Niamh Leonard

Law student at Trudel Johnston & Lespérance & Board Member at various organizations

Niamh has over a decade of experience working on social impact initiatives, from equipping young people to become active citizens at Apathy is Boring, to supporting refugee claimants who arrive in Montréal at Welcome Collective, to researching the devastating human rights impacts of surveillance technologies at Citizen Lab. Niamh is now in the final year of the B.C.L./J.D. program at McGill University’s Faculty of Law and will graduate in May 2022.

Work and impact

Whether at Apathy is Boring or at the McConnell Foundation, I have so far always worked with organizations that explicitly have social change as a mission. That’s not necessary: you can have a significant impact by being an intrapreneur within an organization that does not think of itself as impact-driven. 

As a classic law student, I think of impact as substance (what you do) and process (how you do it). It’s not just about the results that you’re aiming for but also “How do you run your organization?”, “How do you treat your colleagues?”, “How do you treat the partners you work with?”. Especially in contexts of uncertainty where you’re aiming for long-term change that will take generations, the quality of the relationships you build is crucial to put in place the right feedback loops so you can adjust as you go and work in complementarity with others. 

For example, when I worked at the McConnell Foundation, I thought a lot about how to be a supportive funder. Foundations do not have the same role as the nonprofits doing the work on the ground. As a Foundation you have an overall strategy, but it’s important to defer as much as possible to the change-makers who are doing the work day in, day out. They know their work best. So the impact you are having as a Foundation comes from the support structures that you set up for the partners you work with. The foundation’s impact primarily comes from helping other organizations maximize their own impact.

Reflecting about complementarity highlights the fact that impact usually happens in an ecosystem and does not just come from just one organization. Within an ecosystem, each player has an important role and the ecosystem functions best when the different actors adjust to work in complementarity with one another. So you can reflect on impact on multiple levels: the impact you have within your organization, the impact your organization has within the ecosystem, etc. 

But despite thinking about the whole system, you have to get concrete about what you are trying to achieve and how that can be measured, either quantitatively or qualitatively. Here’s how I generally think of it: 

  • North Star: “What, specifically,  is the change that you want to see?”
  • Theory of Change: “What is your theory about how that change can be achieved?” 
  • Strategic Plan: “What is your strategy for achieving that change? What does that mean for what you want to do within five years, three years, or one year?”
  • Operational Plan: “How do you break that up into a step-by-step without losing sight of your north star?”
  • Evaluation Plan: “How are you going to know if you’re successful in achieving those goals? How do you measure that success? Are these direct or proxy measures?” 

Having a clear plan is important, but being able to let it go and adjust is just as important. Things change, so deviating from the original plan is to be expected. 

If you’re working in partnership with others, develop your evaluation plan with your partners, because the process provides a valuable opportunity to discuss goals and expectations. Once again, the process of strategy itself is just as important as the beautiful strategic plan you have on your piece of paper at the end. The strategic development process gives your team a chance to get to know one another and align goals.

That, in a nutshell, is how I integrate impact into my work!

I have worked in social change for over a decade on a range of different issues, from climate change, to community development, to democracy and human rights, to social innovation. The reality is: the issues we face are intertwined. When we think about them in isolation, we tend to lose sight of the common causes of the issues we face and the fact that solutions have to be designed holistically. Climate change is a great example. We cannot make progress on climate change without thinking about the impact that an economic transition away from fossil fuels will have on livelihoods and communities.

Here are some examples the areas I have had the honour of working on: 

Until 2021, I was the president of the board of directors of Apathy is Boring, Canada’s largest nonpartisan youth democratic engagement organization. Through local youth programs and online campaigns, we supported young people, especially those from communities who face systemic barriers to democratic engagement, to directly influence the decisions that affect them. In 2019, we reached over 2 million young people.

Since 2019, I have been a board member of Welcome Collective, a non-profit that supports refugee claimants in Montréal by providing them with essential items. Welcome Collective supports the most disadvantaged newcomers, including single parents, pregnant women, people with physical and mental challenges, and the elderly. We have supported over 5,000 refugee claimants. 

As a legal extern at the Citizen Lab—an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the University of Toronto that conducts research and policy engagement at the intersection of technology, human rights, and global security—I have been contributing to research about the human rights impact of the global trade of surveillance technology and the ways in which authoritarian regimes use digital tools to threaten political dissidents in Canada. 

As a program officer at the McConnell Foundation until 2019, I supported organizations across the country working on climate change, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and social innovation more broadly. 

Since attending law school, I have focused on public law, which is about the relationship between a government and its citizens. Some of the topics I have been researching include how the constitutional interpretation of the notwithstanding clause can be reviewed to better support its democratic purpose; the possibility of recognizing homelessness as an analogous ground under the Charter‘s equality guarantee; and how Canadian whistleblower legislation could be amended to better prevent human rights abuses.

As is clear from these examples, I am not a subject matter expert. What I love is the process of social and policy change. That’s a skill you can apply to lots of different causes as long as you always make sure you’re surrounded by people who know a lot more about the subject matter than you do.

So many of my friends have such amazing origin stories for why they do the work that they do… and I really don’t. I have always wanted to do meaningful work that had a positive impact on my community.

At a young age, I had a chance to dive into this work. I became an intern at Apathy is Boring in 2012 when I was 19. I did research on electoral outreach and the ways in which we can encourage someone to vote. For example, if you ask someone to vote, it will increase the chance that they do so. If someone pledges to vote, that also increases the chance that they will. I examined the research behind voting and how we can use that to shape our engagement campaigns in ways that would be effective. I fell in love with Apathy is Boring and the way the organization thinks about its work. I joined the board the following year, then became president the year after that, and I just stepped down last year. 

Over the years, I’ve also worked with a bunch of other organizations and communities, who have each contributed to the way I think. I’ve been blessed with so many incredible mentors and friends who have made this work so meaningful, impactful, and fun. There’s nothing else I would rather do. 

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Excited is not the right term, but what I have been thinking a lot about is how perceptions of democracy are changing. The last few years have been packed with events that have changed the way we understand our country and the world: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Trump Presidency, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, etc. 

A lot of people are becoming more conscious that democracy and human rights cannot be taken for granted. Democracy is not just a right, it’s not just an action that you do every now and then, it’s a practice. As an engaged citizen, you have a chance to engage with your democracy in many different ways, not just at the ballot box. 

The last few years have changed the discourse around democracy in two complementary ways. First, we are increasingly conscious of the fact that our democratic systems are imperfect and have systematically excluded certains folks, and that that needs to change. 

Second, recent events have highlighted that democracy is precious. It’s easy to take our democracy for granted. Our voting rates have been generally decreasing. But recently I have been hearing more people talk about how precious our democratic systems and institutions are and recognizing that they’re fragile and need to be upheld with our every action.

These changes give me a lot of hope, because a healthy democracy needs citizens who engage with their democratic institutions while recognizing all the work that remains to be done.

Here I will put on my law student hat. There are so many stereotypes about lawyers. The kinds of reactions I get from people when I mention I am in law are really informative about the way people think of lawyers. Many people think that lawyers are detail-oriented, rigid, and should be kept away from innovative spaces because all they’ll do is focus on risk management.

I think that’s a misconception. Law gives you tools and frameworks to better understand the risks and opportunities you face and make informed strategic decisions. Ultimately, this background helps you take calculated risks.

I am surrounded by thoughtful, creative and courageous lawyers who are at the forefront of bringing about important societal change. For example, the law firm I currently work at, Trudel Johnston & Lespérance, focuses on public interest litigation and works on a range of causes from the rights of young people in a changing climate, to the rights of inmates who were put in solitary confinement, to justice for victims of sexual assault.

Lawyers have a good understanding of the systems that structure our society and are therefore often well placed to contribute to thinking about how to change them.

Life and aspirations

At the moment, I do a few different things: I am finishing law school, I am clerking at the Superior Court of Quebec, I work at Trudel Johnston & Lespérance, and I am on several non-profit boards. My day-to-day involves doing legal research, attending court hearings, going to countless zoom meetings, writing a lot, and going to class. 

Finding balance is important, particularly for people who do work they’re passionate about. I am not the kind of person who has a clear line between my work and my personal life. A lot of my close friends are former colleagues and people I have worked on projects with: they’re my social change soulmates. So I don’t think about work-life balance in terms of boundaries, but more in terms of “how do I carve out time away from work?”. Although I love my work, I know that taking time away from my computer makes me more creative and overall better at what I do. 

For me, the most important thing is getting outside. I love running, diving, climbing, hiking, skiing, etc. My partner and I try to get out of the city as much as possible and breathe in the fresh air. I often end up thinking about the answer to something I’ve been struggling with the second I let go and step outside. I’ll be walking through the woods and suddenly think of a solution. I know that’s so cliché, but it’s true! 

The other thing I prioritize is to spend time with people who inspire and energize me. I am so lucky to be surrounded by amazing humans who are engaged, passionate, brilliant and determined. When I have dinner with my friends and hear all the amazing work they’re doing and what they’re thinking about, it fills me up and keeps me going. 

One of the things I have been focusing on lately is developing my mindfulness practice so that I can be present in my interactions with the people I work with, whether it be my colleagues or the people I am representing. 

For example, since last July I have been working on a case where the firm I work for represents people who were put in solitary confinement while in federal penitentiaries. My work includes daily conversations with class members who have been through traumatic experiences. 

It is very important to me that I am present and empathetic in these conversations. I know the impact of my work doesn’t just have to do with the quality of my legal research, but also with how I can contribute to making each human I interact with feel heard.

But that can be challenging, as hearing traumatic stories can be difficult. So one of the things I have been working on is making sure that I make the time to process the stories I hear so that I can continue to be present and empathetic in each conversation. 

I am the kind of person who likes having a plan, but who also happily changes that plan in response to new developments. At the moment, what I plan to do is to work at the intersection of research and advocacy, either in or out of the courtroom. In particular, I hope to continue to work on issues related to democracy and human rights.

Advice for the next generations

Here are three that come to mind that are important to work in law: 

Rigour: Even though I said earlier that lawyers are not just detail-oriented people, it’s nevertheless important to be precise and rigorous in terms of how you build arguments. Specifically in litigation, you need flawless rigour in terms of your intellectual reasoning.  

Collaboration Another important skill is being collaborative. You are part of a team composed of you, your colleagues, and your clients. Working in partnership is crucial.

Creativity: The law is the law, but at the same time the law is constantly evolving. As a(n aspiring) litigator, you need to package it in a way that is persuasive and that supports your client’s position. That packaging is a creative process: you need to harness the building blocks of the law and jurisprudence in the way that best represents your client and tells their story. 

There are two separate questions to consider: what cause do you want to work on (“What kinds of things do you want to be working on?” ) and what toolbox you want to contribute (“What contribution do you want to be making to those conversations?”). 

Causes don’t require any specific degree. You can work on climate change, democracy, education or whatever it is that interests you without a specific degree. 

Depending on what tool you want to contribute, a specific degree may be required. For example, to be a lawyer you need a law degree. It’s a protected profession. To be able to provide legal advice, you are legally required to be a lawyer. 

But any cause that a lawyer works on, another person could work on without a law degree, they just could not provide legal advice. In fact, having a variety of people with different experiences and expertises working on the same cause is the only way it can move forward. 

Thinking about these two separate questions – cause and toolbox – highlights the incredible flexibility we each have in designing our career.

Looking back, I could definitely trace a more direct line between where I started and where I am now, but it would not be a better line. I’ve arrived where I am today because of the detours I’ve taken.

When we’re in school, we often think “I’m gonna get this degree, and then am I going to get another degree or not, and then I’m going to be in this profession”. But the real world is not like that. There is a lot of flexibility in terms of how you design your career and you will likely have several different iterations of your career along the way.

So my advice is to embrace the journey. Life is incredibly precious and it’s all we’ve got. Instead of thinking about what title you want to have, think about what impact you want to work on, what conversations you want to be a part of, and what skills you want to contribute. Use those elements as guiding principles as you make the innumerable career decisions you will inevitably face.

And if you ever want to chat along the way, don’t hesitate to reach out! You can connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.