Boarding Pass with Jason Biafore: A Canuck Litigating for the Little-Guy in the Big Apple
This week Boarding Pass goes to New York City, a cultural and economic hub unlike any other in the world. Our host is Jason Biafore (Queen’s Law, 2005) from Belleville, Ontario who moved to New York in 2006. Jason currently works in Manhattan as a Supervising Attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to impoverished people.
Did you go to New York right after graduation?
I first articled in Belleville with Templeman Menninga LLP. I had a passion for litigation, so working at a small firm gave me the opportunity to go to court right away. I did not realize it at the time but that experience was invaluable in ultimately getting me to New York.
How did you end up in New York?
I got married after articling and my wife was working in New York, so we thought why not give the city a try? What got me my first opportunity in New York was my real-world litigation experience from Templeman Menninga. The Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation was looking for an attorney who specialized in housing. I worked on landlord-tenant issues as a summer and articling student, so I was able to highlight those experiences during my interview.
Did you feel prepared to practice in New York since what is taught at Queen’s is generally Canadian or Ontario-based law?
There are some similarities: the rules of civil procedure and rules of evidence all apply. When I was at Queen’s ten years ago there was little to no introduction to US law, but in fairness to the faculty they have to tailor their curriculum to the realities of the Canadian market. Having said that, my education at Queen’s prepared me better than I knew for my professional life since.
Would you encourage students to pursue a career abroad?
Definitely! There is a lot of value in broadening your horizons. NYLAG has had at least one Queen’s Law summer intern for the last four years. Queen’s students compare so favourably to American students—even legal interns from schools like Yale, Harvard, and Columbia. We have to get more Queen’s Law students out there in the forefront because the students being produced here are really special.
What are some of the differences you have witnessed between the Canadian and American legal systems?
In the US—especially in housing court—you really have to go toe-to-toe with some very aggressive lawyers until you earn their respect, whereas in Ontario there is a lot more civility.
There is also some difference in terminology. In Ontario when you address the opposing counsel you refer to them as “my friend”, but if you do that in New York they look at you like you have three heads. I was in housing court one day early on in my career and I called the opposing counsel “my friend”. The presiding judge happened to be a Canadian and he just leaned back and laughed. He then said to the opposing counsel who really had no idea what was going on, “Now if he was intelligent, he would be your learned friend!”
What has been one of the most rewarding experiences from your time in New York thus far?
I work in public interest law, so I work with many clients who are in really dire straits. It can be very emotionally challenging work. However, it is also very rewarding when you know you have lifted some of their burden. You feel like you have had a positive impact on their lives.
If you could go back to that moment when you had your boarding pass to New York in hand and you could give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
I say this in terms of professional development: do not settle—even if you feel like you’ve made it to where you want to be or think you should be. There are always going to be bigger and better opportunities out there. Try your best to tailor your career in such a way so that you’re always growing. Just don’t stop.
Jennifer Cao is a Staff Writer for Juris Diction. She is a 2L student.