The Women Partners of Pushor Mitchell LLP
Pushor Mitchell (PM) is the largest B.C. law firm outside of the lower mainland and has established itself as a premier “go-to firm” for business and personal legal matters.
We thought it would be interesting to get some inside perspective from leaders in the Okanagan legal community that would help with when and where to seek legal advice.
Theresa Arsenault, Q.C.
As a senior partner, you have seen a lot of growth and change. What has changed the most? What is core to the firm’s culture?
When I joined the firm in 1985 I was only one of 2 female lawyers out of 9. I became partner in 1986 and served on the management committee for the next 16 years, 4 as managing partner. Significant growth and change especially in the areas of technology and access to information has occurred. With the internet our clients are often much better informed about the law but really need our advice about the best way to proceed. That is where our experience is invaluable. Helping our clients arrange their affairs in a way that accomplishes their goals, while protecting them and giving them peace of mind is very rewarding.
At PM our core values demand legal expertise and a client service work ethic in a team environment. Our firm has always encouraged involvement and leadership in the community and believe that we attract the best staff and lawyers because of it. We are very proud of the positive changes we have helped create. We are especially proud of the great group of talented female partners and associates we now have. A third of our partners and associates are female, and that will continue to grow as we do.
As one of the newest partners, what is it that drew you to the firm in the first place? What is your practice focus?
PM is a forward-thinking firm; it is constantly evolving to meet the needs of its clients, its staff and lawyers. The culture is about the team, and you really feel part of something great – whether it be helping clients meet their goals or working every day with lawyers and staff that care and strive for excellence. That is what the PM spirit is all about.
I focus on Estate Planning, Estate Administration and Real Estate. My clients are diverse and range from young families to high net worth real estate investors. Protecting a life’s work and managing significant personal transactions takes care and understanding not only of current personal circumstance, but the underlying transaction drivers and anticipating future outcomes. Thanks to my clients who entrust me with significant aspects of their personal lives and investments, I have a vibrant practice and thoroughly enjoy what I do.
Tax law is a definite specialty area, how did you get interested in it? What is the most important tax planning considerations for individuals?
I first became interested in tax law as a summer student with the firm, and during my articling year I decided to pursue it as my practice area. It’s not an area that I had considered when I decided to go to law school, but I found that I really enjoyed the challenge of tax law (it is like an ever-changing puzzle to solve) combined with the satisfaction of being able to put it into practice to help people.
The single most important tax planning consideration for an individual is a good estate plan. Some or all of income tax, probate fees, property transfer tax and GST can apply upon death and/or to an estate. A well thought out plan avoids costly tax traps, ensures that the deceased’s wishes are carried out and minimizes administrative burdens during a difficult time.
Transactions are stressful. What are the key challenges and what do you do to help your clients prepare for negotiations?
Practicing business law is interesting because there are very few “standard” business ownership, risk or economic circumstances. As well, individual entrepreneur goals are diverse. The primary challenge regardless of enterprise size is understanding the business’ core principles and the issues inherent in the situation. Only then can you begin crafting advice that will meet that particular business’ and entrepreneur’s goals.
Helping clients with negotiations is one of the best parts of what I do. At the table or behind the scenes, organizing and presenting ideas and concepts and working through them to get a deal done is extremely gratifying. Good communication is an important component of helping reduce your client’s stress levels during negotiations, as is keeping your client’s focus on the desired outcome and not being distracted by less important issues that can crop up.
Your practice is focused primarily on litigation related to wills, estates and trusts. What are the most common issues on which your clients seek your advice?
Estate litigation has grown with the use of joint ownership as a planning tool. Legal challenges arise when spouses or parents put assets in joint names to try and avoid probate fees or otherwise transfer assets outside of the estate. Other areas of litigation involve rectifying invalid Wills where beneficiaries try to establish unsigned or unwitnessed Wills as a valid testamentary document; and, there are also variation claims to a Wills terms where spouses or children (including independent adult children) feel they have not been adequately provided for in a Will.
Estate litigation has been referred to as “family law with an empty chair at the table.” The proliferation of blended families and second marriages has made estate law more complicated. It is often a highly emotional time for clients who are dealing with grief, loss, financial stress, and very complicated family dynamics and history. I work with my clients to help minimize the stress they are experiencing. The most rewarding part of what I do is when someone says, “I feel so much better for having spoken to you today.”
You work regularly with helping homeowners buy and sell leases of Westbank First Nation (WFN) lands. What is unique to homeownership on WFN lands?
There are several significant differences. Your property will be held under a long term pre-paid lease or sublease (usually 99 years) and not a certificate of title. For a home in a full residential development, an Owners Association (acts like a strata corporation) holds a head lease, and the individual homeowners hold a sublease and pay fees to the owners association to cover common costs (similar to strata fees). Buyers also need to understand that the start of the term begins when the lease was first entered into by the first person who bought the lease, and not from the closing of their transaction. Every resident also has an opportunity to vote or stand for election to the Advisory Council which represents non-member resident’s interests to the WFN Chief and Council. Homeowners on reserve do pay property tax to WFN.
Family law is much more than dealing with divorces. Can you give us some insight into the complexity of various stages of relationships that you deal with?
Family law lawyers are uniquely positioned to assist parties to address important issues which arise at different stages in spousal or parental relationships. These agreements are commonly referred to as Family Law Agreements (FLA’s) and there are a number of different types: Cohabitation; Pre-Nuptial; Marriage (defining spousal rights and obligations); and Separation agreements. Additionally, if parties are not in a spousal relationship but have a child or children together, there are also Guardianship and Parenting Agreements. FLA’s provide clarity to each party’s expectations and define respective rights and obligations between them. While potentially complex agreements, they must be fair and reasonable in light of the particular circumstances of the parties and established legal principles.
If someone is contemplating cohabitation and is also the owner of real estate, other assets (sizeable or not), a business or is expecting to receive a gift or inheritance, that person would benefit from an FLA and would be well served to meet with counsel rather than in the absence of an agreement, be subject to the default provisions of the law.
Important events and milestones in life deserve careful thought and planning, yet we quite often fall back on a relatively hands-off approach. As you can see from the many issues and perspectives covered, having the experts at Pushor Mitchell as advisors and advocates in your corner can make a significant difference to protecting and preserving your life’s achievements.
The women partners at Pushor Mitchell are making a difference to their clients in what can be a chaotic and complex world.