Suzanne Paterson seems a little afraid.
She spent decades as a criminal defence lawyer in the company of gangsters and enforcers and drug dealers and petty criminals. She welcomed them into her home office, sometimes in the middle of the night.
That was normal. This is not.
At the age of 76, Paterson is retir- ing.
“No one knows what I’m to do,” she said. “This is what I’m supposed to have spent my entire life striving for. Retirement.”
The word comes from her mouth like a curse.
“What am I going to do?” Pater- son asked, dead seriously, when a reporter first calls her to discuss her impending retirement.
She asked the same question when that reporter called back to set up a time for an interview. And she repeated it again when that inter- view finally happened on the deck of her downtown Chilliwack home.
It’s a reasonable question with no good answer, considering Paterson’s life.
Born into a prosperous Ontario family, Paterson was married, with children, when she applied to Osgoode Hall, Canada’s most presti- gious law school, in the late 1960s.
Law schools had gender quotas then. Eight per cent of the seats were allotted to women (although no married woman had ever been accepted). The rest were for men—and men only. So Paterson never made a fuss when a Mr. Suzanne Paterson was admitted to the school. And she certainly didn’t complain about having a designated locker in the men’s change room—at least not until she had proven her- self to be one of the school’s bright- est stars.
Paterson would later transfer to, and graduate from, the University of British Columbia. She embarked on her own in 1972, having declined a request to be an assistant to a fel
low—male—law school grad. Criminal law chose her, Paterson said. It turned out those in need of
her legal services were a little less concerned about Paterson’s gender than the legal establishment.
“If [my clients] had seen me as a woman, they wouldn’t have come near me because ‘women were weak’ and ‘women didn’t fight,’” Paterson said. “I don’t know how they missed it because the other lawyers didn’t. They spotted me as a woman.”
Paterson said there was a simple key to her success: “I absolutely can- not be embarrassed in court,” she said. “It’s not me that’s in court, it’s a situation.”
Word of mouth built a long client list. Some were likely innocent of all charges. Others most certainly weren’t.
Although the legal system could not function without them, defence lawyers receive plenty of scorn. Paterson, though, is passionate about the need to defend those accused of crimes—even if they’re guilty.
“I’m not religious . . . however there are cer- tain things I believe,” she said. “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Defence lawyers get a rap for trying to excuse the misdeeds of those who abuse oth- ers. But there’s another side of that coin: Pater- son is full of righteous fury at those who would harass the downtrodden, abuse prisoners or belittle vulnerable children.
She is outraged that schools use expulsion or suspensions to punish young children.
“How dare they take a child who’s treated like dirt, have him come to school, and have the teacher say, ‘You’re dirt.’” she says. “He grows up and he becomes my client.”
That passion is evident both to her clients and the prosecutors trying to get them con- victed.
“For her, this isn’t just a job,” Crown counsel Andrea Ormiston told the Times. “She truly cares about her clients.”
And in a justice system that can seem cold and hard-edged, Paterson—hardly a delicate flower—manages to soften the experience
“There’s a human element to the law and that’s what Suzanne Paterson has mastered,” Ormiston said. “She recognizes these are human beings in this process. Her clients are often people who aren’t listened to, and Suzanne listens; she’ll listen to these people for hours.”
After decades of working on cases in Van- couver and on Vancouver Island, Paterson moved to Chilliwack 14 years ago. The goal was semi-retirement, or something like it. That didn’t quite happen though.
Paterson, financially secure, began working legal aid cases.
“I thought ‘There are lawyers around who are young and have to get started and need paying clients,’” she said. So Paterson took the ones who couldn’t pay. Not that Paterson is any fan of the legal aid system in British Columbia, which she says is in desperate need of fixing.
“It stinks! It absolutely stinks.” Paterson said the system is inaccessible, forces clients to represent themselves and taxes both the time and resources of the courts.
“This is why I end up with strawberries and peaches,” she said, gesturing at a basket of fruit left by a grateful client.
But after spending months finding other lawyers for her long client list, Paterson’s now done with all that.
She’s 76, but it wasn’t her age that did her in. Three years ago, she fell outside the court- house and hurt her shoulder. It never fully healed and the pain is now unbearable during long days spent at the courthouse.
So now she contemplates retirement. Bik- ers on the run from the law never scared her. But the prospect of retirement seems to have deeply unsettled Patterson, who is widowed but lives with her son.
She has her twice-yearly trips to Las Vegas, but beyond that, her days are worryingly open. She has considered her options. None of the ntypical retirement pursuits seem particularly attractive.
Golf? “I frankly can’t see hitting a ball and chasing it as something to do.”
Gardening? “I personally think it’s easier to go down to the store and buy my vegetables.”
Travel? “Do you think I’ve been sitting at home for all these years?”
And don’t even suggest cooking or clean- ing to a woman who never became the stay- at-home woman typical when she was first entering adulthood.
“I don’t think I’m the only person in this world who faces this: the magical word of retirement,” she said. “So here I am. Now do something.”
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