Alternative to Private Practice

In-house counsel at a First Nations organization

Alternative to Private Practice

The First Nations Health Authority (“FNHA”) is the health and wellness partner to more than 200 diverse First Nations communities and citizens across BC. In 2013, the FNHA began a new era in BC First Nations health governance and health care delivery by taking responsibility for the programs and services formerly delivered by Health Canada. Since then, the FNHA has been working to address service gaps through new partnerships, closer collaboration, health systems innovation, reform and redesign of health programs and services for individuals, families, communities and Nations. The FNHA is also a champion of culturally safe practices throughout the broader health care system. This organizational overview forms the backdrop for much of the legal work that one does in a typical day at FNHA.

The in-house counsel role in a First Nations organization has many similarities when compared to practising within other more mainstream organizations. Arguably, one difference is that while your client is the FNHA, you are ever mindful of the responsibility and privilege of working on behalf of the First Nation communities served by FNHA. This work environment also exposes you to the opportunity of experiencing, firsthand, the diversity and professionalism of the Aboriginal population within the province of BC.

So, what does in-house counsel at FNHA do and how does that work support the overarching priority of FNHA in delivering on its mandate as set out above? Given that we are a relatively small organization and a small legal department, counsel tend to have a general practice with a blend of solicitor and advocacy work. Each day brings forward a mix of interesting challenges combined with work on longer term projects and organizational priorities. While the practice is more general in nature it can be summarized among three broad categories; human resources, operations and governance. The spectrum of work that flows from these categories provide counsel with unique insights across FNHA. Even though it is a single client practice, the range of work and working with professionals from across and external to the FNHA provide an interesting mix of work.

In developing various files, counsel also have the opportunity to develop long-term relationships that assist in informing legal advice. In turn, this leads to providing comprehensive and sometimes more relevant or responsive advice to the issues under consideration. For example, on the human resources front there are the usual employment and labour law issues arising from any employment relationship. When these issues become trends, there is the opportunity to participate and provide recommendations on initiatives for broader-system improvements. Usually these recommendations are collaboratively developed and implemented with professionals from other parts of FNHA. The ability to go beyond assisting on or resolving transactional issues is also true for the other areas of FHNA operations and the broader First Nations Health Governance regime.

What are the additional benefits?

Counsel are able to participate in a meaningful way on broader issues of importance within FNHA, the communities we serve and our partners in the health care system. One of those initiatives is how to support the implementation of the principles associated with Cultural Safety and Cultural Humility within the health care system. Taking a leadership role, the FNHA actively works with its health partners to embed cultural safety and humility into health service delivery to improve health outcomes for First Nations peoples. Cultural Safety and Humility in the delivery of health services supports respectful engagement that, if required, recognizes and addresses any power imbalances or systemic racism. The goal of this initiative being to ensure that health services are responsive to the health needs and priorities of all those being served by the health care system. In the legal profession, this bears some similarity to the recent movement by the Law Society of British Columbia to require Indigenous cultural competency training for lawyers in BC.

Working as in-house counsel in a First Nations organization brings many of the same challenges that one would have in any organization. These include a potentially narrower scope of practice, access to other lawyers with different practice areas or the undervaluing of advice by client contacts. Put simply though, it is a rewarding alternative career and may help in pursuit of “MiyopĂ‚matisowin” — “the good life.”