When 30-year-old criminal lawyer Christien Levien first met Nabaz Ismail, an Iraqi immigrant charged with second-degree murder, he knew exactly how to help his client — and not just when it came to his case.
“Family was the most important thing to Nabaz,” says Levien, who runs a small practice in Brampton, Ont. “So I felt it was my responsibility not only to deal with his criminal charge, but also to help his family settle in Canada.” Levien called Ismail’s wife daily. He helped her with everything from buying basic home necessities to applying for the family’s Ontario Health Cards. He even helped register their children in school.
It’s all part of a holistic approach that Levien —who is also the founder of Legalswipe, a mobile app that helps guide users through their rights during an encounter with police — brings to his work. “My end goal is to leave my clients in a better position at the end of the proceedings than they were at the start,” he says. “I will go so far as speaking to clients about their employment prospects after a case ends.”
These are lofty objectives, but not surprising ones given Levien’s motivations for pursuing a legal career. In 2006, two police officers approached and questioned him at a bus stop in Brampton. When Levien, who is black, asked if there was a problem, one of the officers tackled him to the ground, searched him, detained him in the police car, and released him without charges or explanation. Levien sees this as a case of textbook racial profiling.
He made a formal complaint and eventually a hearing went before the Office of Independent Police Review Director. At the hearing, he had an opportunity to cross-examine both officers. “It was my first time cross-examining police officers,” he recalls. In the end, one of the officers was reprimanded.
That incident is what led Levien to study law at the University of Ottawa and, in 2015, a year after graduating, to launch the Legalswipe app. A developer friend helped him code the app, while Levien handled the design. Within two months of its launch, Legalswipe was downloaded more than 15,000 times.
Levien is now working on a new version of the app that will address additional rights, such as those of evicted tenants or fired employees. “Marginalized people are the ones who are most disenfranchised by not having this information accessible to them,” he explains. “Legalswipe was created to change that.”
The same can be said of Levien’s practice. He primarily serves clients primarily from racialized communities. “The work I do is intimate to me because in so many ways, my clients form my community.”
As for Ismail, the Crown dropped the charges against him in July. Today, his family is back on their feet. “We’re good now,” says Ismail. “My daughter goes to school and I’m working. Life is good.”
Levien, who sees beyond his legal duties as a lawyer, works for this sort of result. “As lawyers, we occupy a privileged position,” he says. “It’s important that we use it for the betterment of those around us.”