Law Students and Young Lawyers

Finding Your Path (Or Stumbling Along in the Legal Profession)

There is a well-known quote which has been attributed to various people to the effect that “if you are not a socialist at age 20, you have no heart, but if you are still a socialist at age 30, you have no brain.” 

Having worked for capitalists as a business lawyer for my entire career and having been in business as a partner in a law firm, I bought into this philosophy for a long time.  However, having seen and lived the mess that catering to the capitalists has made of our physical and mental health in the legal profession, I am not so sure anymore.

I started law school in 1975 with the intention of using my law degree to help the poor and the oppressed.  By the time that I graduated law school in 1979 with two law degrees, I was 24 years old and that was still my intention.

As things turned out, I spent 40 years practicing business law, so obviously I forgot about my plan to help the poor and oppressed somewhere along the line.  I like to tell people that this happened because I finally figured out that the poor and the oppressed did not have any money to pay me and that if I had continued along that path, I myself would have been poor and oppressed.

The truth is that it all just sort of happened because no one told me about the importance of setting goals for your career as opposed to just stumbling along.

I did very well in my first year of law school at McGill, which started in September of 1975. So well, as a matter of fact, that my name was included in a list of names which was sent by the Faculty of Law to the largest law firm in Montreal together with the names of nine other individuals who finished with the top marks in the class.   I was quite pleased when I received an unsolicited letter from that firm inviting me to work in the summer, doing research.

(As an interesting aside, it turns out that I only received that letter because just a few years prior to that, Dean Durnford of McGill Law School had told that firm that they would no longer continue to receive the list of the top 10 finishers if they continued to make offers to everyone on the list except for the Jews and certain other minorities.)

I worked for that firm for two summers and was offered what in Quebec is the equivalent of an articling position in Ontario.   Since the separatist party had been elected for the first time in the interim, I had decided that as an anglophone my future lay elsewhere which led to me applying for articling positions in Toronto.  With my experience with this well-respected firm in Montreal on my resume, I easily secured an articling position with a very good firm in Ontario.

It turned out that I was not the greatest articling student in the world. 

It so happened that my not being hired back coincided with a recession in the early 1980’s.   My resume was pretty strong, and I secured a job with a medium sized firm in Toronto.  I had good articling experience in business law and that was the job which was available, so I became a business lawyer.  I spent almost 5 years at that firm and then left for another firm where I spent another 34 years practicing business law.

So, what is my point in telling you my life story?  Well, the interesting thing about my career development in the legal profession is that I did not plan any of it.  I did not plan to practice corporate and commercial law.  I did not plan to work for a large business law firm in Montreal in the summer following my first year of law school.  I did not know anything about the Toronto firms when I applied to article, and I took the first offer I received from a well-regarded firm in Toronto, which hardly qualified as planning.  When it came time to look for my first permanent job, I accepted an offer from one of the few firms that was hiring at the time to practice law in the department in which they had an opening.   And, when I moved over to the firm that I spent most of my career with, I followed another associate who had made the same move a few months earlier without looking to see what else was available in the market.

All of this would hardly be worth writing about if it were an unusual story, but I continue to speak to young lawyers who are graduating with lots of debt and taking whatever job they can get, as opposed to planning out their careers.   Unsurprisingly, some of them are not all that happy in the profession.

It does not have to be this way.  I know another lawyer who graduated around the same time as I did and started working with a small firm practicing corporate and litigation.  This fellow had an interest in a particular area of law which was just developing at the time, and he spent many hours of his own time doing research in that area of law and writing one of the first reference books for that area of law.  The book was published and received good reviews.  There was an opening in an excellent firm for a lawyer in that specialty and this fellow left the small firm that he was working with and eventually became a leading lawyer in the country in that specialty area.  

Now perhaps the fellow of whom I speak was a bit lucky on his timing, but he was also very capable and worked hard to plan his career.  I prefer to think that most of his success is due to the simple fact that from the very beginning he worked “on his career” as opposed to just working “in his career.”

There are plenty of smart lawyers.  There are also a lot of hard-working lawyers. I happen to think that when I practiced law, I had both of those qualities. In fact, I believe that I had other good qualities as well, including (as we lawyers like to say, without limiting the generality of the foregoing) some organizational skills, delegation skills, creativity, and empathy for my clients.  

None of that is enough.  Although I am reasonably happy with where my career took me, I cannot help but wonder how much better my career might have been and how much more happiness and health I might have achieved if I had diverted more of my efforts from serving my clients to serving myself by setting goals for my career and working to achieve them. 

And that, is the one single most important piece of advice I would give to any lawyer just entering the profession.  Work “on your career” instead of just working “in your career.”  Trust me, that is a great deal easier said than done when combined with all of the other pressures of law and life.  But I expect that is it is well worth it, although I must admit that I do not say that from personal experience.

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