With so many different areas of law or specializations to choose from, it can be difficult to decide which one you might want to practise, or which would be the best match for your personality type. To help give you an inside perspective into some of these areas, 4Students has spoken to lawyers who practise several different areas of law and are from various types of firms to get their opinions about the positive and the negative aspects of their respective types of law.
Practising law within a large firm (more than 150 lawyers)
Chantal Saunders, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP (Ottawa)
•Access to resources, such as a fax and photocopy centre, hospitality staff and library. “You have a lot more support with a big firm, which really allows you as a lawyer to focus on being a lawyer,” says Saunders.
•You can get the benefit of having a small firm within a large firm, if you have a particular group that you work with. You can get the small firm feeling, sharing resources, work, and knowledge on a specific issue within the greater context of the large firm.
•There may be less pressure to bring in new clients or to bring in your own work when you start working as a new lawyer, because there is already a client base, so you can learn how to lawyer without having to worry about extra financial concerns — which you can work on once you are more established.
•You can’t know everybody in the firm.
•Although most big firms have a very good mentor program, you can sometimes feel lost. Unless someone’s looking out for you, you may get left on your own a little more than you want to be.
•If you want to be a litigator or involved in big deals, you may not have the opportunity in a big firm, because of the various levels of lawyers working on such cases. You don’t really get thrown in the deep end the same way you would if you were in a small firm.
Ava Yaskiel, Ogilvy Renault LLP (Toronto)
•Compensation: If you’re in a large firm, you’re going to be compensated at the high end for articling and you get great benefits such as memberships at fitness clubs.
•The opportunity to work as part of a team with some members who are recognized experts in the field. “Working as part of a team and being an important member of that team is key, and it’s key at all levels and that applies to articling students as well, so you’re not just thrown out there and left to sink or swim,” says Yaskiel.
•Many firms are multi-jurisdictional, so you get the opportunity to work on international and cross-border transactions and litigation. This might also mean that you spend time in some of those other offices.
•Expectations at large firms in terms of quality of work is very high. “There is no room for second-class results. Our clients are paying for the top results so you have to perform at the highest levels,” says Yaskiel.
•The hours can be demanding. You are on call essentially 24/7, but because of the team approach in certain firms, you can have a balance on files.
•Depending on the firm, it may take longer to achieve profile on a file, as files are staffed with a team.
Practising family law
Jennifer Marston, Torkin Manes Cohen & Arbus (Toronto)
•For junior counsel there is a lot of opportunity to appear in court on motions, case conferences, settlement conferences, which is a pro for juniors interested in litigation.
•It is fast-paced, always something new and interesting happening. The work is engaging because the significance of what you’re doing is always apparent.
•There is a lot of client contact
•Family law is very intellectually rigorous. You have to know a lot about many areas of the law, not only family law statutes, but real estate law, tax law, pension law, estate law and trusts. “You have to be familiar with the statutes in the areas and how they apply and how they affect people’s family law entitlements because it’s quite a substantial overlap,” says Marston.
•The family law community is small and tight-knit. There is a lot of collegiality in the bar.
•Being involved in people’s matrimonial strife, which can be stressful, means you need to strike a balance in maintaining a detached concern for clients.
•You have to be flexible: things happen on an emergency basis, so you need to be able to act and react quickly.
•The office is always staffed over the holidays because of issues such as custody disputes.
Jennifer Cooper, QC, Deeley Fabbri Sellen Law Corp. Inc. (Winnipeg)
•There is a lot of people contact. If you want to hide in the back office, forget it. You are going to have a lot of people contact. If you enjoy that, if you enjoy people, that is a real pro,” says Cooper.
•Depending on your firm setting, this is an area of law that will give you a lot of responsibility early on. Junior people can end up having conduct of an entire file from beginning to end, for cost reasons. As a young lawyer you can handle litigation.
•Depending on which area of the country you are in, if you are interested in alternative dispute resolution, this is an active area – there is a lot of mediation and collaboration.
•The work is challenging.
•You need to be a really good manager of people and you need to separate your own
personal feelings from the file or you’ll burn out.
•Some find it really difficult to ensure they are being paid appropriately. Because it is not corporations paying the bills, but individuals splitting one household into two, they always feel financially stressed. You have to have very good business skills.
•Family lawyers need to have a tolerance for imperfection and an under standing of human nature. “If you’re a demanding person that sets high standards for yourself and everyone around you, and high expectations, you’re going to find it frustrating,” says Cooper.
Practising law as in-house counsel
Allison Crane, Weyerhaeuser Co. (Vancouver)
•In-house counsel get to know the business and company very well, which allows you to provide advice that you might not otherwise be able to provide if you were in private practice.
•There is not ownership of clients as much as you find in law firms. There is a collaborative, team-oriented working relationship with the other lawyers.
•There is more variety in-house, as lawyers work on many types of legal issues. “We are more generalist, so you are working in a variety of different practice areas, which I guess could be a pro or con depending on your perspective,” says Crane.
•There is more client contact because clients are in your offices
•You can get more senior work in-house. You tend to be able to take on as much as you want as soon as you want to take it on.
•In a law firm, you could be around more lawyers. Corporate legal departments may be a single lawyer or a small group of lawyers.
•Sometimes the resources are more limited in-house than in a law firm.
Glenn Kosak, SPAR Aerospace Ltd. (Edmonton)
•“The esteem/reward equation is usually pretty high.” Employees of the company where you all work tend to be very appreciative of the legal services that they obtain from their own lawyers.
•In-house also has the advantage of sending files outside. “You end up having more control over your resources because you have the usefulness of outside counsel,” says Kosak.
•The holidays are real, you tend to get a decent compensation package including bonuses. For some people, in-house provides more regular hours.
•“My belief is that you actually need a certain degree of maturity and confidence to be able to succeed in-house,” says Kosak.
•A downside is that some people believe they own in-house counsel, says Kosak.
•The compensation package is generally lower in-house, although there are other elements to it. An outside counsel compensation package has a much higher ceiling, depending on the skill level. “A person could be the most skilful in-house counsel anywhere and they probably would be, relatively speaking, low-paid,” says Kosak.
•In-house requires a high degree of independence. You often don’t have the same collegial environment that you have as an outside counsel.
Practising immigration/refugee law
Robin Seligman (Toronto)
•It’s almost a combination of social work and law, as you’re dealing with families and people. There are a lot of humanitarian aspects to it.
•There is opportunity to be self-employed. The big firms get a lot of the corporate, larger clients. The boutique offices have more of the human-element type of cases.
•You have to make sure you have the right personality to deal with people. It is very satisfying when you can help people.
•There is good co-operation and collegiality between lawyers. Through the Canadian Bar Association, there is the opportunity to learn and work with other lawyers.
•Very diverse and different, depending on types of clients.
•It can be very frustrating dealing with the government and bureaucracies. In a way, people just become numbers.
•Junior lawyers also take on refugee work and legal aid, and they have to decide if that’s the kind of work they want to do.
•There are lots of emergencies, deportations, hearings, a lot of things out of your control.
•Policy changes come without a lot of warning.
Joshua Sohn, Embarkton Law Group (Vancouver)
•It’s a dynamic area, which is constantly changing and constantly responding to new issues. It is also an extremely topical area in terms of what is happening in society. “It makes it very interesting, very dynamic and very real. You are seeing the changes really impact the clients that you are dealing with,” says Sohn.
•You deal with people who are very dynamic.
•You get to familiarize yourself with different places in the world when researching beyond just the immigration law.
•There is a broad spectrum of areas where people can find their niche, such as litigation, tribunal work, appeals, solicitor work, and Federal Court.
•You often deal with very bureaucratic organizations. It can take a long time for policy initiatives to translate down to the front line, which can be frustrating.