injury Law. Ms. D’Sa has also taken on many leadership roles in the legal profession including numerous years of service to the CBABC/Allard Law Mentorship Program, the CBABC Women Lawyers Forum, and a guest mentor for the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers Ladies’ Social. Ms. D’Sa has also been a Guest Judge for the Civil Chambers Advocacy Exercise, and both a guest speaker and Moot Court Judge at Allard Law.
Over the course of your career, you have honed your expertise in personal injury and insurance matters. Did you always know that you wanted to pursue personal injury?
I did not plan to pursue personal injury, it was something that I was very fortunate enough to learn about during my articles and first few years of practice. When I articled, my office was on the insurance floor of that firm. As a result, I ended up taking on insurance defence files and found that I enjoyed the work, but after a couple of years, decided that I wanted to work on those files from the plaintiff side, and that’s what I’ve been doing since then. I am very fortunate that my office was on that floor and that the group of lawyers I worked with introduced me to this area of law!
With so many unique and exciting ventures on the go, what would you say has been the highlight of your career to date? What do you feel is the most challenging thing you’ve faced?
I have been very fortunate to have had roles as a mentor, a committee member, a director and then President of the VBA and now as a Bencher. I definitely would not be able to pick one as a highlight, all have been wonderful, rewarding experiences for which I am very grateful for the opportunities.
I feel like there are different challenges for different times; there will be a highlight for today, this month and this year, and there will be a low point for today, this month and this year. This purely reflects the ebbs and flows of the practice of law.
You have been an active mentor to many professionals, especially law students and female lawyers. What advice do you give to those who are facing questions of balancing life and work – particularly in cases where starting a family becomes part of the equation?
It is a balancing act, and some days are easier than others, but I will say that I have never taken on anything in my career that I didn’t want to do and this has been key for me.
I have taken on many volunteer positions, but done so at times that worked for me, for my family and for my team at the firm. This approach has helped with balancing. I have also made choices that worked for me, such as building a full-size playroom in the middle of a downtown law firm. This may not work for every lawyer or for every firm, but it worked for me. Since my son was born 4 years ago, I have done a lot of remote work, to allow me to spend more time with him. Again, this is an approach that worked for me.
The other thing I always say to students is that it is okay if you change your mind. What you want to do now versus what you might want in ten years may be totally different and that is okay. There are lawyers who always thought they wanted to be stay-at-home parents but once they reached that point in their life, decided that continuing to work would make them happy. There are also lawyers who thought they wanted to be at the partnership level but once they got there, realized it was not making them happy. These types of scenarios often leave a sense of guilt for having changed one’s mind when there is nothing wrong with changing your mind as you learn, grow and experience new things.
I think that when it comes to the balancing act of juggling both a family and a legal practice, a further level of acceptance and understanding will simply take time but I genuinely believe that we are making progress as a profession. However, there is always more work to do and talking about these issues is the first step. I would caution against broad generalizations. I do not think being at a small firm guarantees flexibility and, conversely, I do not think that being at a big firm guarantees inflexibility. It is more about the firm itself and your fit within that firm that will dictate a successful work-life balance.
You were recently named one of the Top 40 under 40 by Business in Vancouver. Do you have any advice specifically for women trying to break into the traditionally male-occupied field of law, and more specifically, firm management?
I think it is important for women who want to go to law school to see and hear more about the many different types of jobs and to hear from women who have found happiness in their choice. I do believe that a big step forward is taken every time we talk about these issues, and I think the conversation has to start much earlier than the law school level. It is no secret that women leave the profession more than men do. I think continuing education programs addressing these issues and providing ideas for management in terms of job sharing, or other ideas all help to move things forward.
What part of your role as Bencher are you most excited about and what do you hope to bring to the position?
I have been a Bencher for almost two months now, so I am still very much learning about the role. However, the work I have been a part of so far has been challenging, important and fulfilling and I am looking forward to hopefully making meaningful contributions during my term.
If you could go back and give your law student-self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Just keep going. There are going to be hard days in articling, in the first years of practice, and at the partnership level but you just need to just keep going. I say this because the more days you have as a lawyer, the more you realize these things are going to happen, but it’s how you deal with the setbacks and how you learn to ensure they don’t happen again. You also begin to build and expand your network of people that have already been through the same types of challenges. Ultimately, you just get more perspective because no matter what you do in life, it is always stressful and hardest at the beginning: when you start articling, when you switch firms, when you take on a new volunteer position, you go through it all again.