As many family lawyers know... there are two sides to the compassion coin - reward and fatigue.
When I first met with Kavita V. Bhagat, I wondered how she managed to maintain her steady depth of compassion. And it wasn't until we did this podcast that I had a true understanding of how deep that well truly went. But just as with all things in life, there's a flip side to the lovely sentiment, fatigue.
Listen to this discussion, as Kavita reveals how she navigates daily challenges as a lawyer, mediator and arbitrator working in the area of family law, including domestic violence.
As someone who has devoted tremendous time and energy to her profession and her community, Kavita also shared mentorship stories in our discussion.
Get ready for an emotional ride... from the chilling to the heartbreaking, touching and uplifting.
If you are interested in learning more about from Kavita V. Bhagat our guest, go to family law solutions.
You're listening to Get in the Driver’s Seat! We’re telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I’m your host, Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach for lawyers, architects, consultants and other professionals at Bekhor Management.
Hello and welcome to the podcast this is ‘Get in the driver's seat!’ We're telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host, Sandra Bekhor, practice management coach at Bekhor Management. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Kavita V. Bhagat, lawyer, mediator and arbitrator offering family law solutions at bramptonfamilylawyers.ca. Kavita has devoted tremendous time and energy to her profession and her community. In fact, when I did my research before today's podcast I found three pages of Google results to prove it. That included mentions of her contributions as a speaker, a mentor and a board member. Welcome Kavita.
Thank you so much for having me and thank you for the great introduction. Appreciate it.
So, in my research I noticed that you also have accumulated lots of reviews over the years. There are 165 reviews on Google. I won't embarrass you and talk about all the others, because there are lots of others. But I did notice there were some common themes to the comments. They were very warm. They were palpably grateful and enthusiastic. But even from my quick glance, and I did not read all 165 reviews, but from my quick glance, the word that came up the most often was compassion. I work with all kinds of professionals and a very big theme in healthcare is compassion fatigue. I just wanted to know first of all, what does this mean to you, being a compassionate lawyer? How do you hang on to it day after day?
When you say 160, for me that's heartening, that someone actually took the time to leave that review. I say that because in family law it literally means airing your dirty laundry in public. I know that, clients when they come in front of me, or they see me at a grocery store or you know I have kids, I take them out to arenas or wherever it might be, they acknowledge me. But they will not want to connect with me because it's just embarrassing for what it what it's worth right? So for someone to put themselves out there and write me a review, I'm ever so grateful. But I also want to add that I shredded a couple of files and had my kids working with me over the Christmas break and I can tell you I've had over 9,000 files in this office. So when I have 160 people writing reviews, it's really nice to hear that, but there's so much more that's happening behind the scenes in terms of comments that I'm compassionate. I'm grateful to those who have said that in a review and I think there is an eternal struggle which I face between sympathy and empathy, which I think a lot of us in this field do go through constantly. As much as I want to reach out and hug my clients and tell them that I'm living this with them, that is not the case. But what I do go through in terms of compassion fatigue is I have seen the client's lives from the beginning to the end. I've seen the life of a file. It could be day one today to year five. I don't know how long it's gonna take, but I can predict the future in their litigation life. It really is disheartening to me sometimes when the clients will want to take certain steps, which I know is not going to be in their favor or is going to have consequences which might be disastrous.
I'll give you an example. This one breaks my heart. A client of mine was murdered and her body was dumped. She was set to meet with me for an appointment at 10 am that day. As I was driving in, I received news that this particular individual had gone missing and had been abducted and I had goosebumps. I was dreading this. I had told her, begged her please don't tell him of your intent to separate. Let us be the ones who are doing this for you. Let's serve him with the application. Don't engage in that discussion. She's like no I just feel obligated to kind of do this. I'm not comfortable with it. I begged her. She wouldn't listen to me. I just had this dread this overwhelming, feeling of dread. Of course, when I came into the office, the police were already here because their friends had said that she was coming in to meet with me. I knew this was going to be the case. I did my checklist of did I have the conversation with her, did I have a safety plan in place with her… This is this is the compassion fatigue. This is the vicarious trauma that we deal with constantly, because I'm second guessing, did I do everything for this client, did I fail her in any way, did I not guide her accurately? Clients do what clients do. But I worry that I'm not doing my part. There is not a day when I hear it in the news that there was a domestic violence incident or when I receive the amber alert, the first thing that I do is run a check to make sure that it's not one of mine. Unfortunately, that is the reputation that I have in this industry, I've had clients murdered I've had parties take their own lives, self-harm. The other side, it does impact you. There's no way around it right? So that that compassion fatigue, some days it gets to me.
I genuinely had a bout of it when I was dealing with a client who was sitting in front of me and as we were
going through the story, she was getting distraught. Just, you know, frequent washroom breaks. I was like, is something going on with her? Further probing, and this is after 45 minutes of her sitting with me during an entire consultation, she just broke down uncontrollably and revealed to me that she was carrying her dead fetuses inside of her. Sandra, that moment for me was just, that's it. As much as I wanted to reach out and hug her, I still had to hold myself back. I ran up. I threw up, like I couldn't. I was visibly shaken. I came back. Goosebumps even talking about it. Anyways, but this is this is what we deal with. This is what are, as a family practitioner who's dealing with cases of domestic violence, this is what we are faced with. Then kind of coming back full circle, sitting down with her, offering solutions, connecting her to members of the community, providing her with the resources that she requires. But dealing with the fact that this individual still wants to remain in the relationship. Where do I go from there? This is not about me at the end of the day. But again, I will be looking out for her name and hopefully it never happens in that newspaper, in that news media, in that text message. So all these Google reviews at the end of the day, I'm grateful for them. But all that matters to me is I never want to see my clients make the news, not at all. I didn't think that was the answer you expected to that question.
Wow. It was not. And you took me on an emotional ride with your answer. That compassion fatigue I was asking about is so much bigger than I had imagined. Your answer sort of pointed me in a few directions. So it sounds like part of managing it, otherwise you couldn't you couldn't do this job, if you didn't have a way of managing it, is having those checks in place, where you know that you're following certain protocol to take care of your clients, minimizing risk. Part of it is also about knowing the boundaries between where they end and where you begin.
It is a huge deal. And you know having two new associates, young ones, with me, as I call them, it is difficult for them. I see them going through it. I don't want them to get jaded, two years, two weeks into this profession. I struggle with that. I caution people as they enter, constantly saying, look you're getting into family law, you're getting into my kind of family law, and it's a huge deal. If you are just setting up your family, if you're going into a partnership, I don't want this to be the curse that you carry, that you don't have a meaningful relationship and you're always looking at stuff through really dark glasses. It's not a rosy-eyed picture that this practice paints at all. This is not your ideal expectation of marriage or a relationship either. So I do worry about the young ones who get into family law. It's perhaps the reason why a lot of lawyers are not embracing family law. But the flip side of it is, it is hugely rewarding. It is incredible to hear from, you know. I can tell you, I had a, again a young one, write to me to say I read my mom's decision on CanLii. I read what you did for them, thank you. I'm grateful to you. I just wanted to let you know I will be practicing family law. I wanted to let you know I am in law school today. That's what this is about. That's just what this is about. That's what we need to recognize, that we are able to touch facets of people's lives which we would never be able to do if we weren't practicing family law.
That's beautiful. You're very connected to your purpose. So I also looked through your LinkedIn to see what are you posting about these days. In December, I noticed you received a certificate of achievement for having completed the Path, a course offered by the CBA on your journey through Indigenous Canada. So can you tell us, Kavita, how does your experience as an immigrant, which you also speak about openly, make you more receptive to this type of course? What are you hoping to do with this knowledge?
I think coming from India, you know we were ruled by the Brits for about 47 years. It took us a long time to get our independence. For lack of a better way of putting it, we were able to get them out of there. We were colonized. But the strange side of this aspect of it with the Indigenous Community, we went into their land. They were forced to adapt our culture and still recognize that they're here to stay. I find that so interesting. Still having to fight for their own rights. Not it's not a question of kicking them out, but actually finding the recognition and still calling it reconciliation. Not having read about it and having lived life through my children's eyes and perspective, my oldest is 21, and my twins are 14, but my 21 year old going through school. As parents we do go through their books and help them out. I didn't read about it which was very interesting to me, because in India we do read about being colonized. We do read about what we were subjected to. But that's not something we think. I just feel we can't move on with life till we have a better understanding of history. This is no different from my family practice. I'm a huge gardener, so you'll hear a lot of analogies of nature and garden. But it's kind of like when you have a lake and you throw this giant boulder into it, it causes all those ripples. But it settles down and it mixes into it and those ripples and those little stones and those little pebbles will continue to cause those ripples and the minerals. All of that will transform the entity itself, which is what we are. But we have to embrace it. We have to embrace our past because it made us who we are. But I find that in Canada, we've still not been willing to do that. Until we recognize it, we won't be able to move forward with our lives. Now that I've chosen to make this my country, I've made it important that I should understand this better. I want to take that additional step to understand it better. That's where this this path was coming from.
That is so interesting. I had the feeling that being an immigrant was part of why you were drawn to doing this course. But the way you described it was such a stronger parallel than I was expecting. It really is an entry point.
Yeah, I gave it a lot of thought. I decided my goal was to get this done in 2023. But then I was like why not end the year having already completed something? We all have goals for the next year. But hey if I'm ahead of it, why not right? I do want to take the next level for sure and continue my journey into educating myself about this because, again, this is what I chose to be my home country. When I first came into this country I took the transcanadian from Toronto all the way to Vancouver and back because I thought that's the best way to get to know this country better. But this was never part of my learning journey. So I feel I need to dedicate more time to this.
The underbelly. That's great. So I asked what are you hoping to do with this knowledge. It sounds like the first step is just evolve your own understanding and then you'll know what to do with it.
It would be one of my greatest goals to encourage more people to undertake more learning with respect to this topic. It's so easy to just read the headlines and just say what is reconciliation, oh my g-d, we're giving out so much money… It's such a negative influence, unless you get to know and read and learn more about it. You have to have the knowledge to understand where these requests are coming from. It's not enough to read the current news. You will be able to better understand it, if you have the knowledge of the past. That's it.
When you post about it, you're influencing others. You had 60 likes on this post the last I saw it. That doesn't include the comments. There were a lot of encouraging comments from your professional network. So you're spreading the word.
Good to hear.
So, moving on to another topic, I noticed that you're listed as an NCA Network Mentor. Can you think of any examples of conversations with mentees, where you felt like your discussion helped someone to shift their perspective? Sometimes it's not really about your situation is limiting, sometimes it's your mindset that's limiting and speaking to somebody changes your view. Did you have any experiences like that where someone got unstuck?
I think we need to understand that a world without borders is very much a thing. We need to understand that there are transferable skills. If we can have engineers and doctors come from other countries into Canada, this was bound to happen someday or the other right? That is not to say that Canadians are not going. That is happening too. But there isn't much of a talk about it but the other way around because this is a country of immigrants. We seem to be making this into a bigger deal than it needs to be. Do I feel that there are barriers for internationally trained lawyers to come into the country? A hundred percent. But we have to dissect this. So there are those, like in my office, I have Sonia who was my articling student. She's a Canadian-born child, who went to school here, but she completed her law from Leicester UK and came back here and went through the NCA process. Are the barriers the same for her? Then I have Lalitha who is an Indian-born lawyer who completed law school there, was practicing there as a lawyer and decided to come to Canada to become a lawyer. So the barriers for both of them are very different even though they both went through the NCA process. So we can't treat them the same. But where they get stuck I find is the difficulty in entry-level positions and the expectations that they have to work for free as an intern. That's a huge struggle for a lot of people and again in Lalitha’s case where she's an internationally trained lawyer who came to Canada you have to further dissect it. So she comes from a family who was able to send her to do her masters in Canada and that was an easier entry into the profession for her. But then there are those who just come here and they're doing their National Committee of accreditation exams and searching for articling positions because when you go through the master's program you don't necessarily have to do the article requirements. So many different ways of completing your NCA process and becoming a lawyer in Canada. But there are definitely barriers in every which way. I can tell you, there is not a day, by no exaggeration, on a daily basis, I get an invite on LinkedIn from a foreign trained lawyer, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Europe… Every single day. Some days, it's more than one. But every single day, I get an invite. The questions are always the same. How did you get to where you are as an internationally trained lawyer? As an NCA, how do we get over these hurdles? How can we make this happen? How long is the journey? I have to try to reassure them and saying, your journey, I don't know how long it's going to be because I don't know what level of competency you have. I don't know how many exams you're required to take. All I can say is stand your course, you will get there. At the end of it, it's worth it. It's genuinely worth it. The truth is we need internationally trained lawyers because these are immigrants who are becoming lawyers who understand the immigrant life which is what we need. We need lawyers who can relate to the immigrants who are coming into the country. If I have a lawyer who came from Afghanistan to become a lawyer here or from Sri Lanka, from conflict regions, I don't know where they're coming from, I don't know what lies ahead. But these lawyers know what people from their country had to endure and can relate to them better. Who am I to represent them right? I feel that this is a good value add to the system. We need to appreciate that these lawyers are willing to put themselves out there and go through this process. It’s a huge sacrifice. I give them to you credit. It's remarkable that more and more are deciding to do this.
Well I think that's a beautiful speech, almost, about the benefits to the firms, to the law firms. You see so much resistance to hiring these foreign trained lawyers. Here's the flip side of the argument. From a management consultant's perspective, I can tell you that what professionals often don't understand is that a strong team is a diverse team.
Even the manner in which each of these lawyers approach their clients or approach the system is very different. I often say now where we are at, when you are coming from a conflict region, you want to get that matter into litigation right away because you feel that the judge has those superpowers to make it happen. But it can only take a lawyer who's come from that background to say I know that's your expectation but that's not how it works and walk them back, to avoid the conflict and pull them away from it. So I find this a huge merit to that for sure. So yeah, diversity is so crucial.
The other part of what you're saying is very encouraging to the NCAA candidates themselves, sort of acknowledging how hard the journey is, but that it's doable. It is doable and it is worth it. Sometimes that's the difference, just to get that little push of encouragement right?
100%. I hear you.
So, when we got on to this call, before I hit the record button, Kavita just came out of a mediation and shared with me this very passionate explanation about what you do and why you do it. I just would love if you could share some of that here for our listeners. You know, what does it mean to you to do the type of mediation that you do? What's a little bit different about it and why?
I was explaining to Sandra how and why I got into mediation. So in 2014 I was very much in the courts. That's what I wanted to do. I used to get an adrenaline rush just getting into court doing the trials, doing the motions. I loved it. I still love it. But I just felt that I have to be able to offer my clients another option. In 2014 a reported decision, which I can talk openly about it because it's a reported decision. There had been a lot of domestic violence wherein she had been stabbed, she’d been dragged down the steps and a lot had transpired in her life. This matter went to trial. When the matter went to trial, my client took the stand. That very day, the husband fired his lawyer. The end result of this was that my client was cross-examined by the abuser, the husband. She completely shut down, which is not what I had in mind for my client. I went there all guns blazing, you know. I wanted to do right by her. I wanted to get her justice. I thought I'm going to be able to deliver. But she shut down. She was not able to speak. She was facing the abuser. She just couldn't get any words out of her mouth, every question, she just couldn't. That was it. She clamped up completely. The end result of this was when the decision came out it was not in our favour. It wasn’t the worst decision in the world. But it's not what I thought would happen in this particular case. I was very disappointed. My client was very quickly able to come to terms with it. But I felt that it was a disservice to my client that I was not able to offer her another way to resolve this family feud and get her the results and get her to get what she requires. Forcing her to relive the trauma was never my intent in pushing this matter to trial. Therefore I decided to take a course in mediation. What I do now is when I am consulted by lawyers who are concerned about mediating cases in which there is domestic violence or a power imbalance, I still encourage them to check in with their clients to see if their clients don't want to pursue this as an option. What I have found is, one, clients want quick fast resolution. Two, they do not want to have this out there in the open. They would rather do this on their own terms. What I mean by that is when you're able to bring in your support person, when you're able to do this shielded from the public eye, when you're able to do this in your own language, when you're able to do this with my dog present in the office… it is so much more beneficial to them. So much more therapeutic as well. To be able to offer this to clients is, it's just amazing to see them have that. When I concluded this mediation today, to receive that positive feedback from both of the lawyers, to say we didn't think we would get anywhere. But I am so glad that what you were able to get out of these parties is that they both loved their child and they still want the other to have a relationship with the child. Ultimately you got them to recognize that, yes, they were not able to get along. But there's more to this than just them as well. So for me that's what mediation is about. You have to be able to move on with your lives. Mediation was also about getting that acknowledgment sometimes from the other person to say ‘I hurt you. I didn't mean it and I'm sorry I did it’. Sometimes one person needs to hear it to be able to move on with their lives. Until you get that apology, you don't want to take the next step.
Do you want to touch on the controversy around the service?
Yeah, there is a lot of controversy. A lot of people will tell you that mediating cases of domestic violence and cases where there's a power imbalance is an absolute complete no. I do believe that with the right checks and balances in place this is definitely something that we should consider. I know that in Ontario for example, mediation is not mandatory for that precise reason, because a lot of organizations would be opposed to it. Whereas in two provinces in Canada, mediation is mandatory in family law. One of them being Saskatchewan, where I did present to Legal Aid about this as well. I think it's a good thing. I think we need to consider that because the court does not have the resources. I mean if you've gone through trauma, if there has been an incident and you have to take the stand five years from now to relive this, but in your mind you've completely shut down and don't want to deal with it at all, why are we subjecting our clients to this over and over again? So I just cannot side with them. I think there has to be another option. I hope more and more mediators recognize that. I welcome them to speak with the lawyers and clients that I have assisted with mediation who are victims of abuse. There is a genuine power imbalance. Speak to them about the results and what they felt. Did they feel heard? Most importantly, what is any form of litigation about at the end of the day? The client has to be heard. There is no individual in family law who will come out with a win-win. It's always a compromise. So let's give them those options. Let's give them those process options, that's what this ought to be about.
That's great. You're forging the way forward in a very new field.
Yeah, let's hope more people embrace this process, really.
This sort of brings me to my next comment. I noticed that there's a lot of people responding to what you share online. Do you have any thoughts about why they are so responsive?
If you're talking about my post about my dogs, it's just because they're super cute.
Oh well, that explains everything! They are super cute and I'm not a dog person.
For me, 10 years ago I would not be okay with posting this. There are still certain things that I'm not comfortable posting. I'm not very active on social media as a person, in general. I shy away from posting pictures of my kids, making no mention of them as well. I applaud women who speak and post and tweet and whatever, that they do out there, putting their children out there and talking about their life experiences. I know that 10 years ago if I had made any mention of pumping breast milk in the washrooms of the courthouse it wouldn't sit well with people. It was not something that I could have ever thought that I could get away with. I will never forget I was midway through a motion and then the judge had to suddenly, very abruptly, take a washroom break. I had no idea what was going on. I thought I offended this judge. Unbeknownst to me, I was actually squirting out milk. This is so embarrassing. The court registrar came up to me saying Miss pocket Miss Bhagat, you're totally wet. What's going on? I'm like I didn't pump on time. I'm so sorry and I guess you know all of this adrenaline got me going. I had to take a break. It was really embarrassing. I had to run down to the Peel Law Association where the fridge was and do. I had to come back up. There was no talk about it right? It was just the oddest thing ever that could happen. But I was sitting in the washroom and doing it. I couldn't even think of doing it in the lounge at that time. I was sitting literally on the toilet with an extension cord pumping milk and then taking it back home with me. That's how it was. But now I could perhaps do it in the court corridors. I could encourage fellow lawyers to
consider doing it. There's no taboo. There's no stigma. We'll be perfectly fine to do just that right? I'm so grateful that we have evolved, to that beautiful fact. That we're all human, why not right? But that was then, this is now.
So going back to that, I think I'm able to connect because I'm talking about the truth. It is what's out there. It's what people are going through and they're relatable. That's what it comes down to. Do I wish I could get myself to open up a lot more? Yes. Am I still holding back on a lot of my lived experiences? Yes. Maybe one day. A part of me still feels, I won't say shame, but just reluctance, because that's what is in our brain. Thus far, that's not how I grew up. That's not what I was told that I could be okay with. Perhaps that's where I'm coming from. It's ways to go before I am my daughter, let's put it that way. She's so much more open to correct me on so many things. But I'm still not there yet. I really am not. Hopefully one day.
Wow. I think it's brave of you Kavita, to share with us your personal stories like this. You are part of that evolution that is happening right now. You are an active soldier in this evolution that we are experiencing.
Add to this. So Lalitha, when she joined, one of the discussions that we were having was about, these are young ones they're going to get married they're going to have children and the presumption that in some way shape or form, they're going to be sidelined as they go through these stages of their lives right? Sonia the same thing. There's marriage in the cards etc and to reassure them, actually inserted into the contract, that I'm not going to be taking away files. It's really sad that I had to do that. I am more than happy to do it, don't get me wrong. But it also shows the fear right? Why? Isn't it understood that this is just part of life and we need to embrace this? But that fear is still around in this day and age which is just so unfortunate. This fear is there in the public sector. But why do we have to, as lawyers, still… we are the ones who are supposed to protect other people's rights. But in our profession, people are still scared of that. It’s just not right. Really.
I know. I've seen this in other areas that relate to human rights, happening in law offices and every time it's shocking.
Yeah, just so unfortunate.
Yes. Even talking about it here, you are doing one more thing to move the ball forward. I think it's good for people to hear this. Would you like to elaborate, since you have mentioned your children and twins, three in total, would you like to share anything for our listeners about how you've managed to balance work and life?
I don't think there's a balance. I think it's just constant ups and downs. You never know which one takes priority over the other. That's the bottom line. But you just need to know when to give what priority. That's it. There's going to be days when the your work is going to take over your life and there's going to be days when your family is going to take over your life. It is what it is. You just have to figure it out. You know what, people will understand, especially as a family law practitioner, my clients get it. If I text them and say I'm sorry my kids are not feeling well, I can't make the appointment, my clients will respond saying I get it it's okay family first. So you know be open about it and you will instantly realize that your clients will put things in perspective and be understanding of this. But I think you have to have the courage to speak up and that's just what it comes down to, being very true to yourself in this profession. There's no other way around it. When I did expand
my office, I had my nanny and I also had a full-on nursery in the office. So I would say to my clients, I'm sorry I'm going upstairs, I'm going to put my kids to bed, I'm going to feed my kids, I'm gonna kiss them and I'm gonna come back. They were perfectly fine with it. But what that also evolved into was when my clients brought their children into the office, we had a play room for them. We had dogs. So my clients would bring dogs into the office. We still today have toys. We have crayons. The other day, I had a client bring a little one. She's less than two years old and she was so embarrassed about the fact that oh my g-d this child is making so much noise, what am I gonna do? Sat the child down. Gave her age-appropriate toys to play with. She was sitting in the conference room with me on her own table doing her own thing, mom was happy, I was happy because I'm looking at a child. It's so nice to be able to see that as well right? So I think you need to bring that into your practice and go with it. Flow with it. That's just what it is. Be true to yourself. There's no other way that I can describe it.
It somehow takes us full circle back to the original discussion about compassion. If you are able to figure out what you need, to speak about it authentically and to be aware that other people have similar needs, well then you give yourself permission as you give other people permission. That is compassion. That's compassion for them and for you.
Yeah, I agree with you totally.
Wonderful. Well, thank you so much Kavita, for your time and your insights. To our listeners, if you are interested in learning more about family law solutions from Kavita our guest, go to bramptonfamilylawyers.ca. You've been listening to ‘Get in the driver's seat!’, stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host Sandra Bekhor, practice management coach at Bekhor Management.