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Be flexible with your career path

Trial by Fire
|Written By Debra Newell
Be flexible with your career path

As an avid reader of Trial by Fire, I look forward every month to Lindsay Scott’s insights on the trials and tribulations of being a new lawyer. As a new lawyer myself, I find her witty and candid reflections to be a breath of fresh air — particularly when, some of the time, I am unable to breathe. So I share your disappointment with having a guest columnist this month, but this is some payback for Lindsay.

You see, in addition to being Lindsay’s friend, I am also an unofficial editor for her column. After two years of scrutinizing her columns and pointing out every split infinitive I could find, Lindsay suggested I write a column that she would critique.

Leaving aside the flogging that awaits me from my “editor,” writing about my experiences and sharing it with lawyers, even junior ones, is an intimidating task. Lawyers can be a persnickety bunch — no offence. So I have some performance anxiety about being this month’s pinch hitter.

However, I promised Lindsay 750 words and I have been thinking about my career path this week amid in-firm interviews with summer students. Turns out, interviews are a great opportunity for self-reflection as students are keen to hear how we got to where we are.

“How did I get here?” is an excellent question to ask every now and again — both to assess what you’ve accomplished and where you’re headed. Two important takeaways I can share about my practice: 1) be flexible and 2) be flexible.

Be flexible (Or, can I get there from here?)

Since going to law school, it is only a slight exaggeration to say my surgically crafted career plan largely resembles a NYC subway map. While I have always known I would be a litigator, I was about 1000 per cent sure I was going to be a crown attorney after first year. I loved criminal law in first year and spent my summer working on the Goudge Inquiry where there was no shortage of fascinating criminal law issues.

However, after going through student recruitment and working my 2L summer at MAG Crown Law Criminal, I was baffled to discover I did not love criminal law in practice as much as I enjoyed it in theory.

For someone who had spent several years working in law firms before going to law school and thought I had a clear vision of what I wanted to achieve, I was stunned to find I was now on the wrong path and confused about what I wanted.

It was a very inconvenient truth and my first instinct was to follow my plan to the letter, even if it eventually led me off a cliff. At the time, I was loath to go through another round of student recruitment to find an articling position outside of criminal law. While staying in criminal law would have been the safe course of action in the short term, I realized that ignoring my reality and stubbornly pursuing the wrong path could not possibly lead me to the long, fulfilling career I aspired to have.

To the contrary, pursuing a job just because it checks all the right boxes of what I was supposed to want would be wrongheaded. So I forced myself to accept that better opportunities would come eventually if I just allowed myself to be open and flexible to find the right place for me.

Be flexible redux

One of the best anecdotes I have ever heard relating to business development and legal practice was about Harvey Strosberg, who was, among other things, my class actions professor in third year of law school. Strosberg needs no introduction, he is basically the king of class actions in Ontario and has built a first-rate class actions practice. Fun fact about Strosberg though is that class actions did not exist when he graduated from law school in 1969. The Class Proceedings Act did not even become law in Ontario for another 24 years!  

This fascinates me and makes me wonder what new areas of the law I could be practising 20 years from now. It also puts into perspective all of those fears I had during student recruitment that somehow, in second year of law school, I could doom my legal career by picking the wrong practice area, without knowing or really understanding all of the choices.

As it has turned out, in the first two years of my practice I have had the unbelievable good fortune to work with excellent lawyers on a great variety of litigation, some of which, honestly, I could not have predicted on the first day.

I think the common denominator has been a willingness to be open to a diverse range of work, which, sometimes, is outside my strike zone and requires extra effort. While extra “anything” is frequently in short supply in a junior lawyer’s day, the benefits are tenfold — fresh, interesting, and challenging files.

In following the lead of Strosberg and many other great lawyers who have figured it out, being flexible and looking outside the box can translate into an enriched, interesting work life. And as we grow our practices, we can have choices about where we are headed and, consequently, love “how we got here.”

Debra Newell, Trial by Fire guest columnist this month, is an associate at Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP. She can be reached at debra.newell@paliareroland.com.


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