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Forstner uses experience to help clients steer clear of justice system

Oshawa criminal lawyer Lawrence Forstner draws on his lengthy experience in the justice system and his personal story of overcoming obstacles to help clients through the courts.

“Once it gets its hooks into you, the system can chew you up,” the principal of Forstner Law, a criminal defence firm in Oshawa, tells AdvocateDaily.com. “I always emphasize how complicated and weighty it can be.” 

With more than a decade spent as a probation and parole officer and, more recently, as an assistant Crown attorney, Forstner says it’s often an accumulation of “little things” the court can perceive as indicators of a negative pattern of behaviour. 

“It’s very important that I talk to my clients about how blunt the system can be, and how devastating if you don’t pay attention to its every detail once you have been brought into it,” he says. 

It’s all about having a “right-sized understanding” of the importance of such things as showing respect to court representatives and processes. 

“I see cases where people start off with what they think of as an innocuous, regulatory thing,” Forstner says, such as driving with a suspended licence, “and suddenly they’re spending time in jail. It can snowball from there.”

Forstner’s practice includes domestic assault and violence cases, impaired driving, and other summary and indictable criminal charges, bail matters, and traffic and other regulatory offences.

He draws heavily on his extensive counselling experience gleaned from previous work in the criminal justice system, seeing his role as legal counsel and counsellor. 

“My experience has been really valuable to me,” he says, “because I know how to deal with people who might be resistant to hearing the message.”

Forstner is interested in the field of motivational interviewing, which he calls “leading from one step behind.” 

“People need to feel as if they’re in control,” he says. “And that’s not wrong. If there are things that people need to change in their approach to the law, we want them to feel they have a sense of self-agency.” 

Listening is key to this approach, Forstner says.

“That’s my goal, to listen to my clients, and understand their legal and personal situations," he says. "You really have to hear what’s important to them so you can come up with a result that works to achieve their needs holistically." 

While some clients are willing to fight their charges forever, others would be happy with a plea, and some find it most important simply to be heard, he adds. 

Forstner takes the time to explain the intricacies of the legal process and what clients can expect.

“I’ve spoken to hundreds of people who feel they’ve been kept in the dark,” he says. “When you get charged it’s a very scary proposition.” 

Forstner came to counselling through his own harrowing experiences.

As a teenager attending an exclusive private school, he was the victim of serious criminal abuse at the hands of a teacher. It wasn’t until years into his early adulthood, after alcoholism and addiction significantly interfered with his day-to-day functioning, that he was able to gain insight into the full effects of that abuse and get the counselling he needed. He was helped, in part, by the criminal justice system eventually catching up with his abuser, and the civil justice system bringing him some redress.

Later, as a probation and parole officer, Forstner started running groups in anger management, helping clients develop self-advocacy skills, as well as assisting them through substance abuse and recurring problematic behavioural patterns.

At age 44, Forstner felt ready to pursue his early ambition of going to law school, and attended Osgoode Hall. He was called to the Ontario bar in 2014. 

He already loved the area of criminal justice and found he also enjoyed reading the law, which only strengthened his interest in the practice area.

“Criminal law is cutting-edge because we’re in court every day,” he says. “It’s a pretty exciting field. It’s a little down and dirty, it’s a little grimy.”

Now, in the midst of building his practice, which is housed in offices beside the Oshawa courthouse, he is interested in incorporating his counselling knowledge in his work.

“I can’t allow my practice to be overwhelmed by a social-work approach," he says. "But if I can impart some of my experience as a counsellor — as somebody who’s run programs and practised research-based, effective correctional intervention to reduce recidivism — I can make better submissions to the judiciary, and be a better advocate for my clients.” 

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