Law Students and Young Lawyers

Keeping Your Options Closed

I was born and raised in Montreal. I started my legal education at the Faculty of Law at McGill in 1975. My plan was to obtain my Bachelor of Civil Law and practice law in Quebec.

In 1976, the Parti Quebecois was elected in Quebec for the first time. As an Anglo in Quebec, I thought that it was a good idea to also obtain a common law degree so that I could get the hell out of Quebec should the need arise.

By the time that I had graduated with my second law degree in 1979, I had decided that Quebec was not the place for me. So, I attended my graduation ceremony, picked up my degree, changed out of my robes and into my jeans, got into my car and drove to Toronto to start my Articles.

Around that time, the Quebec government brought in a new requirement that in order to be licensed to practice a profession in Quebec, you had to pass a French language proficiency test. The test was simple enough and I could have easily passed it at the time. The rumour was that they would be toughening it up over time and that the smart move was to take the exam as soon as possible.

I never took the test. People would ask me, “Why would you not take the test now when it is simple to pass and keep your options open in case you want to come back to Quebec in the future?”  I always replied: “I don’t want to take the test, because I don’t want to have that option. I would hate to succumb to the thought of returning to Quebec in a moment of weakness.”

At the time, my refusal to take the test was a political statement but this article is not about my political views, as exquisitely perfect as they are. Since then I have come to appreciate that while keeping your options open is often an excellent strategy, sometimes it makes more sense to let them close.

I recently surrendered my license to practice law. When I retired in 2020, the rule was that if you were over age 65 and not practicing law, you could remain a member of the Law Society of Ontario without paying any fees. By 2021, however, the Law Society had figured out that there was cash to be had by charging each of the many retired lawyers a few hundred dollars to defray the close to zero cost of continuing to have retired lawyers maintain their membership.

Being the Law Society, they studied and debated the issue at great length and announced some important policy reasons to support their decision. They did that because ‘important policy considerations’ sounded better than simply calling it a ‘cash grab.’  Being me and still having opinions, I surrendered my license rather than paying the fee. Another political statement. Also, I am cheap.

(As a complete aside, my relationship with the Law Society over my 40 years of practice was fine. They did not disturb me and I did not disturb them. That said, they did find ways to annoy me virtually the entire time I was a member. I should probably write about that some time. For most of those years they were called the ‘Law Society of Upper Canada” or by their acronym ‘LSUC.’  I used to like to say, “They put the ‘suck’ in LSUC.”  I didn’t come up with that saying, but I repeated it plenty. But, as I am wont to do, I digress.)

In any event, once again I limited my options. But going back and practicing law again is not an option that I want to have. I would rather move to Quebec.

For young lawyers trying to get started in their careers, keeping their options open by searching for jobs in different areas of practice or in different settings such as large firms, small firms, private practice, government or in-house may be a good strategy. However, there is a dark side to that strategy as well.

For one thing, always keeping your options open means never committing to a single path forward or marshalling all of your talents and energy to move toward your goal. For another thing, it is stressful to be continuously weighing your options. You can drive yourself nuts that way. In my opinion, it is often better to spend all of that energy identifying the best path forward and then putting everything you have into getting there.

Also, when you are not committed to a particular area of practice or work environment, it is difficult to convince potential employers that you are a great candidate. Very often, human resource professionals will figure out that you are just trying to land a position and will be concerned that you will move on when your preferred option becomes available.

Of course, you may get ‘lucky’ and land a job which is not right for you because it was just one of the many options that you were considering. This assumes that you consider it lucky to be launching your career doing something that you do not really want to be doing.

Although in some cases keeping your options open may be a good strategy, it can also be a way to avoid making a decision and a barrier to marshalling all of your resources to pursue your preferred goal.

One final note. If you are going to keep your options open, you may want to work on being able to convince prospective employers that you do in fact know what you want and are committed to achieving it. It is important to come across as being very sincere, so I suggest that you work on faking sincerity. As George Burns once said, “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

4 replies on “Keeping Your Options Closed”

This is a really good point. Having too many options is a curse at times. A personal anecdote: While at university I had no idea what to do afterwards, but I worked out in my final year that, as an international student in the UK who would need a work visa and sponsorship after graduating, I affectively had to choose between the following professions: commercial law, investment banking, accounting, management consulting, or medicine. By virtue of my being fairly terrible at memorising things and also maths, by a process of elimination, it transpired that a career in commercial law was the only viable option for staying in the UK. Looking back, I am slightly grateful that having the decision made for me and not having to spend hours, days, weeks, and months thinking about what career to go into. Given that my bachelors degree was in modern languages I am fairly sure that if I hadn’t had those restrictions I would have ended up in teaching, which in hindsight would’ve been fairly terrible for everyone.

Chris, Thanks for sharing your experience. While identifying options is an important skill as a lawyer, it is also important to be able to move on to make decisions, especially when someone is paying you a great deal of money to think about which option is best. Eventually I figured out that you have to choose which way to go when you have about 85% of the information that is available, because you can never get 100% and the time and effort to get the last 15% is always greater than the time and effort to get the first 85%.

And also trying to get the last 15% of the information carries a substantial risk of being accused of looking under rocks for no reason by the client, or being uncommercial, or otherwise not delivering good service.

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