Level Chan is in an unusual situation. An associate at Stewart McKelvey in Halifax, Chan has long been known for his enthusiastic involvement in volunteer and community work — so much so that the Dalhousie University Student Union has established an award named after him.
“It’s granted each year to someone who makes an outstanding contribution to student advocacy,” he explains. “It’s kind of weird. I’m still alive.”
He did a lot of student advocacy work while he was studying law at Dalhousie. It involved representing undergrads who were in hot water, charged with various forms of misconduct such as plagiarism. It was one example of what Chan calls “looking out for the little guy.” It’s something he still does occasionally, even though his practice is management-side labour and employment law. “I did a construction-industry arbitration,” he recalls. “And, for once, the employer was the little guy. It was a small family-contracting business and they were up against a large international union.”
When he gets involved in something, Chan always strives to “leave it better than he found it.” The Dalhousie Student Advocacy office benefited from that philosophy. Under his leadership, it grew from doing 20 cases a year to more than 100. That’s one of the reasons the school created an award in his name. “It is great just to help people,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I went into law.”
Raised in Calgary, Chan fell in love with Halifax while at Dalhousie and stayed, deciding to put roots down in the city. Recently he helped create Fusion Halifax, a networking group for young city residents who are “inspired to make their city a better place to live, work, and play.” In addition to sitting on the Fusion board, Chan has done pro bono legal work for the group. And, as he puts it, Fusion is now pursuing “everything from better urban development to ‘we want an Ikea store here.’”
Chan’s attraction to law began early in life. “I’m one of those people who has wanted to be a lawyer since junior high,” he says, recalling how learning about the Scopes monkey trial, and the brilliant courtroom advocacy of lawyer Clarence Darrow, inspired him. “And I’m from a traditional Chinese family,” he adds. “You either become a doctor or a lawyer.”
His parents came to Canada from Hong Kong and strove to provide opportunities. “My dad believed very strongly I should be spending my time with school,” Chan recalls. “He worked extra hard to allow me to study and do the volunteering and community work.”
His father worked his way up in the restaurant business. “He started as a busboy,” says Chan. “Then he became a waiter, then a chef, then eventually owned a couple of restaurants in Calgary. My mom is a seamstress by trade. She also worked in the restaurants. I have them to thank for the success I have now.”
His parents tell him that when they came to Alberta they missed the ocean of Hong Kong, so they named him Level after “sea level.” “It could be just a cute story they like to tell,” he says. “But it is interesting that I ended up being next to the ocean, and it’s one of my favourite things about living in Halifax.”
Chan did his undergrad degree in philosophy, specializing in the study of logic. “I was very into computers,” he says. “I’m still a nerd, really.” His knowledge of logic helped him with the LSAT and he says it also comes in handy for contractual and statutory interpretation. “Sometimes I wish real-world legal problems were as easy to solve as logic problems.”
He says the most rewarding thing about his career is “getting tangible results for the client. In labour and employment law, you see immediately the benefits of your advice. It’s not like a personal injury lawsuit that goes on for years.”
The most challenging aspect of his practice is the time pressure. “There’s a quick turnaround in most of my files,” he says. “A lot of stuff we do is stuff that was due yesterday.”
His advice for young associates? “You have to determine if law is something you love and enjoy doing. It took me a few years to learn what working in a firm means. It’s absolutely horrible if you’re not enjoying it. Law is something that can take over your life. If you’re not enjoying it, it’s not worth it. It does take time. The first years are tough years in terms of learning curve. I love it now. So my advice is just give it a chance.”
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