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The pros and cons of practising in . . . construction law, Ottawa, Whitehorse, trusts & estates law

|Written By Matt Powell

Practising construction law 

Elliot Smith, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, Toronto 

PROS:

• When people think of construction law, they usually think of home construction or renovations, which is only one part of construction law. If you work at a larger firm, you can work on much bigger projects. In fact, you could be involved with some of the biggest and most complex construction projects in the country, such as airports, skyscrapers, and nuclear power plants. 


• There are many unknowns in any construction project. When issues arise on a project, everyone involved looks to the contract to determine who is responsible. As a construction lawyer, it is very satisfying when you’ve anticipated an issue ahead of time and addressed it in the contract (therefore keeping your client from getting involved in a potentially lengthy dispute). 


• As a result of the complexity of construction projects, the contracts are oft en extremely intricate documents. A change in one place can result in unintended consequences elsewhere, making it imperative that you keep the entire document in mind every time you make a revision (no matter how small the change may seem). Working with these documents provides a great challenge. 


• Because of increased infrastructure spending during economic downturns, construction is one area of law that remains busy even when the economy slows down. 

CONS:
• One drawback to construction law is that a single file can be ongoing for months and even years. While seeing a file through to completion is rewarding, you don’t get to work intensely on a project and then move on to something new in a few weeks, which some people prefer. This also means that at any given time, you can expect to have multiple active files on the go. 


• Sometimes after you’ve done a fair amount of legal work on a project, it will get cancelled. It can be frustrating to spend months negotiating a deal and draft ing the documents for it, only to have the project fall apart for reasons you had no control over. 


• At larger firms, construction law is increasingly being divided into the up-front solicitor work (the preparation of contracts) and the post-construction barrister work (dispute resolution). When this is the case, you have to choose early in your career which you want to do, because it gets increasingly difficult to make a switch as you become more specialized. 

Erynne Schuster, McLennan Ross LLP, Calgary

PROS:

• Construction law is a broad area applicable to many industries, making it an appealing area of practice. It is constantly changing and developing as construction contracts evolve and the overall economy changes. 


• The complexity of the construction process and the complex relationships among the various participants in the construction industry make each dispute unique. 


• The recent slowdown in the economy has brought a new onslaught of work, including shoddy construction issues, liens, and various bankruptcies and foreclosures. 

CONS:

• As with practising in any area of law, given the evolving nature of construction law, lawyers must be aware of industry standards and changes in case law. For example, the law surrounding the tendering process is one of the most unsettled areas in the common law. 


• One must be aware of the risks when choosing to practise in this area. For example, due to the technical nature of liens, many negligence actions are filed against lawyers for failing to register liens on time or properly.

Practising in Ottawa 

 

Peter Engelmann, Sack Goldblatt Mitchell LLP

PROS:

• Given the national or federal focus of many of our clients, access to federal administrative tribunals, the Federal Court, and the Supreme Court of Canada has allowed me better opportunities to argue novel cases at each and every level. 


• For young lawyers, this diversity of work may be enhanced if the firm you are with is not too large. 


• Ottawa is a beautiful city and its benefits include its four full seasons, easy access to parks, recreational sports, a rich variety of cultural activities, and reasonably affordable housing. It is a great place to raise a family. 

CONS:
• If it is a fast-paced, better-paid legal career with longer hours that you are looking for, I am sure more choices are available to you in Toronto. 


• In addition, proximity to large corporate clients and access to provincial administrative tribunals, the divisional and appellate levels of the Superior Court will all be more available in Toronto.

Lise Parent, Parent Carr

PROS:

• The Cheers factor. The size of the Ottawa bar does permit you to know, maybe not everyone’s, but most people’s names. This creates a level of collegiality that makes the practice of law a pleasure to engage in despite perhaps not seeing eye to eye on a file. Ottawa is known as a friendly bar, which means reaching out for help on a file or a professional issue is a “good” thing since most lawyers are willing to give a hand when asked. 


• Location, location, location. Ottawa has “one-stop shopping” meaning one courthouse where all is done. The courthouse is centrally located and off ers a full range of services to ensure a high level of access to justice. 


• Resources galore. Practising in Ottawa means you have access to many levels of court and tribunals. This is wonderful whether you want to see cases being argued “live” or need to use their library/research facilities. 


• Wherever you practise, you should be involved, early on, in your local law association. Ottawa is home to the County of Carleton Law Association, the largest association outside of Toronto. Getting to know your colleagues at the bar is essential and rewarding. 


• If stressed, you are usually just a hop, skip, and a jump to the Gatineau Hills or the Rideau Canal to go for a walk, run, skate, ski, or bike ride. 

CONS:
• The Cheers factor, redux. The size of the Ottawa bar means you will no doubt have several files with the same lawyers. Some of these lawyers could even be your friends. This can be challenging on a variety of levels. 


• Being anonymous only goes so far. You may think practising law in Ottawa is equivalent to practising in a big city . . . not so. You will bump into clients at the grocery store, hockey arenas, community centres, etc., so you need to be prepared. 


• If you want to be in a big firm, there are only so many options. Th e majority of lawyers in Ottawa practise in firms with fewer than five lawyers. The result is that, depending on economic times, securing a position as an employee is more challenging. 


• If you are thinking about setting up your own practice, be aware you will need to do some legwork to get yourself known. Marketing is not a dirty word but given the size of Ottawa and the number of lawyers already in practice, a business plan is essential.

Practising in Whitehorse

Rodney A. Snow, Davis LLP


PROS:
• If you can handle the winter, life is good and the career opportunities are great.


• I enjoy my 30-minute summer commute to work — on foot, on a paved trail through a boreal forest beside the Yukon River. If you’re a young lawyer struggling with work-life balance, a move to Whitehorse could solve your problem. We have a collegial bar that works and plays together.


• On the edge of the wilderness, Whitehorse has a vibrant arts and culture community. Our 424-seat performance theatre at the Yukon Arts Centre and our $40-million Canada Games Centre would be a credit to any community of any size anywhere. Our cross-country skiing is world class, whether during lunch or under the lights at night.


• Of necessity, Whitehorse lawyers are more generalists than their contemporaries in the big firms in the south. But our young lawyers actually meet clients and go to court.


• My solicitor’s practice is diverse: corporate/commercial and mining law for local and outside corporations, aboriginal law for First Nations, and agency opinions for national firms.


• Because Whitehorse is a capital city, our bar is exposed to a higher calibre of work than normal for a town of 25,000 people. Self-government means that lawyers are doing things that have never been done before.


• It is easier to give back to your community and the profession. I have had the opportunity to serve as president of the Rotary Club of Whitehorse and the chamber of commerce and, in August, I will become the first president of the Canadian Bar Association from the North.

CONS:
• Like many places, we need more family lawyers.


• Winter can be long, dark, and cold — but not as cold as Winnipeg! Vancouver is a 2,700-kilometre drive and more than two hours by air. In-person CLE usually requires a trip out, which can be expensive.


• Young lawyers will not have the chance to specialize and achieve an AV rating from Martindale-Hubbell.

Debra Fendrick, Austring Fendrick Fairman & Parkkari 

PROS:

• The ability to work on complex cases at the early stage of practice rather than assisting senior counsel. 


• The ability to appear in supreme and territorial courts in relatively short time frames allows for the development of litigation skills. 


•  Lawyers often appear in the Court of Appeal early in their careers. 


• A small bar means good working relationships and travel/Canadian Bar Association/law society position opportunities. 


• Amazing variety and abundance of legal work as Whitehorse is the capital of Yukon, law firms provide service to national and international clients as well as the local population. 


• Interesting fact situations and people to work with. 


•  Reasonable working hours and work-life balance. 


•  Excellent outdoor recreation activities and an active, young bar. 


• Availability of amenities such as shopping/services and arts and culture. 


•  Flights to Vancouver or Edmonton are reasonably priced and only two hours long. 

CONS:

• The perception by some as having a lower level of legal competence as a northern/small-town lawyer. 


• Reduced access to continuing legal education. 


• Little likelihood of working in specialized areas such as patents or tax law. 


• Difficulty in hiring legal assistants and other support staff. 


• The need to retain experts from outside Yukon for larger cases. 


• The frustration of dealing with pervasive social problems that result in clients being involved in the legal system in often no-win situations. 


• Adjusting to longer, darker, colder winters. 


• Not having full array of amenities such as specialized services/stores. 

Practising trusts and estates law

Liza C. Sheard, Evans Sweeny Bordin LLP, Hamilton, Ont.

PROS:

• Estate litigation includes disputes over the validity of wills, contested passings of accounts, will interpretation, and proceedings involving the care and property management of incapable persons. Some see this practice area as family law with dead people. For the most part, cases have either, or both, interesting facts and legal issues. 


• Provided you meet any limitation period, there is rarely any pressing urgency to the proceedings. Workload aside, it is a good practice area for work-life balance. 


• The area of law is relatively narrow, which makes it easier to develop expertise. 


• The evidence tends to be by affidavit. If you enjoy writing, it can be challenging and fun to draft affidavits and facta that are compelling and persuasive. 


• Although reviewing estate accounts can be finicky work, it is made worthwhile when you find a smoking gun: misappropriated or misused funds. It can be like solving a large, complicated puzzle. 


• There is usually a pot of money over which to fight. Provided there is merit to the case, and the estate is large enough, there is a really good chance that you will be paid. 

CONS:
• It can be challenging advising clients who are at war with family members. The client may demand emotional support, which can take a personal toll. I have learned it is wise to have a balance of estate and non-estate disputes. 


• Estate litigation is often not just about money. Your client may be looking for an apology or an acknowledgment that he or she was the “better” child. It can be difficult to please such a client. 


• You must like and understand numbers, at least a bit, to do the accounting litigation. Also, it may take many tedious hours of reviewing banking records and accounts. 


• Often there is no clear right or wrong side in a dispute. Capacity, proper management of property, and will interpretation all come in shades of grey. Experience and judgment are critical. If you are inexperienced, mentoring is a must.

Paul Trudelle, Hull & Hull LLP, Toronto

PROS:
• The area of estate litigation is a professionally rewarding one. The legal issues are often complex and challenging. 


• It is a very real, very human level of emotion that is not found in many other practice areas. There is great satisfaction in assisting clients to come to a resolution of their legal issues, and also in helping them deal with the emotional issues that oft en accompany the legal issues and the loss of a loved one. 


• The factual and legal issues are always unique, and the exposure to clients and others in dealing with these issues on a very personal level puts a very human face on the practice of law. 

CONS:
• This challenge of dealing with the raw emotion that coexists with the legal issues also makes the practice of estate litigation a difficult one at times.

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