Young lawyers’ angst about their careers can have many sources. Fear of not knowing how to do things. Constantly being told how little law school prepares you for real life practice (thanks a lot for the JD, after three years and $90,000 in the red). Repetitive and soul-depleting tasks under tight deadlines. Never-ending sources of negativity and the pressures of work allow little opportunity to pause and take stock. Unless you enter therapy, where do you find people who will listen to you talk about what you do as a lawyer?
By kids, I mean undergrads. Despite the embattled state of our profession in times of uncertainty, bright young minds are interested in following in your footsteps up the legal career ladder. Go figure!
If you ever need a good pick-me-up, spend some quality time extolling your profession to a couple of would-be law students. In their eyes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a QC or a third-year associate. To them, you’ve run the gauntlet of the LSAT, 100-per-cent finals, articling interviews, and law society exams. Talk to a pre-law student, and you will learn a lot about yourself as a lawyer. Take them out into a place of gathering for lawyers, and you will find out one of the great secrets of the profession: lawyers are the most social and generous of professionals, and you are one of them.
Last month, a local university careers office sent me a couple of third-year undergrads for “job shadowing.” While many of their colleagues bolted from winter in Canada for Daytona Beach, these wannabe lawyers gave up a day of their reading week to come to see me, to watch what I do. It was not without some trepidation that I had to devise an itinerary. What were they going to do, sit across my desk while I drafted pleadings?
I decided to use the tried-and-tested formula of dividing up the time into three segments: spend an hour talking, an hour showing them a tourist site, and then feed them. In the end, it turned out to be a day of magical coincidences, thanks to the legal community.
Talking about law to a non-lawyer makes you a better one
Fielding a host of questions about everything from work-life balance, to women in the law, to “what made you get into law?” will force you to think outside yourself. Always a good thing for a lawyer: it exercises the objectivity muscle in your brain, something lawyers don’t do nearly enough. Too much subjectivity is a source of lawyer arrogance and paranoia. Watching others watch you is not easy, but it works wonders. Think of it as legal yoga.
We talked about mining law, as an example of the simplicity and complexity of being a lawyer. I don’t practise mining law, but it’s a field that’s hard to avoid if you’re plugged into the Canadian legal scene. From what I knew, I explained, at the end of the day, mining law is about companies wanting to dig big holes in the ground. Good environmental lawyers will advise them do it without damaging the environment more than the law permits. It’s up to governments to set the standards. (I’m not entirely sure I sold this area of law to them. Sorry, mining lawyers!)
How do you avoid becoming a law factory worker? They didn’t exactly put the question that way, but in distilling a whole bunch of questions, that is what it came down to. The answer is: the same way it’s done by anyone else in society who wants to avoid menial work: become an entrepreneur or an inventor. It does not have to need business acumen: you can invent yourself in government or in-house jobs. Ultimately, what thrills you as a professional will give you a professional edge over those who simply fill a job description.
I told them about the lawyers who created entire areas of legal practice, because there was a need for law. My favourite example has long been the Ontario lawyers who brought same-sex marriage to the world. Turning a 19th-century concept of economic and social succession into a force for integration of previously shunned groups is a triumph of law. Undergrads can wrap their minds around this, and thus appreciate the work of lawyers knows no bounds.
Take them to court
We walked over to Osgoode Hall, stopped under the law society treasurer’s office window and tried to see if we could see her. We walked over to the great portico and I told them the province owns that part of the main floor, but the Law Society of Upper Canada has the upper floor. “The province’s first condominium,” I told them. They got it. Real estate law suddenly became cool. (Well, almost.)
Next, I took them in to see the Court of Appeal in Courtroom No. 1. (“Unlike the rest of the world, the rooms are numbered from the top floor, then, as the numbers go up, you end up in a lower court, below.” That was cool, too: a building with room assignments that could have been designed by Lewis Carroll!) They were fascinated by Justice Robert Sharpe, who came in with his panel of robed judges, enigmatically uttered two words, “No costs,” and led the panel away.
Over to the Divisional Court, where a panel was hearing an appeal from a tribunal over — wait for it — mining law! “Listen,” I whispered to them. “I told you it was all about permission to dig a big hole in the ground.”
Through a door labelled ‘solicitors/avocats’
Then into the law society dining room, with its oak panelling and linen-covered tables. Feed them, because the young mind cannot work hungry. As we pondered over the menu, who appears out of the blue but one of our heroes from the morning discussion on the same-sex marriage litigation. “I just got beat up in court!” she told us, smiled, and described the issue she just finished arguing before the Superior Court.
Before we left, who would we bump into by the coat rack but former associate chief justice John Morden, whom I introduced to the “kids.” He stopped to chat to them about the practice of law, and how there are really no limits to what you can make of it.
Finally, a brief tour of the law society to prove we are self-regulated, and that we can be sent to “lawyer jail” if we don’t follow our own rules. Osgoode Hall provides physical proof we are members of a law society, with an emphasis on the word, “society.” (In contrast, doctors are a college, and social interaction is less important to them as it is to lawyers.) Law is a communicative profession: we think, engage, negotiate with, and oppose each other for a living. Sometimes we exchange barbs. That, too, is part of a society. Dip into it on any given Thursday, and you’ll be surprised whom you bump into, and who’ll take the time to share a story.
A formula for mentoring — you, too, can have a great day like this
A series of lucky coincidences? Heck, as lawyers, we have to make our own luck. The profession will provide, generously. Taking students around the halls of the legal profession is like taking a baby carriage into a park. It doesn’t take long for people to come over and share their day with you and your guests. The stars of our little galaxy will come to visit.
Don’t think you have the time to spare? The above formula takes three hours and costs 60 bucks for lunch. Your office assistant can phone the careers office of your local university. It doesn’t have to be Osgoode Hall. The above experience can be replicated at any courthouse at a county seat, whether in Ontario or across Canada, with a visit to the local law association and the lunchtime crowd at the closest pub. Have your office make an appointment with a local judge. I can’t think of any judges who would turn down such a request.
You become an instant ambassador for the legal profession. Who knows, in a few years, you might just get an invitation in the mail to attend a call to the bar ceremony. Helping young people to think about becoming lawyers: now that’s something to brag about. And I just did.