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Administrative & Government, Health, Privacy

Sara Levine: a leader in the law around privacy and information

Vancouver privacy and information lawyer Sara Levine likes to know how things work.

She wants to know how society functions beneath the surface. 

“I always wanted to understand why we have a rule: Does it make sense? Is another rule better?” says the privacy and information lawyer practising in association with Alliance Lex Law Corporation in Vancouver. 

As a specialist in the fast-evolving world of information sharing and database confidentiality, particularly in the health sector, Levine believes that knowing and applying the law is just the first step.

A mere pencil pusher could tick every legal box and fail, she believes. But an effective lawyer makes it her business to understand her clients' overall objectives — even on an existential level — to make sure they can be met.

“I ask them a lot of questions. I make sure I know the landscape,” Levine says.

“Sometimes I have to say, ‘No, that’s not a good idea and here’s why.’ I try to say, ‘No, and if Door Number 1 is a non-starter, then let’s talk about Door Number 2.’ I want to be useful. I want there to be a practical solution at the end of the day that helps clients meet their objectives.”

Born and raised in Vancouver, Levine grew up with a love of words and performing. She studied English literature and theatre at the University of British Columbia. But she was less interested in performing than production, in analyzing the characters and a play’s underlying structure. “I was interested in the why,” she says. She saw a future as a drama teacher or director.

After earning her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1989, she moved to Ontario, where she toured in children’s theatre and did sketch comedy while making ends meet with tutoring and secretarial work. 

But it dawned on her that many of the people she liked were either lawyers or studying law. She thought it might be the career for her.

She knew from watching her father, the now-deceased Vancouver family lawyer Sefton Levine, that the law is less about courtroom drama than grinding hard work. But she thought she would never be bored. She would meet interesting clients and gain greater insight into how the world works. “It seemed like it would be a natural fit. And it was.” 

Levine enrolled at Queen’s University to study law.

While at Queen’s, she landed a summer job in Toronto at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, a large international business law firm. She later articled at Fasken’s and, after being called to the bar in 1998, was hired as an associate. She stayed 10 years.     

“It was exceptionally good training,” she says. “I ended up working with some of the best lawyers in Ontario.”

She worked in civil litigation and dispute resolution for the first five years, learning from Fasken’s lawyers about the care and rigour litigators must use in formulating their arguments. She has appeared at all levels of court and at several tribunals.

From there, Fasken’s offered her the chance to focus on two areas: health law and privacy and information law.  

Levine became the firm’s Regional Privacy Officer in 2003, responsible for Ontario, and the offices in the Northwest Territories, South Africa and New York. She also served as vice chair of Fasken’s Privacy and Information Protection Practice group, advising a variety of clients — such as manufacturers, professional bodies and health organizations — on privacy, compliance and access to information.  

She transferred to Fasken’s Vancouver office in 2005 so she and her husband could be closer to their families.  

Three years later, she struck out on her own, practising independently. In 2010, she began to work in association with Alliance Lex Law Corporation.

Today Levine’s practice encompasses the business, regulatory, non-profit and health sectors. No longer a litigator, she consistently works with executives at the highest levels, advising not just on privacy issues, but also on governance, policy and strategy. “That’s when those bigger questions come in to play,” she says. “That’s when the client understands the questions: Who am I? What are we doing? What’s our objective?”

Her clients look to her for strategic guidance to identify and manage risk, to plan and to help solve problems. Among her many services, she conducts privacy impact assessments; develops privacy compliance programs; and negotiates data linkage and information-sharing agreements. 

She was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2014.   

Levine’s leisure time is taken up with cooking, comedy, raising her teenaged twins (a boy and a girl) and keeping in touch with her large extended family.  

An active volunteer, she has served with a variety of organizations. They include the South Coast B.C. Transportation Authority Police Services Board, the Canadian Bar Association-BC, and the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.

A ready mentor, she is happy to give advice to younger lawyers.

“I think you should give back,” she says.

Levine is also committed to public education around privacy and freedom of information issues. She has helped create two public education websites about privacy rights in B.C., and has given numerous talks and written many articles on privacy law and policy.

“I care about privacy,” she says. “I think it’s important. I think protecting a person’s psychological space to grow as a human, to change your mind, and to think through ideas before you have to go public, that’s really important.”

 

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