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The Pros and Cons of... practising in respective areas

|Written By Jennifer McPhee
The Pros and Cons of... practising in respective areas

Halfway through law school and still no idea if you want to practise in a small boutique firm or join the herds on Bay Street? Do you see yourself drawing up commercial real estate leases or advising corporations on how to divert waste? The clock is ticking, so we’ve asked the experts to reveal the good, the bad, and the ugly about practising in their respective areas. Practising in a boutique firm

J. Gardner Hodder, Polten & Hodder (Toronto) 



•You’ll have greater autonomy and more freedom to negotiate specific terms of retainer agreements with clients.
“You don’t have to have a meeting to determine how to handle a particular case,” says Hodder. “And I think you can be far more client-centric. You aren’t tied down by templates and by firm policies and by what the managing partner thinks of what you are proposing to do.”
•Greater career satisfaction, and your practice will feel more expressive of what you’re about as a lawyer. You can develop a sub-specialty within a boutique firm’s more focused professional profile.
•Since boutique firms are better able to manage overhead compared to larger firms, often boutique firms can gain a competitive advantage by charging lower rates, or reap greater profits by charging market rates.
•Better work-life balance: “Students and junior lawyers live better lives than they do as part of larger entities that we affectionately refer to as sweatshops,” says Hodder. “It’s no utopia, but it’s a lot better.”

•Not many people around to invite to a firm retreat.
•Boutique firms can’t afford the type of mass marketing campaigns that “brand” a firm and give it widespread recognition and status. With boutique firms, “Status is derived from what you individually have done, as opposed to the kind of branding that says to someone, ‘If I’m dealing with someone from Microsoft, this person probably knows a fair bit about computers.’ ”
•Unless a firm belongs to an organized legal network, it won’t have the same national or international reach as larger firms do.

Gordon Kugler, Kugler Kandestin LLP (Montreal)


•More responsibility and independence early in your career.
•If you’re capable and already have a specialty in mind, joining a top-notch boutique firm is a chance to jump right in.
•Bright self-starters who don’t require spoon-feeding can thrive in this less structured environment.
•More flexibility and work-life balance compared with the legal behemoths.
•The chain of authority is less defined so young lawyers are not told to discuss problems or issues with one designated person. “In our firm, all the doors are open,” says Kugler.
•A friendly, more “homey” atmosphere.
•All this, and lots of money too! “In order for us to attract the best students, we make sure that they are not sacrificing earnings coming to us, so we pay equal to or more than the highest salaries that any firm pays.”

•If you don’t have a specific practice area in mind, it’s better to go to a larger firm where you can test out different areas.
•Less formal mentoring, and less structure. Lawyers who don’t excel in larger firms will be mentored, and can switch departments until they catch on in a certain area. But boutique firms don’t have extensive mentoring programs. “If you’re not capable of assuming the responsibility and organizing and budgeting your time and doing the work that should be done, you may find yourself thrown into the water and you can’t swim,” he says.

Practising environmental law


Dianne Saxe, Saxe Law Office (Toronto)


•If you’re passionate about the environment, practising environmental law is an opportunity to exercise your passion by working on important issues. “Even if the progress is glacial, at least we’re pushing in the right direction,” says Saxe.
•If you find science fascinating, you’ll be in your element. “You’ve got to have an interest in how chemistry, biology, and geology work.” says Saxe, who posts a copy of the periodic table in her office and makes everyone learn it.
•You’ll never get bored. “Because it’s a cross-cutting discipline, it’s not as if we deal with the same thing year after year.”

•A lot of the paid work involves arguing about money rather than arguing directly about the issues. “A lot of my work is litigation over contaminated sites. The question over who pays tends to be what people want to pay lawyers to fight about. So you have to be prepared to do a lot of work that is only indirectly contributing to the reason you went into the field in the first place.”
•Because environmental law is ever-changing and covers so much ground, the work is unpredictable and it’s tough to estimate how long a file will take.
•If you hated science in high school, beware.

Deborah L. Dresen, Davis & Co. LLP (Edmonton)

•Lots of potential, excitement, and endless opportunity all around.
•Room for creative solutions and innovation. You can advise on important new issues as technologies and demand for waste control and recycling alternatives increase.
•The environment is now a top-of-mind issue, so both government and industry are willing to spend money and resources on developing and implementing green initiatives — often looking across borders for innovative programs that can be applied locally.
•Real opportunities to influence policy and practices.
•Environmental law impacts virtually every discipline (including real estate, commercial, litigation, and administrative law) and it’s possible to develop expertise in fairly specific environmental areas.

•Can be heavily regulated and the regulatory framework can be complex and technical, especially in certain areas.
•May be frustrating for lawyers who thrive on adversarial work because it often involves a consensus approach and requires extensive consultations. “Assisting corporate clients with environmental issues often means dealing with many different parties with disparate agendas, and the process to obtain the best (or acceptable) outcome can be challenging,” says Dresen.

[span style="font-weight: bold;"]Practising in Halifax



Suzanne Rix, Cox & Palmer (Halifax)

•The size of the legal community makes it easier to become recognized in your practice area, and if you want to establish yourself in a niche market, you may be one of a handful of people doing that type of law.
•More work-life balance. “It really does allow you to work reasonable hours,” says Rix. “Not that you’ll never work evenings and weekends, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm.”
•Housing prices pale in comparison to the cost of real estate in Calgary and Toronto.
•If you’re a corporate lawyer, you’ll work on the biggest deals in the Atlantic Canadian market. “I think people would be surprised by the interesting deals that happen here.”

•You’ll earn less money than you will in bigger markets.
•Corporate transactions in Halifax are generally not as large compared with Calgary and Toronto.
•It’s difficult to completely specialize in one specific area, so you’ll need a broader knowledge base. For instance, corporate and commercial lawyers in Halifax don’t just do mergers and acquisitions; they also need to know about financings, bankruptcy, restructuring, etc. “In a larger firm in Toronto, you would be in the securities group, period,” says Rix.

Sara Scott, Stewart McKelvey (Halifax)


•You’ll get hands on experience early on. “From a litigation perspective, you get to do discoveries and applications, and be involved in trial preparations quickly,” says Scott. “It’s nice to see the results of your research or the results of your memo put into play. It’s a bit more rewarding than doing research memos and sending them out into space.”

•It’s big enough to do interesting work, but small enough that you reap the benefits of a smaller market. “It’s a nice little in-between.”

•The smaller legal community also lends itself to a more collegial bar because you deal with the same people again and again.

•The commute to work is a breeze.


•The cost of living is higher compared with other maritime centres.

•The market may not allow you to focus on one specific area, and it may not be possible to practise certain types of law in Halifax.

•Certain types of corporate deals rarely or never happen in Halifax.

Practising real estate 

Randall Walford, Walford & Associates Law Corp. (Kimberly, B.C.)


•Depending on the structure of your firm, real estate law often allows you to schedule your life outside of work

•Practising real estate law is a good way to anchor another type of practice. For instance, you can pay your bills by doing shorter real estate transactions, and then take on, for instance, personal injury files, with a longer file life and a bigger payoff.

•It’s possible to relatively painlessly expand your practice to incorporate business acquisitions, and wills and estates. For instance, you may discover that a client buying a commercial property is also buying a business, and has also recently moved to your area and needs a residential home.

•If you’re the outdoor type, it’s possible to specialize in recreational property and move to a small town near a waterfront or in the mountains. “You can move from the bored-room to the beaches,” he says.


•It can be difficult to find out historical data on the use of a property when you are acting for a purchaser. “There’s a lot more sleuthing that you have to do now,” says Walford.

•You can’t sit in your office and wait for work to roll in. “If you’re not comfortable with all the marketing, it’s not the field for you,” he says.

•Requires reading and comprehending contracts, standardizing your processes, and it’s crucial to keep staff within narrow parameters and train them to look for red flags when it comes to issues such as mortgage fraud or GST issues.

•If you don’t create proper retainer letters, you’ll find yourself holding together deals where parties don’t understand the value you’re adding. “All in circumstances where nobody wants to pay you and the realtors, mortgage broker, etc., are all making many times the amount of your miserable fee,” he says.

William Rowlands, Lang Michener LLP (Toronto)


•You’re working with tangible, important assets. “Whether you are acting for a home purchaser or a business, and whether it is a purchase or a lease, the real estate is usually critical to the client,” says Rowlands.

•Practising real estate law gives you the chance to flex a variety of skills, including negotiation, drafting, and technical skills necessary for reviewing title searches.

•Because real estate files aren’t all huge files, you’ll quickly get to control your own files (especially at larger firms), which is more fulfilling and allows you to experience the bigger picture.


•Residential real estate work is price-competitive. “People who buy houses don’t want to pay a lot of money for it, and the title insurance industry is encroaching into the field, so it can be a lot of work for smaller remuneration,” says Rowlands.

•People won’t think you’re sexy. “The day-to-day practice of real estate is not seen as the glamorous side of practising law. It’s not the big securities deal, it’s not the big litigation file. It’s more day-to-day stuff.”

•When the real estate market fluctuates, so does your practice. “You’re a little bit beholden to how the market’s doing. It’s been pretty strong recently so maybe we’re a little too relaxed, but it could change dramatically.”

  • Davy Crockett
    Thank you for the informative post. I'm beginning law school in the near future and hoping to do real estate law. This article has some good food for thought.