Breanna Needham

Breanna Needham


An advocate, mentor and snack connoisseur.


If you hang out on #lawtwitter, you know Breanna Needham’s name. As a queer woman and first-generation lawyer from a small town in Saskatchewan, Breanna uses Twitter to advocate for issues she cares about, including gender-based discrimination and the need for diversity in the legal profession. She also uses social media to talk about her favourite snacks and connect with people - when she’s not busy litigating and investigating fraud. Breanna didn’t know much about law practice before (or during) law school, but in navigating the legal profession without a preconceived idea of what a lawyer should be, she has created a successful career while staying true to herself and trying to improve things for others. 
 
If Breanna had not received a scholarship for part of her first year of undergrad tuition, she probably would not have become the first person in her family to go to university. She started with an undergrad in agriculture science and by the end of that degree, knew it was not what she wanted to do. Considering her options, she considered a few entrance exams, including the LSAT, which was laughable at the time because there was no way she could afford law school. 
 
After graduation, Breanna got a job in the agricultural industry and felt lucky to get it at a time when many graduating from undergraduate degrees did not have access to job opportunities in their field of study. The agricultural industry was so conservative and homogenous that a white woman hire was at the time still considered a “diversity hire” at the company she worked at. Unsurprisingly, Breanna did not feel comfortable in this environment. She worked hard to pay down some of her loans and on a whim, applied for law school once the idea of a new debt load was easier to bear. She was surprised and excited when she was accepted a few days later.
 
Breanna quickly discovered that first generation law students are not equipped with the knowledge that feels expected of them from the get-go. She worked full-time at retail, serving, and other jobs throughout most of school, which allowed for even less exposure to “law culture.” One thing Breanna did pick up on was that the 2L OCI recruit is important. Breanna applied for several jobs and got interviews for several. The catch for in-firms? They were in Toronto and Calgary;  she was in Saskatoon. While Calgary was closer, Toronto was a stretch (financially, in addition to the distance). As a millennial, Breanna did the YOLO thing and booked a flight to Toronto. She missed the entire first day of in-firm interviews due to flight cancellations caused by a snowstorm, but it turned out that she had all the time all she needed. Despite her late arrival, she landed a job on offer day. 
 
Breanna did her 2L summer and articled with the firm. She stayed on as an associate practicing in the litigation department. After a year and a half, she later moved to a boutique litigation firm to practice strictly commercial litigation. Since she did not know anyone in Toronto when she first moved to the city, as time went on, she started to post more on social media in hopes of connecting with new friends. She felt safer being “out there” in Toronto than in small-town Saskatchewan because the city is more accepting of queer, opiniated women like herself. Breanna also discovered Twitter’s power as a tool for advocacy and started posting about topics she felt passionate about. Was her firm at the time ok with that? Not really. But it was important to her and she was not willing to sacrifice her values simply to fit in. 
 
In 2019, discussions about the inequity between the men’s and women’s robing rooms at Osgoode Hall came to a head when Breanna created an online petition, asking the Law Society of Ontario to make the then men’s room gender-inclusive. The men’s room was massive and described as “opulent”, while the woman’s room had 12 lockers and outdated furnishings.  While there was an inequity of space, there was also inequity in access - the exclusion of women, trans, and non-binary lawyers from a space known for mentoring and conversation was wildly problematic. The petition was successful and the room was renovated. Breanna is proud of the change she helped create, but realizes that it was just a small piece representative of a much bigger problem. There is widespread inequity in the profession as a whole and the profession itself didn’t change, just a symbol. But, Breanna believes more is possible. 
 
Breanna’s firm did not agree with her activism and involvement in the campaign, so she felt it was time to move on, joining the commercial litigation group at Borden Ladner Gervais, where she built experience in commercial fraud investigations and related legal relief. She is now working as a litigation associate with the Toronto office of DLA Piper (Canada) LLP. Breanna’s work environment is a perfect mix of small-office vibes and big-firm resources. 
 
Breanna enjoys her main area of practice, commercial litigation, with a focus on civil fraud matters. She loves reading, writing, researching, and solving the “bigger picture”. There is a fun component to some of the fraud matters that involve international asset recovery, including a few past matters which have involved individuals trying to live a jet-setting, Instagram-worthy lifestyle. The work is like a puzzle that someone has thrown on the floor, with some pieces in the wrong place and others that are missing; it’s her job to put the puzzle back together.
 
Fraud is exciting, but the files are big and movement tends to happen at inconvenient times – like the start of a long weekend, when cash disappears and a Mareva Injunction is required. Breanna is lucky to have understanding friends and family, who don’t hold it against her when she has to cancel plans. That said, she always tries to ensure to take time off after big matters close, and she has had the chance to plan some amazing last-minute travel.
 
You might assume that as a litigator, Breanna’s favourite part of her work is going to court, but it isn’t. She loves research and writing, and especially loves doing those things from her home office at night, with her cat and a lot of snacks nearby. Her least favourite part of the profession is when lawyers forget that the fight is between the clients, not the lawyers. Breanna finds it useful to refer to her clients often and remove the “you and I” statements from the conversation to try to help keep the adversarial nature where it belongs - in the process itself.
 
Despite a busy work schedule, Breanna stays involved in her community. She does a bit of everything, from being involved with section executives for the Ontario Bar Association (she is currently the technology liaison for the Civil Litigation executive) and a practice group leader with The Advocates’ Society Commercial Litigation Group, to co-hosting an online happy hour devoted to addressing difficult questions about the legal profession in order to provide mentoring advice to aspiring and junior lawyers. Her practice is nearly 100% paperless, and she shares her knowledge, helping other lawyers with going virtual (including anything from iPad use to Zoom filter tips!). 
 
Mentorship is huge to Breanna, who knows the value and importance of these relationships for first generation lawyers and law students who may not otherwise have access to information about the profession. She does weekly reminders on social media for lawyers to check on new calls and articling students, and always makes time to answer questions from them. There is a lot of gatekeeping in the profession, and Breanna wants to tear down some of the barriers that are out there. Her hope is that in 20 years, if she had to relive her experience again, it would be a lot easier.
 
Breanna’s general advice for first generation lawyers, and really anyone, is to not worry about what everyone else is doing or saying. Odds are they are not being totally honest with themselves or you anyway, even if only unconsciously. So much of law school and the legal profession is focused on what you should be doing, but different things work for different people.
 
Breanna believes that lawyering is a job and not an identity; it is important to hold on to things and people you love outside of the profession. It might be easier said than done, but set boundaries early. If you have an ongoing Sunday brunch with friends and you are asked to meet during that time, suggest an earlier or later meeting. Keep going to comedy shows, keep reading fantasy books, exercise (or not if you don’t like it!) and above all – remember to include snacks. Breanna’s suggestion? Ketchup chips. 

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