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Donovan channels Matlock in advocacy for family law clients

During more than a decade at the bar, spent largely in the courtroom advocating zealously for her clients, Fredericton family lawyer Jennifer Donovan has heard her practice style described by virtually every name.

“The way I represent clients has been called lots of different names,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com.

But to Donovan, a partner with Murray Digdon & Donovan, the comments roll like water off a duck's back. In fact, she wears them as a badge of pride.

“However they phrase it, when people say I really advocate for my clients, I take that as a huge compliment,” she says. “I speak confidently, I’m very strong and assertive, but always in a professional way.”   

In any case, Donovan says it helps her clients know what they’re getting when they arrive at her door, particularly in the high-conflict cases that have become the bread and butter of her practice — child custody and property disputes between high-net-worth couples.

“In a way, I’m fortunate that my reputation precedes me because people expect me to be a certain way, even if they’ve never met me before,” she explains. “I can be direct with clients right from the start, and tell them what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.

“It rubs some people the wrong way, but it’s better to figure out quickly that we’re not a fit,” Donovan adds.

She says a large part of her job is spent translating complex legalese into English for laypeople who may be experiencing their first encounter with the legal system.

“I love it when clients thank me for explaining my legal advice in their language so that they could understand it,” Donovan says. “As a lawyer, you’re not serving anyone if they leave your office confused.”  

Some of Donovan's down-to-earth style may have been picked up from one of her legal heroes — Matlock. The folksy fictional TV criminal lawyer was a fixture in her family's household and set her on the path to a legal career as early as Grade 7.  

“I was obsessed with that show, and would tell anyone who listened that I was going to be Matlock,” Donovan says.  

She was shaken slightly from that aim at law school, when Donovan emerged with an ambition to work on the other side of the criminal bar, prosecuting criminals. And diverted still further when she landed her first job working for a sole practitioner with a large family law practice.

Initially turned off family law by her law school classes on the subject, she found the reality a different proposition altogether, especially when her mentor was appointed to the Bench and left the practice to Donovan during just her second year at the bar.

“If I didn’t love it by then, I would have to learn,” Donovan says.

In the end, it didn’t take much effort to embrace family law litigation, she adds.

“It’s nothing like the theoretical stuff you learn about in law school,” Donovan says. “When you look across the table at a real person with real problems coming to you, often in a state of disarray and vulnerability, it changes the way you look at things.

“I feel blessed to be able to help people make their world better. It’s not work anymore because I love what I do,” she adds.  

In addition to her predominantly divorce-related matters, Donovan has small real estate and wills and estates components to her practice.  

“They evolved naturally out of the family law side because people going through separations will often need help tidying up other parts of their lives — selling or buying properties and reworking their wills,” she says.

In addition to her membership of the Law Society of New Brunswick, Donovan also belongs to the York-Sunbury Law Society and the Canadian Bar Association and has taken an active role in her local community, volunteering with a number of organizations.

She also served on the New Brunswick Task Force responsible for identifying areas of reform in The Court of Queen's Bench, Family Division, after an invitation from former Attorney General, Thomas J. Burke, Q.C.

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