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The editor’s desk - A shingle of one's own

|Written By Gail J. Cohen

You’re sitting at your desk, hair dishevelled, suit jacket flung on the floor, papers and files scattered all over the place, and you’re scratching around in your head for the right words to put an end to the memorandum that a senior lawyer threw on your desk hours ago and expects before morning.

The moon sits in the sky outside your window mocking you as you lean back in your chair trying to get your eyes to focus to finish up the job so you can finally leave this wretched little office more than 13 hours, 10 cups of coffee, and a roll of Tums after you arrived. Ah, the blessed life of a young associate.

By this time of night, it’s not dreams of sugar plums that are dancing in your head but the dream of working when you want, for whom you want, doing what you want. You’re done doing the bidding of others and vow that it’s now or never to go out on your own and start up the kind of law practice that you want. The dream is not uncommon, there are some lawyers who just weren’t made for the big-firm life, struggling to get on the partner track, and doing other lawyers’ bidding. So the bold, the wild, the few, maybe even the crazy, decide to strike out on their own.

Well they’re actually not that few. The Law Society of Upper Canada indicates that more than half — 52 per cent — of lawyers in Ontario practise alone or in firms of four or fewer lawyers and that they constitute 94 per cent of all the firms in the province. The numbers are probably similar, if not greater, in other provinces. Our cover story this issue gives a glimpse of a variety of different lawyers who’ve decided to strike out on their own and their tales are all different. Some have articled with big firms, even spent a few years as associates there and decided they wanted something else. Others have come out of law school intent on setting up their own practice and never having to deal with life at a big firm. Still others find their way to sole practice or starting their own firms in more roundabout ways.

Some find great success fairly quickly, others have to wait a little longer. There are many pressures on sole practitioners, but the need for them in communities throughout Canada is real. Young lawyers joining the profession shouldn’t discount the need for their services. In our last issue of Canadian Lawyer 4Students, we looked at the legal landscape in Calgary. Business law is hot, firms are getting bigger, and national firms are growing their offices there. But all around Alberta, there’s a shortage of lawyers who’ll do wills and estates, real estate transactions, and all those other services that the burgeoning population needs. Canada’s population is aging and those people require legal services but likely don’t feel comfortable with, or want to pay the prices of, the big firms.

Lawyers start their own firms for many reasons: they want to practise a certain kind of law, they want to serve a particular community, they want to be their own boss, or they just have the pioneering spirit and want to see where it leads them. Whatever the reason, be prepared. There’s a lot of information out there to help you, particularly from law associations and law societies. Doing research and going in prepared will make starting your own practice that much easier (not to mention keeping the law society off your back) because there’ll always be things you don’t think about: as one lawyer pal shared with me once, you have to actually go out and buy the garbage can and paper clips.