On Jan. 25, a new batch of recent graduates was called to the bar. This is an unforgettable moment in the life of a law student as they become part of what is seen (by most people) as a noble profession that stands as the guardian for justice and equity in our society. This also marks the start of their working career. However, the celebrations soon pass and worry sets in for many. Recent calls who have been unable to secure an associate role from their articles now begin to feel the pressure of finding a job, paying the bills, repaying student loans and building their brand as a lawyer. The levels of stress and despair can often become overwhelming and daunting.
I recall how fortunate I was to be offered a summer and articling position within a specialized labour/employment law boutique firm on Bay Street. This was, after all, everything I wanted in my legal career. I finally had an opportunity to put into practice my many years of academic learning, my previous working experience as a labour relations officer and an opportunity to learn from so many gifted and knowledgeable lawyers. Unfortunately, I soon realized that I was not interested in pursuing a career as a private-practice lawyer. After having had the opportunity of working with great law firm clients and influenced by my previous experience working on interesting and strategic assignments within a large quasi-public-sector organization, I knew I wanted to become an in-house counsel.
While it was a completely rational decision to remove my name from being considered for an associate role, as my last day at the firm came to an end, I suddenly felt a sense of confusion, desperation and — yes — even fear. Questions raced across my mind. Did I make the right choice? Should I have given it a chance? Now what am I going to do? Luckily, I was not saddled with the $100,000-plus student loan obligations of current students, but the $30,000 I did have as a result of my BA, Masters and BCL/LLB education was still nerve-racking.
After many months of meeting legal colleagues for coffees, I was still going nowhere with regard to new opportunities. My stress, depression and fear grew with every passing week. Then I was informed by my former law firm mentor about the opportunity to work on a six-month contract as a labour relations manager with a client I had previously done some work for during my articles. At first, I was reluctant, since I had just spent many years and thousands of dollars to become a lawyer and taking on a role I could have done as a graduate from my Masters of Labour Relations program felt like a big step backward. Nevertheless, I took on the role. Fast-forward six months and the opportunity was great. I was able to use my legal skills to assist in dealing with labour negotiations, addressing workplace grievances, drafting policies, even helping out with some litigation matters. It also helped pay my bills. At the end of the six months, I was asked to take on the role permanently, but a new opportunity became available to work as a private-practice lawyer within a small boutique labour law firm and I decided to give private practice another try.
The most interesting twist in my story is that, two years later, the company for which I had worked for six months as a labour relations manager was looking for a new general counsel. At the urging of my former colleagues, I put in my application. Unbeknownst to me, I had numerous important advantages vis-à-vis many more experienced applicants to that role. I knew the people, the business, the collective agreements, the internal politics, the dealership network, the litigation files, the external counsels on the files and the challenges and opportunities the company was working through. Two-and-a-half years after being called to the bar, I was now the Canadian GC for an iconic North American brand and I was able to get a foothold in the automotive sector, for which I had always had a special affinity.
I share my story because I think from it you can take a few important take-aways:
My greatest role model, Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Even at times when desperation and stress seems to overtake you and you question decisions you have made, never lose faith and continue to push to meet your objectives. Remember why you went into law and never lose sight of your goals and dreams. Remember that you are living out an opportunity that many others wish they had. Don’t waste it.
Sometimes, opportunities may arise that are not directly aligned with where you want your career to end up, but do not let these opportunities pass as they may provide you with a new interest you would have never considered. These options may also be just an additional twist or curve in the way toward achieving your goals.
Regardless of what you do, always focus on building networks, creating relationships and learning as much as you can from every opportunity. You never know when these can become invaluable in your career.
As a diverse lawyer, I often found it harder to canvass for legal opportunities. As a first-generation lawyer, I started off law school with fewer resources, fewer connections, smaller networks and less understanding of the opportunities and challenges waiting for me upon graduation. It is critical that you seek informal and formal membership opportunities from both diverse lawyers and non-diverse lawyers, since they will both offer valuable and — often — differing advice. Getting both sides will allow you to make better and more informed decisions.
If you have a specific background, apart from law, seek to leverage this as much as you can. For me, the labour and employment relations background was critical in opening the doors for my career both as an in-house counsel and with regard to the labour relations opportunity. If you have a distinct skill or background that sets you apart from others or that gives you a specific advantage over others, leverage it.
I hope that my own personal experience and the tips above help you. Every person’s path is different. There will be times of confusion, stress, doubt, panic and fear. This is normal and this is common. Nevertheless, keep moving forward, guide your decisions based on what you want to achieve and where you want your career to go. The road may not be straight and direct, there may be many twists and turns, but the journey is a long one and you need to make the most out of every step you take and decision you make. Remember, you always wanted to become a lawyer and you have already achieved this important career milestone.