Being Creative as a Lawyer


Milena Cardinal


Laurel: Milena we're on to you. So, you know what Milena? I have the privilege of listening to Milena participating in a lunch and learn with Milena. I heard her story and I was really touched by that because Milena is really an interesting person. She's gone through a lot of stuff. It always fascinates me when I talk to a meet so-called successful people and we never know what the backstories are. Milena's backstory is really cool and a lot of hard times and make no mistake. But I think out of that has come her belief in core values and what she can do with that to really work with her clients and make, you know, become the best lawyer she possibly can and get the best deals for her clients that she possibly can. So, Milena, I'm going to hand it over to you.

Milena: Thank you, Laurel. Oh my God what an introduction got me blushing a little bit. And thank you, Derek and Clara and everybody else who said hi. Yeah, I guess you know, I sort of did a 180 about a year and a half ago. I guess we probably all did in some way, but I think what really happened is that when COVID happened, it was such a slap in the face, I guess it was like, wow, how do we continue to do what we've always done?

So, I feel like I have to rethink everything about how I practice law, how I manage my team, how I network, how I interact with clients and even what clients I really want to serve. So, I needed to get back to my core values. And it took me a while to figure out what those are. And we narrowed it down to five and this is what we breathe, what we do, what we stand for, who we are.

And the first with that is to be creative. Actually, I'll list all of them. So, the first is to be creative. The second is collaborate. The third is to make them comfortable. The fourth is to be cohesive and lastly be a positive influence on the community. 

So, our first core value is to be creative and it's been such a guiding light. Even before I defined it. I realized that it was really who we are and it was always important to us to be innovative, adapt to change. The last thing we want to do is to do things a certain way, because that's how it's always been done, right? Oh, my colleagues do it that way. So, I'm just going to do the same. Every week at our team meeting, I asked my team, how do we do it better?

Like, I'm always welcoming suggestions. I remember one day, three years ago, I noticed that we were running out of space in the office, and I really hated the prospect of renting off site storage and because we would access our storage all the time. So, I walked in the office on a Monday morning and announced to my team we're going paperless.

The look on their faces was absolutely priceless. It took about two years and it was quite a ride, but in the end it was worth it. What we expected to happen, we're so much more efficient and we save a lot of trees, but there were so many more benefits, not the least of which was that one COVID hit.

My team members were able to just grab their phones, grab their computers and their chairs because we have these really, really cool slow-paced chairs. I'm going to kick back a promise and then within a day, everyone was set up and operational from home. So, it was such a blessing that we had taken on that journey a few years before. There are a lot of other ways that creativity serves us and our clients. Not going to reveal all my secrets here tonight, but I can tell you that if there's something that you want to achieve, there's usually a way to achieve it.

It's usually not as complicated as it initially seems. We use vendor paybacks, promissory notes, bare trust, joint ventures, a combination of these and many, many more. 

So, for example, I like to give you guys an example. A client was running a small business on a small portion of a really large parcel of land. The owner of the land was also running another small business on the same parcel of land, and also have their home on the same parcel of land. The client is a very kind person. Salt of the earth, amazing soul. And he had helped the owner of the land for many years after her husband had passed away, especially.

So, the owner approached my client to buy the land for well under market value. The owner wanted to ensure that the business would survive. They wanted to make sure that they could continue to live on the property for as long as they wanted. They wanted to prevent their family from objecting to the transfer of the land.

They wanted to save tax where possible and we toyed with many ideas of how to make that happen so that we fulfill all of the sellers or owner's goals, because it was such a nice gift that this owner was giving to my client. So, we had to get creative in the end. What we ended up doing is we ended up doing a sale, but we also attached to the sale, a lifelong. So that the seller would have a right to reside in the property for as long as they wanted. And initially we were going to do an option to purchase agreement. And then after much deliberation, it was decided that it was better to do a sale right away so that it would prevent the family from objecting to it.

Also, what we did as a vendor take back some very comfortable terms for my client and also allowed the seller to save a lot of taxes by spreading over the course of five years the payment of the land. So, by being creative, we were able to fulfill all of the marks of what the seller wanted to achieve. And of course, still making it happen. So, we're trying to be creative in every way of what we tried to do. 

The second core value is that we collaborate. We find it to be absolutely essential to provide the very best service to our clients, to be collaborative with their chosen network.

So, I want to establish a relationship with my clients, other professionals. So I'll discuss estate planning, the financial advisors and I'll run corporate setups by accountants. I draft contracts collaboratively with coaches. I make myself available to realtors and mortgage brokers to draft complex clauses, or to come up with creative financing solutions.

And more importantly, I never expect my clients to be the middleman between our office and another one of the professionals, if I can avoid it. So, this way, our clients don't just receive the advice of one profit per one professional at a time, which can sometimes be conflicting. So, they'll get one advice from their accountant, a different advice from the lawyer, and then they really don't know what to do.

Oftentimes it's neither of those people who are wrong. It's just that, because they haven't thought of the other side of the plan. They are both right, but they're not serving the client. So, I will hash out the issues with the other professionals ahead of time. So that the advice is coherent, seamless and holistic.

Another thing that we do is another core value for them is make them comfortable. So how do we do that? We do our very best to make it a pleasant experience. We're friendly and welcoming. I'm stuffy if you will. I'm really not a cert student, type of gal. We explained concepts in a way that is easily understood and we welcome questions and discussions.

We offer completely virtual services, electronic signatures on all matters, except wills because the law society has not gotten around to allowing that. We also try to fix a problem before bringing it up. And at a minimum, we come up with a solution to offer before we present the problem to the client.

When we act for a client multiple times, the rule of thumb is to find every information we can from previous matters to minimize duplicating requests. So we won't ask for your ID every time and my receptionist every time she hears this was so much easier than I thought it was going to be.

So, there is a way of making legal services easier and smoother and more comfortable, but it's not just our clients that we want comfortable. We want to make the very best experience for the clients. It's our intent to make it smooth and comfortable for everyone else involved, like realtors, brokers, other lawyers, accountants, coaches, financial advisors.

We really try to make that as easy as possible for them as well. So, for instance, we offer virtual minute books so that our clients can access them on any device at any time. But it also allows like their accountant and bookkeepers business partners, et cetera, to access parts of their minute book in real time, which is really fantastic because you don't have to chase it. So, it creates a much smoother experience for the client all around, not just when they're with us, but when they're with other professionals as well. 

Our next core value is to be cohesive. So, I'm a strong believer of the cohesive plan. I repeat it to my team as a mantra.

So, when a client approaches me to do something for them, I try to gather as much information as possible about who they are, what they do, what their long-term goals are to make sure that what I'm trying to do for them will fit within that plan. I remember that when I first started my practice there was a senior lawyer that had given me advice on how to do wills and what he said was, when the client comes in to do a, will you ask them 10 questions? Just the core questions you need to draft will you go in the back? You draft the will and you print it, bring it back to the front, get the client to sign it. And always felt so odd to me because if that's what I'm going to be doing, why not just tell my clients to go online and find one of those services and do it themselves.

I feel like my clients don't hire me to just draft wills. They count on us to make sure that their estate planning corresponds with their wishes and makes sense, given their family, their lifestyle, their finances, their careers, that they rely on that advice. So, when a client comes to see me for wills, I'll ask something like a hundred questions and then I will take a little time to drop it and then send them the draft to review and then meet with them again, if they feel the need to, in order to make sure that they fully understand everything.

So, I have a story for that too? Yes, I do. I remember there was this client that came to me and said that she was selling her house. And I could have just processed the transaction. Her ex was still on title to the property and he was fine with signing off on the property, but she was really stressed about the fact that the separation had never been finalized.

And she felt like that was hanging over her head. And I said, well, if you're selling your property, there's an opportunity here for you to have sufficient funds to, you know, finalize this separation by making an offer to your former spouse, that's going to be sort of a win-win situation for both of you.

So, we came up with an offer together, presented it to her which was, you know, something that was very fair. So, he was happy to accept it. We dealt with the separation, the divorce, the stay on the estate planning all at once and she ended up with this feeling that all of it was dealt with and finalized, and it all came from the proceeds of sale.

So, at a time where financially, she felt very comfortable to do all those things. I could have looked at her sale from the perspective of a vacuum and just looked at the one item. But instead, it felt right to really approach it as a cohesive plan. And before warning that if you retain us to incorporate your business, we will also be talking to you about wills and your life goals and your entire corporate setup, and many more things.

Our last core value is to be a positive influence on the community. So, we always make sure to give back, I give days off to my staff so that they can give back if they choose to do that, that's something that's very important. So, I guess the takeaway here is if I think it is absolutely essential to determine what your core values are and who you are deep down.

And I think when you're clear on your core values, it makes it easier to hire because you'll find people that are a good fit as employees. You'll create strategic alliances or inventors that are easier. You won't be working with the wrong people. Your growth will be smoother. People with similar values will be attracted to your business.

And when you aren't clear, of course the opposite will happen. So, I guess I'm curious to find out if you have established your core values and if your core values are similar to our core values, then maybe we should be working together.

Francois: Yes. Thank you so much, Milena. It's so nice to hear a lawyer that cares.